Friday, March 14, 2014

An Alco-Holic Journey

        On Board 15657 Sealdah-Guwahati Kanchanjunga Express - An Alco-Holic Journey

Confusing title again?!? Well..a lot of the diesel locomotives plying on Indian Railways are manufactured by the American Locomotive Company (now defunct) abbreviated Alco. My train, 15657 Sealdah-Guwahati Kanchanjunga express, was also hauled by diesel locomotive made by Alco and hence the title!!

Upon reaching Kolkata, completing half of the journey, I was feeling very excited because I was inching towards my destination, although I was equally enjoying the train rides. The Guwahati bound Kanchanjunga express was scheduled to leave at 6:30 AM but I arrived at the station 2 hours before the train's departure. This was for the first time, in my numerous trips to Kolkata, I was traveling via Sealdah station and I kind of felt that I was in one of train stations in Mumbai because even at 4:30 AM, it was crowded. After meandering around the station building interacting with some locals in my not-so-good Hindi accent, I returned to station as my train was announced and it had, in fact, already pulled into the station (shunted). I wasn’t surprised to see huge crowd waiting to board the unreserved and non-AC sleeper class coaches considering this train has got a large number of stops and is pretty slow, hence frequented by local travelers than end-to-end ones. My coach, again an AC-3 tier class, was right in the middle of the train; adjacent to the only AC-2 tier class. There was some confusion related to coach numbers and as soon as I settled in, I was informed by one of the passengers that I was on wrong coach; this surprised me because I had boarded correct coach# B -2. Later I learned that the railway officials have had changed the coach numbers, replacing B-1 with B-2 and vice versa, at the very last moment. I didn’t understand the logic behind it and it certainly didn’t  make any sense to me, and for that matter to other passengers, as well.

An AC-3 Tier Coach of Sealdah-Guwahati Kanchanjunga Express
I was skeptical about the on time departure of the train due to all of the confusions but I felt assuaged upon seeing the starter signal’s aspect changed to Yellow from Red and that the train did leave on time. A very few passengers boarded my coach but I knew that it would fill up at Barddhaman Junction. I was lucky that I got an opportunity to check out the train's loco link, it was hauled by a WDM-3A #14020 (An Alco diesel) class loco of Barddhaman shed.  My co-passengers were from different parts of India and one of the families was from my mom’s hometown in Kutch, Gujarat. I didn’t even remotely think that I was going to travel with a Gujarati family on a train bound for Guwahati from Kolkata!
Usually, I avoid the early morning starts and one of the reasons I avoid it is because I feel very stuporous and, as a result, cannot really enjoy the train journey but I did not have other options this time. After negotiating the speed restrictions, the train struggled to maintain speed and it didn't even cross 60 KMPH mark albeit it was rolling over the high speed HB Chord line, hence we reached Barddhaman Jn. 20 minutes behind schedule. I saw a huge crowd was getting ready to barge onto the train but I was hoping and praying that they shouldn't board the AC coach but the God had some other plans!! Although I knew that a lot passengers would board the train but I certainly didn’t anticipate the unauthorized ill-mannered people boarding AC class coaches. I was told that this was a regular feature and nothing much could be done about it. This, however, really beleaguered me because they had completely blocked both the doors with their baggage and I couldn’t open it an inch, so I asked them to vacate the place and move to unreserved coaches because they were not bona-fide passengers. Besides, I conscientiously spent a lot of time at the door on any train journey, and this was no different albeit I was tired and feeling sleepy, so it didn't matter to me who they were, I shooed some of them away! It was very cold outside with temperature as low as 8 Degrees Celsius but I was enjoying the cold wind impinging on my face as the train started to gain speed and got diverted on a non-electrified route bound for Guwahati from high speed HB Chord line. Still some people standing right behind me unmannerly squalled at me asking me to shut the door……but I did not listen to them! I think they swore at me in Bengali, too but I didn’t understand and I continued to be at the door. I would have shut the door, had they been a little genteel but they seemed roughnecks, so I totally ignored them.
A little over an hour into the journey, the train came to a sudden unscheduled halt at a remote station named Bataspur. Upon inquiring, I learned that a freight train had been stuck due to loco failure on the same line and that an indefinite delay was imminent - not a big deal if you travel on any Guwahati bound train! This, however, was, for a change, a blessing in disguise for me because a delay of about 2 hours or more would ensure that I reach Guwahati after dawn. Eventually, the train was given a go ahead after about an hour of unscheduled halt.
The train arrived at Malda Town, a major halt station, 2 hours behind schedule. The loco changed from WDM-3A class (diesel) of Barddhaman shed to another WDM-3A class (diesel) of Malda Town shed. A diesel-to-diesel change just didn’t make any sense to me and it wouldn’t have made any difference, had the WDM-3A class loco of Barddhaman shed continued hauling the train till Guwahati. The train pulled out after a 20-minute halt, delayed by over 2 hours with a new loco and a fresh set of crew at its helm.
               It was 4:30 PM but it became too dark and very cold outside and I couldn't continue doorplating as the weariness was gripping me, so I decided to return to my seat and interacted with some other fellow passengers. There were a lot Indian Navy cadets traveling on an adjacent non-AC sleeper class coach and it was also very interesting to interact with them, as well. Learned a lot of things from them as I always enjoy learning! For most of the time, I sauntered around the train, interacted with many passengers and until we reached New Jalpaiguri junction around 9 PM – 3 hours behind schedule!  After New Jalpaiguri, it was only about 10 hours to reach Guwahati and an additional 3 hours to reach my destination, Shillong – My long journey was about to be concluded!
             The next day I woke up to see the train closing in on Guwahati station, delayed by over 3 hours. Had the train been running on time, I would have arrived at 4:30 AM and thus it would have been difficult to find a cab/bus to Shillong. Upon disembarking, I was lucky to find an Assam State Transport bus bound for Shillong waiting right outside the station. The journey between Guwahati and Shillong was even more captivating with the feeling of joy, and excitement to be in Shillong once again. 

The Assam State Transport Corporation Bus Bound for Shillong from Guwahati

Saturday, March 1, 2014

A Journey to the Abode of Clouds

                                                 A Journey to the Abode of Clouds


In the recent past, I have been adventuresomely exploring many places in India, traveling on trains for days together alone. I traveled thousands of kilometers on trains in 2013 and this year, I have already clocked around 6000 KM, and I am targeting over 20,000 KM before I drop curtains on my Indian railway journeys forever by the end of this year. I managed to make this trip in the very first month of this year….to my second home – Shillong in Maghalaya aka the Abode of Clouds aka the Scotland of the East aka Pine Capital of India..phew!! Many AKAs huh?!?. I, in fact, wanted to travel in December but due to my busy timetable, I rescheduled it.  As usual, I took the longest possible train route i.e.,via Pune - Kolkata – Guwahati, instead of boarding a direct train to Guwahati from Mumbai – I've never taken the short route! My first leg of the journey started from Mumbai to Pune on a bus then onto the train to Kolkata (boarded the 12129 Pune – Howrah Azad Hind express) then onto another train from Sealdah (the 15657 Sealdah-Guwahati Kanchanjunga express) and finally on a bus to Shillong from Guwahati train station. It took exactly 96 hours to reach Shillong but I absolutely relished the journey!
                                            The Beginning of a 96-Hour Journey

Being an impassioned Indian railway enthusiast, traveling on trains bring me a lot of joy – especially on long journeys of over 2-3 days. On the day of travel i.e. 18 January 2014, I was absolutely commoved and felt like dashing out of the house forthwith!  With a huge and quite heavy backpack, I bid goodbye to my mom with a promise to return as planned. I had planned to travel on a bus to Pune, rather than train because I wanted to enjoy the part of the journey through the expressway. The bus wasn’t scheduled to depart until 11:45 AM but I, as usual, arrived at the bus stop too early because I have experienced the pain of missing bus on two occasions! Without much, rather any delay, the bus arrived and that marked the start of my long journey! It was a double axle Mercedes coach, very comfortable and cozy, and, of course, was very cold inside. After a few stops en-route and negotiating the unwieldy Mumbai traffic, we were on the Mumbai-Pune expressway at Panvel - delayed but only just!  I was really impressed by the acceleration of the bus on the expressway – in a few minutes, we were voyaging at 110 KMPH even on some curves.  I thought I was on a train hauled by a WAP-4 class loco!  The arrival time at Pune was 3 PM but I knew it would not reach until 3:30 PM. The 6-lane expressway between Mumbai and Pune is one of the best roads to travel at high speed - very comfortable and smooth. After about 2 hours into the journey, a stopover was taken at Lonavala, some 120 KM off Mumbai, for refreshment and pick some more passengers. It was supposed to be a 20 minute stopover but went on to become an hour – this resulted in a massive delay and dashing all my hopes of reaching Pune before 3:30 PM. Although my train to Kolkata was going to depart at 6:25 PM but I was eagerly looking forward to meet my very good friend Archit Goel! After managing some superb run between Lonavala and Pune – I arrived in Pune around 3:45 PM – a delay of 45 minutes. I, however, did manage to visit the Goels!

At 117 on 12129

The above title may be discombobulating for most but I am sure my railfan cronies, if reading, must have figured out by now!  After saying goodbye to Archit and his family, I hustled up to reach the Pune railway station because I had only about 40 minutes to cover about 10 KM and considering the notorious Pune traffic on weekends, 40 minutes were way too less. After routing and rerouting the shortest way on my GPS device, I arrived at the station mere 10 minutes before departure of my train. Thankfully, the train had arrived at platform # 1,  and as a result I did not have to rush around searching for the platform number. My coach number was B-1, an AC 3-tier class, and I knew it would be close to the loco so I cannonballed along down in that direction without even looking at the coach position indicators on the platform. I managed to board the train just 5 minutes before the departure and faced tough time adjusting my baggage underneath the seat and as a result, I did not get a chance to check out the loco link, one of the things I religiously do before the start of any train journey. I, however, knew that it was a latest diesel loco – a WDP-4D # 40153 class loco of Pune shed.
It was well past 6:25 PM but strangely the train did not depart and rather surprisingly, the 11041 Mumbai-Chennai express, hauled by a WDG-3A class loco of Kazipeth shed, was given a go head before us in the same direction. I wondered what was going through the minds of the section controllers!  After a delay of five more minutes, the starter signal eventually turned Yellow and we slowly accelerated out and after clearing the speed restrictions of 30 KMPH, the train accelerated to about 80 KMPH immediately. What a resplendent performance by a WDP-4D class loco!
After a brisk run, the train entered the first stop, Daund Jn. about 75 KM from Pune, where the train reversed and took the Daund-Manmad route after a 20-minute halt. I was, as usual, by the door (doorplating) as the train gained some good speed. The coach attendant, although, asked me to shut the door, I did not! After about an hour being by the door, I decided to have dinner and then slept early because I wanted to be fully awake for the next action packed day. My mom had packed some very delicious food so I did not order anything from the train’s pantry and I usually avoid the food served from the pantry car. My co-passengers, apparently from the Indian army, were heading to Shillong, as well and we have had some good time together. After discussing various topics ranging from the politics to elections to, of course  my research on leukemia; I called it a day. 

The 12129 Azad Hind Super Fast Express Waiting to Depart Daund Jn. after the Reversal 

I woke up in the middle of the night…rather early morning around 1 AM while my train had arrived at Manmad station. Upon returning to the door (thankfully the coach attendant was fast asleep), I saw the green aspect signal on the up line and I figured out that a non-stop train is going to rend through the station at high speed. Eureka!! In a few minutes the 12112 Amravati-Mumbai super fast express shattered the silence of Manmad station at full speed with full HT horn. What a sight that was!  The train was led by a WCAM-3 class loco of Kalyan shed, not sure about the road number because at such speed, it was impossible to determine (the loco road number). After the loco change from a WDP-4D (diesel) of Pune shed to a WAP-4 (electric) of Bhusawal shed, the starter signal turned green for my train and soon we accelerated out and picked up good speed until it came to an impasse on a loop line. No sooner I figured out the reason for an unscheduled halt than I saw the main line signal aspect changed to green, and it was time for an overtake!  A few minutes later, I saw a small light heading rapidly in my direction on the main line and I knew it was the 12101 Mumbai-Howrah Jnaneshwari super fast express about to overtake at full speed. Once again, with full HT horn and hauled by a WAP-4 class loco of Santragachi shed, it ripped through the main line at full speed.  A spine-chilling sight!!..……After all of these amusements, I went to sleep again. 
The holler of ‘Chai-Chai’ woke me up around 7 AM while my train had just pulled into Badnera station – running on time!  From here on, I was by the door for almost whole day enjoying the high-speed run and the countryside scenes. The train conductor aka the TC, however, upon seeing me by the door for so long, questioned me on whether or not I was genuine passenger,  he eventually let me off only after seeing my ticket and the ID. This situation is not uncommon for me at all! The run after Badnera was fantastic with the train maintaining the top speed even on curves, enervating the coach line up.   

The 12129 Pune-Howrah Azad Hind Super fast Express at Wardha Jn.

BOBRN Class Freight Train.
Clicked this photo while my train was speeding around 100 KMPH. 

The WAP-4 # 22915 of Itarsi shed at Raipur Jn. 

The train pulled into Nagpur Jn. aka the Orange City slightly before time and this gave me the opportunity to check out the unreserved class coaches but they weren't too crowded. I was also pleasantly surprised to see the 12101 Jnaneshwari express on the adjacent platform; this meant that my train was closely following and chased it despite having more stops! This is one of the stations were loco crew changes and after a fresh set of crew took the charge of my train, it accelerated out after a 15-minute halt. I was eagerly waiting to take a video of the famous diamond crossing which is immediately after Nagpur station (Diamond crossing is the track configuration where the coalescing lines provide track connection with each other at right angles). 
The speed the train maintained after departing Nagpur was even more staggering – Although the Maximum Permissible Speed (MPS) was 110 KMPH however, the GPS on my phone showed the speed of 117 KMPH for a very long time. It seemed that the new crew at the helm of the WAP-4 class loco hauling the 12129 Pune-Howrah Azad Hind express had probably gone demoniacal! …and here is the explanation for the above title!   
            A little later in the day at Durg Jn., I met Dr. Dhaval Mavani and another railfan friend from Bhilai. Being a railway enthusiast, I have made so many good friends from all over India and some from overseas sharing same passion! Even though we could spend only about 5 minutes at the station, but it was a nice first meeting, and at Raipur Jn., I met my cousin who brought, a much needed, home food that helped me continue my journey without ordering anything from the train's pantry till the end. We departed on time from Raipur, however, for some strange reason, even after cruising at good speed throughout; the train did go off schedule by almost 30 minutes……. But it did not throw me out of kilter because my connecting train (the 15657 Kanchanjunga express) to Guwahati from Kolkata wasn’t scheduled to leave until 6:25 AM the next day.                  
           After an early dinner, I decided to call it a day from my train spotting activity because after doorplating for almost 8 hours; I started to feel a little outworn. Besides, my destination was still 36 hours away. I did not even realize that I was fast asleep until, I think, one of my co-passengers woke me up as the train was entering the Howrah station platform # 22 at 3:50 AM running absolutely on time. Upon coming out of the station in the wee hours of the morning, I was lucky to find a Sealdah bound city bus and in about 10 minutes, I arrived at Sealdah railway station to board the 15657 Kanchanjunga express bound for Guwahati - 30 hours more to reach Shillong!!

This concludes my journey from Mumbai to Kolkata. The blog on my journey from Kolkata to Guwahati and then to Shillong coming soon!