Friday, September 11, 2015

Hanging by a Thread

The title of this blog is quite apposite for one of the journeys that I had undertaken in November 2014 from a small town of Lonand to Mumbai on board the 11030 Kolhapur-Mumbai Koyna express.  After a successful solo trek to one of the hills near Satara in Maharashtra, I decided to board the Koyna express to return home, in a hope that it wouldn't be crowded as I didn't have the reservation, and had decided to board the unreserved 2nd class carriage (it is always fun and adventurous to travel on 2nd class of the Indian railways as you get to see the real India, the people, the struggle written on the face of every person and the hope and determination of executing their dreams and goals).

After spending a few hours in the small town of Lonand, meeting some interesting people who were very friendly and relishing on some local Maharashtrian spicy food, I decided to move to the railway station way ahead of the scheduled arrival of my train. The scene at the station was not so exciting as it was small with 3 platforms and less train movement, mostly goods trains however, I was lucky to see a train that sped thorugh the station  hauled by a WDP-4 class loco link at about 90 KMPH, a sight which is still fresh in my mind. People slowly started to fill in, and mere 10 minutes before the arrival of the train, the station started straddling with people, all of them going to meet their families and friends due to Diwali festival and it was also a weekend - I knew it was going to be a temerarious ride!

With a delay of just 5 minutes, the train, hauled by a rather strange link, A WDM-3A class loco of Gooty shed however, the regular link is a WDP-4 class loco of Krishnarajapuram shed, pulled into the platform number 1 of Lonand station. Even before the train came to a complete halt, I could see the 14-coach train completely filled in with people, and even the reserved compartments, including a solo air-conditioned chair car coach, were not spared by the unauthorised travellers. There was not an inch available to move onto the train, as all of the doors were occupied by people. With a halt of mere 2 minutes at this station, I made a quick decision to hop onto the train and survive the ride for the next 7 hours hanging at the door with my backpack, as there was no other train bound for Mumbai for the next 7 to 8 hours. Initially, some people objected me and asked me not to board as there was no room whatsoever, where in a compartment with a capacity of about 103 people, there were more than 150 people crampped onto all of those 14 compartments. Thankfully, nobody dared venture onto the roof of the train as it would mean the end of everything for them by being charred to death by 25 KV current upon entering the electric territory.

As I managed to balance myself and seek some 'comfort', I was getting pushed outside by the force of some 10 people standing around me and I thought that this is going to be my final train ride but managed to cohere onto the bars of the door with all my might. The things started to get worst when the train picked up the pace, but on some sharp curves with a speed of about 60 to70 KMPH, I thought my fate had been sealed. Thankfully,this train has a lot of halts enroute, which did allow me disembark off the train to release some tension built in my hands and legs but it was just a temporary relief. Sadly, a lot of travellers with reserved ticket waiting for the train enroute couldn't board and all I could see was their worried and feared faces as the train accelerated out of the stations.....without them!

I was hoping for some relief from the derangement at Pune as this is one of the biggest train stations as I was expecting a lot of people to disembark. A huge chunk of people did get off the train, however to my shock there were even more people waiting to board the train due to weekend. I, however, got a chance to squeez into the 'comfort zone' much to my extrication. The crowd swelled in more than before but the only difference was that I was not hanging at the door but again it was difficult to stand due to chocking like condition as there was not enough room for fresh air. Strangely, a man started asking me some questions in English and I wondered if it was important for him to talk to me in almost gasping conditon, and I affably refused to talk to him.  From outside I was surfeited and drained off energy, however my inner soul was not unamused by an unexpected adventure.

After living through nearly 6 hours in the unsurvivable conditon, I felt souped up as the train was nearing the suburbs of Mumbai. Finally, after almost 7 hours I disembarked from the train much to my relief and of course......alive!

Although I have traveled on super crowded trains countless number of times but this was the best experience, a real adventure, and I loved it!!

Indian railway is my passion since the day I was born and unarguably it is second to none.

Memories relived! I miss travelling on Indian trains very much.

Following are some photos from this trek

Kolhapur bound Maharashtra express with WDM-3A class loco of Pune shed

Yeswantpur (Bangalore) Bound Train Passes Through Picturesque Sahayadri Mountain Range 
Over 100 Years Old Name Slab which Once Served the Meter Gauge Train Line to Miraj. This line has since been moved into oblivion

The Rugged Terrain Landscape of  the Sahayadri Range

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Russia - From My Point of View

       It was a winter night of December 2014 when I told my mom that I would be going to Russia to pursue my PhD, and she asked "Are you crazy"? I replied "No, I am not and I know what I am doing and where I am going". She was visibly upset on hearing about my plans but I managed to convince her and she warily asked me to go ahead with my plans. It was the start! I had heard a lot of negatives about Russia, and the war but I knew non of those were even remotely true and I felt absolutely safe even before moving to Russia. I was all decked up and excited and most importantly I was going to pursue my dream, a dream that I had almost given up once. I also knew that the language of instruction would be Russian and that it wouldn't be easy to learn a new language however, I was determined to over come any challenges, and in fact I took this problem as an opportunity to learn new language and enhance my skills in the field of linguistics. Surprisingly, the Russian language has a lot of words similar to Hindi and Sanskrit, probably borrowed from these languages many years ago. 

      One of the things that has always exasperated me is that a lot of people have a wrong notion about Russia, falsely believing that it is a hostile country or jump to the conclusion without even doing some basic research to find the facts. One such example was one of my relatives who told me some 'horror' stories about Russia and asked me to cancel my trip. With all due respect for his concern about me, Russia was quite inhospitable back in the early 90s however, it is probably the safest country now and of course, extremely friendly. I don't think there is any other country which is so open and friendly to foreigners, especially from India and specially compared with some 'English speaking developed' nations. Upon landing in Moscow, I knew I was in an amazing country!

 The Education System

       The reasons Indian students abnegate from heading to Russia for higher education/research degree are the language barrier, lack of opportunities, and the other reason, as mentioned above, is safety. The latter is just in the minds of the people because Russia would take care of you like you were its citizen, and of course, there is no discrimination whatsoever, and certainly no racial discrimination at all. Sadly, I had experienced racism in India because of my accent but in Russia, I everyday look forward to meet new people, and my friends who are always excited to meet me, too. And if you don't mind learning a new foreign language (Russian) then look no beyond Russia! And as far as opportunities are concerned, Russia offers a lot of opportunities in numerous fields than any other developed nations combined.

     The Russian education system and standards are on par with the international standards, and some Russian universities are amongst the best. The Udmurt State University in Izhevsk, for example, is one of the top classical universities in Russia and has everything that an international university has to offer. The research facilities, the professors, the support staff are amazingly helpful. For me Russia is new the USA, or UK. A lot of students from Asia, especially India, head west for better opportunities and earnings but I guess it's time to look north! 

       Izhevsk, the capital of Udmurt Republic, is located along the Izh river in the Western Urals. Although the city is small as compared with Moscow or Kazan, but it is one of the most beautiful and well organized cities. One of the best things about the city is its people, they are extremely wonderful, very helpful and are always welcoming no matter where you come from.

The Udmurt Republic 

     I had not heard about the Udmurt Republic or Izhevsk before applying to this university, and the only cities I knew were Moscow and St. Petersburg and when I heard about this city (Izhevsk), I had no clue about the pronunciation, tried all possible ways to pronounce the name of the city right but couldn't  until I landed here. One of the first things that comes to our mind when we hear about Izhevsk is the AK 47 automatic rifle as Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor of this weapon, was born and raised in Izhevsk. With the population of about 650,000, Izhevsk is the capital and the biggest city of Udmurt Republic. Between 1984 and 1987, the city was called Ustinov, named after the late defense minister Dmitri Ustinov.

     This is one of the most beautiful places in Russia and I feel happy and excited to be here and many thanks to the people of Izhevsk for allowing me to be associated with their culture.

Я люблю Россию! 
Following are some of the pictures from Russia:
The Udmurt State University
The City of Izhevsk
Izhevsk, Udmurt Republic
The Holi celebration in Izhevsk
Sunset over Izh Pond
A Street of Izhevsk with a Tram
Another Sunset
International Moscow Business Centre
The Kremlin and Moscow river


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Into the Unknown

The only thing that is constant is change!  

             I have always been enraptured by the world of biology and since my school days, albeit I was an average students, was quite good in this field. Being an average student, my mom had been of the opinion that no sooner I complete my 10th class, than I shall find any job and settle in. I, however, have had some other ideas and was determined that I am not going to give up so easily as I wanted to continue my studies in the field of science. After scoring a very miserable grade in 10th class, I was lucky enough to be admitted in one of the science colleges in Mumbai (Bombay) and, of course, my friends and family laughed at me for opting for science. After completing 2 years of mandatory junior college, I didn't face much troubles getting into the University of Mumbai for my bachelor's degree in zoology and oceanography. 

             My mom, upon leanring that I am going to complete my graduation, was very happy as up until my 10th class, she has had absolutely no hope from me as far as passing junior college was concerned, let alone getting a graduate tag. After completing my graduation from the University of Mumbai and getting a first class, I went on to pursure my masters degree in biotechnology and molecular oncology from Kannur university in the state of Kerala, India. This was the first time that I went very far from my home for 2 years but I loved it. I learned a lot of things, made new friends, learned a new language (Malayam) which I wouldn't have learned, had I not been out of my comfort zone.
             After passing my masters degree (again with first class), I decided to pursue PhD (doctorate of science) degree abroad and applied to many universities in the UK and other countries. I was again lucky to be accepted by 3 universities in the UK but sadly they didn't give any financial help and I knew I wouldn't be qualified for any scholarship program, if any, considering my poor grades in the school and as a result I was not able to go the UK. I was, however, determined to pursue my research, and while working, I concurrently continued to apply for PhD program abroad. Many universities never replied to my emails, and some that did, had rejection written all over them! But I still didn't give up as I was sanguine enough to get into a PhD program.

….and then came a twist!

          As I was browsing through some university page on Facebook, I came across a comment in which somebody had mentioned about the university in Udmurt Republic. At first I wondered as to where is this place located and then after a few Google searches, I stumbled upon the Udmurt State University website. By this time, I figured out that Udmurt Republic is in Russia and that the university is located in the city of Izhevsk (I had no clue about the pronunciation then)  

          After browsing through the website, I sent an email to the international relationship department with no hope of getting any reply, as most of my queries to other universities have had turned futile.  But after a few days, I was surprised to receive a reply (and this was the first ever positive reply I got in my hundreds of query emails that I had sent to many universities across the world).

         Upon seeing a positive reply, I decided to ‘step on the gas’ and head to Russia!! And after a month, it became clear that my destination is Russia and that I would be finally be pursuing my PhD degree, a dream of my life! Had I not been stumbled upon and scrolled to the ‘comment box’ of that Facebook post, I wouldn’t have been writing this blog from Russia! Russia, an unexpected destination for me! 

The Departure Day

       27th February 2015 would always remain a date that changed a lot of things for me. Once again moving to an unknown place completely out of my comfort zone was very difficult decision for me to take, and especially leaving my mom alone but I knew that if I don't snaffle upon this opportunity, I wouldn't get another. My mom was quite disolated to see me going and didn't know when she would see me again, yet she was very happy about my decision and suppoted me. It was probably the most emotional moment in my life to bid adieu to my mom who was in tears, yet I could see hope in her eyes that things would turn around and change for good for me. 

     As a devouring Indian railway fan, my original plan was to board the Mumbai-New Delhi Rajdhani express however the last moment rescheduling of my Moscow bound Air India flight forced me to board a flight out of Mumbai, sadly. I boarded an Indigo flight for Delhi and then boarded the Air India AI-155 for Moscow and finally boarded Izhavia airlines from Moscow to Izhevsk. As always, Air India has always been an amazing Indian airlines but this time I wouldn't say that I was totally happy with their service. As expected, the flight got further delayed and departed at 9PM as against 7:55PM. The entire duration of flight was uneventful except for some small turbulences while flying over Pakistan and Afghanistan. Landing in Moscow, too, was smooth despite heavy snow around the airport. 

Leaving Mumbai! On board Indigo airlines bound for Delhi
Moscow bound Air India's Boeing 787 Dreamliner in the background at Delhi IGI Airport
Moscow Domodedovo Airport
             Being all alone in a country where English is not spoken widely and I had absolutely no clue about Rusisan language then, it became a quite a challenge for me. After spending about 8 hours at the airport (whole night), I went to my friend's place in the wee hours of the morning for much needed sleep.

The Yak 42 Experience

            I was very excited about my travel plan from Moscow to Izhevsk as I was going to fly on a Russian made Yakovlev Yak 42 aircraft for the first time. Although a small aircraft, it was more comfortable than Boeing or Airbus and there were no turbulences despite flying through heavy snow. I would absolutely love to fly the Yak 42 again. The flight departed on time from Moscow's Domodeovo airport and landed in Izhevsk 30 minutes before its scheduled arrival. Thus ending my 48 hours journey from Mumbai to Izhevsk.

On Board Izhavia Airlines Yak 42 Aircraft about to Land in Izhevsk, Russia


Saturday, November 15, 2014

An Unplanned Trip

Absolutely unplanned! This is how I would describe my trip to Adarki (110 KM off Pune). Adarki is a very small village located in the Satara district of Maharashtra, on route to Kolhapur. It has one of the sharpest curves (the horseshoe curve) on the Indian railway network and is very famous amongst the rail fans, and it is also a paradise for trekkers as it is surrounded by the Western ghats (the Sahyadri  mountain range). Besides, I wanted to explore the Pune-Miraj meter gauge route that had been closed down after gauge conversion in 1972. The new broad gauge line is laid upon the old MG alignment which is why there are a lot of spectacular curves and steep gradients.

To trek this place, I was told to prepare at least a week prior but I had no plans until I reached there. On one of those mind-numbing weekends (weekends are boring until I embark on an adventure trip), I packed my backpack after abruptly deciding to go on an overnight trip, booked a waitlist second-class ticket on Mumbai-Pune Deccan Queen express and I was all set for an adventure.

As I was about leave my house, I received a text from the Indian railways ticketing system stating that my second-class waitlist ticket has been upgraded to an air conditioned chair car. Oh No!! This was my first reaction. I was totally disappointed and very angry at the auto upgrade system introduced by the Indian railways. Upgrading to a higher class is a bliss for everybody but I hate luxurious travel. Upon reaching the train station, I even thought of asking the ticketing staff to downgrade my ticket to its original class but I figured out that it wouldn't be possible because the train was full.

An AC Chair Car of Mumbai-Pune Deccan Queen Express

The Deccan Queen express is Indian railway's one of the most prestigious trains - first chugged out on June 1st, 1930. It is fast, has a very few stoppages and is clean and well maintained.

Led by a WCAM-3 class locomotive of Kalyan shed, the train departed on time at 5:10PM however, for some reason it was held up for about 5 minutes immediately after departing. The run trough the suburbs of Mumbai was reasonably good with temporary speed restriction enforced, the train didn't even notch up to 90 KMPH for most of the time except at some places where it did cross 100 KMPH mark briefly.

The Deccan Queen Express at Lonavala.
The train was running with a delay of about 30 minutes as a result of couple of long unscheduled stops however, surprisingly it reached its final destination, Pune Jn., mere 7 minutes late, thanks to some high speed  and all clear run between Lonavala and Pune.
From Pune, I boarded a connecting train bound for Satara - a distance of 145 KM. Upon reaching Satara around 2:30AM, I then boarded yet another connecting train bound of Adarki - a distance of 37 KM. For the first time, I traveled on a luggage compartment of a train. There was no light or fan, absolutely dark, deplorable but I loved traveling on it.  I was accompanied by some scally looking guys who were apparently traveling to a nearby village of Lonand. They asked me all sorts of questions ranging from my whereabouts to my family. It didn't affright me at all but lack of sleep was making me stuporous.
I jumped off the train as soon as the train reached Adarki and went to a 'waiting hall' for a much needed sleep.  The station manager was very kind as he turned off the lights and let me sleep for an hour.

Ernakulam (Cochin) bound Purna Express at Satara in the Dead of Night

Adarki Station

Rail Line was Laid after Cutting some Rocky Hillocks. This Broad Gauge Line has been Laid on Meter Gauge Alignment.

This Station Name Board is over 100 Years Old. The Pune-Miraj Route, which was inaugurated circa 1880, was Meter Gauge Until 1972

Led by a WDM-3A Class Loco, Pune Bound Passenger Train Enters Adarki. There are only Four Trains in a Day that Stop Here
Kolahpur bound Maharashtra Express Passes Through the Rock Cuttings.

Jodhpur-Bangalore Express Passes Through Picturesque Adarki.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On Board The Flying Saucer

  The 22625 Chennai-Bangalore AC Double Decker express is nothing less than a 'flying saucer' - a 12 carriage train hauled by a WAP-7 class loco.
     After hustling through the streets of Chennai on a rickshaw early in the morning, we (my mom and I) arrived at Chennai Central station on time to board the Bangalore bound 22625 AC Double Decker express, luckily we didn't face any traffic woes. While entering the station building, I didn't feel anything different at all from entering the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (then Victoria Terminus) in Mumbai. Besides, traveling to Chennai always reminds me of my 2006 trip with my God Father, Jack McKinnon. The AC Double Decker express to Bangalore was not announced and hence I got a few minutes to walk around for some observation. The station was brimming with early morning arrivals from almost all parts of India. The 12624 Trivandrum-Chennai super fast mail had already been arrived, hauled by a WAP-7 class locomotive of Royapuram shed, then a little later came the legendary 12622 New Delhi-Chennai Central Tamil Nadu express, hauled by a WAP-4 class locomotive of Erode shed and many more arrivals and departures. In the meantime, the AC Double Decker express to Bangalore was announced and soon a WDM-2 class loco of TNP shed shunted the train. This was my first trip on AC Double Decker train although my mom had traveled on numerous occasions ever since its inception. From the outside, the train looked quite immense with high speed carriages made by Linke-Hofmann Busch (LHB), however I was not really happy to see the cramped seating arrangements but was not really surprised either because this train has been made for the 'masses'. 
The 22625 Chennai Central-Bangalore AC Double Decker Express
After settling in, I went to check out the loco link and it was, rather surprisingly, a WAP-7 # 30276 class loco of Lallaguda shed. Usually, this train is hauled by a WAP-7 of Royapuram shed.  Interestingly, even though hauled by the high speed locomotive and with high speed carriages (capable of doing 160 KMPH), the train didn't cross the speed of 100 KMPH anywhere between Chennai and Bangalore maybe due to slack time. My mom and I had been allotted seats in the lower deck, one of the seats was a window seat so I didn't hesitate to ask my mom to occupy the middle seat because railfanning and window seat/doorplating goes hand-in-hand!! 

The WAP-7 # 30276 of Lallaguda Shed at the Helm of 22625 Chennai-Bangalore AC Double Decker Express
     At 7:25 AM on the button, the train started and cautiously pulled out of the station while negotiating the On X-Over speed restriction of 20 KM. The acceleration of a WAP-7 class loco was quite impressive, in less than 5 minutes - the train was cruising around 60 KMPH through the suburban stations of Chennai and later maintained the speed of 100 KMPH. This was the second time I traveled on a WAP-7 hauled train, the first time I traveled was on the 12951 Mumbai-New Delhi Rajdhani express. 

      This train has got a pretty relaxed schedule, covers the distance of 358 KM in 5 Hours 45 Minutes with an average speed of 62.26 KMPH including seven commercial halts. 

Here are some more photographs: 

    The WAP-7 did a splendid job and the train pulled into Bangalore City Junction 5 minutes before time. I'd like thank my railfan crony Nikhil Manohar for printing my flight boarding passes and handing me over at Bangalore Cantt. station at a very short notice. 

On a Flight back to Mumbai: 

Although, I dislike flying because it is absolutely boring, at least for me, but I wanted my mom to come out of the fear of flying, so I canceled the train tickets and immediately booked an evening flight from Bangalore to Mumbai. I was very impressed with new Bangalore International Airport, much bigger and better than the old HAL airport. The Jet Airways flight was very smooth, arrived Mumbai before time but nothing can come even close to the service provided by Air India. Air India always rocks!! 

Climbing to a Cruising Altitude

Flying over Bangalore - Immediately After Taking Off. 

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!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Rolling Over the Brawny Pamban

   Rolling Over the Brawny Pamban

Most of the journeys in our lives end......but some come with return tickets! Returning to Mumbai from Rameshwaram was not too unmanageable because I easily got confirmed train tickets to Bangalore via Chennai and then to Mumbai on a Jet Airways flight. After enjoying a 3 day trip in and around Rameshwaram, it was time to return home. I was, however, not really happy because I kind of hate to return home, especially when I am on a long trip. I always become a little discompose even if I think about returning home. Anyway, we (my mom and I) checked out of the hotel early because I wanted to spend as much time as possible at Rameshwaram train station for railfanning. Besides, they would have charged us extra, had we prolonged our stay even by an hour. Our train to Chennai Egmore, the 16102 (then 16702) Rameshwaram-Chennai Egmore Boat Mail was scheduled to depart at 5 PM but we reached the train station around 12 PM.  My mom, obviously not a railfan, opted to settle down in a retiring room and I got 5 hours to photograph trains. I took my camera out and strolled the entire length of the platform. Albeit I spotted a very few trains, however I still enjoyed it. I was expecting the station to be not very crowded and tranquil but it turned out to be exactly opposite; maybe due to some festival many people foregathered Rameshwaram on that day. My first spotting of the day was 14260 Varanasi-Rameshwaram express which was idling in one of many pit lines, and then a little later I spotted a passenger train bound for Madurai with a Golden Rock (GOC) shed’s WDM-2 class loco at its helm. I also spotted the Chennai bound 16702 Boat Mail in one of the pit lines - the power of the train was a GOC WDP-3A class loco. This was the very same loco which hauled the overnight 16713 Chennai Egmore -Rameshwaram Sethu express on that day. An hour before the departure, the train was shunted on to the main line platform. Our coach B1 (an AC 3 tier sleeper class) was 4th from the loco which meant a good walking exercise for my mom to walk almost the entire length of the train which was about 350 meters. I was not expecting many passengers to board from Rameshwaram but I was pleasantly surprised to see the coach filled with a lot of passengers, especially from Gujarat. This turned out to be a 'blessing' for my mother because she got company to talk to but I wondered if I am in Tamil Nadu or in Gujarat.

The 16701/16201 Rameshwaram-Chennai Egmore Boat mail

The GOC WDP-3A Class Loco
      At 5 PM on the button, the starter signal for my train turned Yellow and the GOC WDP-3A class loco accelerated out with 16702 Boat mail bound for Chennai Egmore. I was very excited to travel on this route, especially over the Pamban Bridge – a 2000-meter railway bridge over the Palk Strait connecting the island of Rameshwaram to the Mainland India. The train crawled out of Rameshwaram station at slow pace but gradually gained good speed until Pamban Jn. – the first commercial halt. The sinewy Pamban bridge is located immediately North West off Pamban railway station. After a minute halt, the train accelerated out with a restricted speed of 15 KMPH. No sooner the train left the station than I could see the brobdingnagian Indian Ocean and I became captivated to the fact that the train is going to cross over the Indian Ocean. I stood at the door right from the time the train departed Rameshwaram and I also knew that many passengers will pile up at the door to get a view of the ocean, hence I had already ‘reserved’ my place (right by the door). As soon as the train rolled on to the bridge, I experienced the strong wind current and it became very uncomfortable to hold on to my camera against the strong current while dangling by the door and exposed to the ocean beneath with no real support except for the door handle; I was absolutely not prepared for this. It was a perilous 10-minute ride over the bridge, however it was all worth it. Besides, I love to take risk! It took 10 minutes to cross over to the mainland India – a distance of 2 KM at cautious speed of 15 KMPH. After crossing the bridge, the loco pilot stepped on the gas and the train quickly gained speed to about 50 KMPH before coming to its another scheduled halt at Mandapam,......delayed but only just!  It was very nostalgic for me to travel on this route for the second time; the first time I traveled was back in 2006 when the Chennai Egmore-Rameshwaram route was served by meter gauge trains. 

Rameshwaram-Cennai Egmore Boat Mail Rolling over the Mighty Pamban
                                     (You could hear some people taking right behind me) 
The next stop was Ramanathapuram - 40 KM away. This is one of the major towns connecting Rameshwaram. This town is many centuries old, historically very important and it has been mentioned in the Hindu epic of Ramayana, along with Rameshwaram. Anyway, the train reached Ramanathapuram delayed by over 20 minutes and that got me into a little concern because any further delay would imperil our journey back home, as we had to board a connecting train to Bangalore, and then to Mumbai on a flight, we've had a very less buffer time. I would have, however, been a lot happier, had my journey back home been jeopardized but considering my mom was traveling with me, I did not even think about it. The train's scheduled halt was for 2 minutes but for some strange reason, the train didn't move for a long time thus delaying it further. 

The Boat Mail at Ramanathapuram
            After an out of the blue 10-minute halt, the train accelerated and I, as usual, decided to stand at the door even though it was very dark outside and mizzling. The next stop was Manamadurai Jn - 60 KM away. I was hoping that the train would cover up some lost minutes due to the buffer time....and it did, the train covered some 15 minutes before we pulled into Manamadurai Jn.  This was encouraging and I was quite sure that the train wouldn't take an eonian stop at this station due to the delay….but to my horror, the train once again stopped for ‘eternity’. Meanwhile, I called up my railfan crony - Ranjeet Iyer – in Chennai and asked him to check-in for my flight to Mumbai online. He immediately did it and I could not thank him enough. My concern, however, was billowing with the amount of delay which was setting in due to a very long halt. Albeit the train did cover the delay of 15 minutes, an additional delay of 15 minutes at Manamadurai Jn. ensured that we were again off schedule by 30 minutes. The train eventually did depart around 7:30PM  and alleviated me. Not surprisingly, it started to rain real hard and I decided against doorplating as it was too dark to see anything outside and the coach attendant ‘sternly’ asked me to close the door for securities reasons.

At Manamadurai Jn. 
            It was about the dinnertime and I was very hungry, however the train did not have a pantry car and the food I packed at Rameshwaram was over, besides I forgot to pack some food at Manamadurai Jn. I was, therefore, left with no other option but to wait till Tiruchchirappalli Jn. which was 3 hours away. While the train continued to run with a 30-minute delay, I decided to take ‘Siesta del Hidalgo’.
            A  much later, I woke up to see the train stopped outside Tiruchchirappalli Jn. due to the non-availability of platform but I was pleasantly surprised to see the train running on time. The train pulled into the station at 2230 HRS on time. Luckily, I spotted a food vendor selling Vegetable Biryani near the second-class unreserved coach. Without giving a second thought, I cannonball along. Upon reaching there, I was blown straight out of the water to see the unreserved coach completely packed with people with no place to even stand, every inch of that coach was occupied in every possible way and not to mention the scrimmage resulting from the pandemonium. I was awed! I have traveled on the 2nd class unreserved coach  many times but never seen so massive crowd before. With another 8 hours to reach Chennai, I wondered how would those people travel in such deplorable conditions overnight!
With just 5 minutes into the halt, the starter signal turned Yellow and the train pulled out of Tiruchchirappalli Jn. on time and this made me completely decompressed. I quaffed the Biryani within 5 minutes and decided to sleep as I was very wearied and hoped that the train will continue to run on time.  A little later, however, all my hopes crashed immediately when I found out that the train stopped again….in the middle of nowhere! I figured out that the line ahead was not clear as I could see the Red aspect of the 3CL signal flaring at my train. It was only after a 25 minute unscheduled halt, the signal turned Green and we started - back to square one!  
I was so tired at this point of time that I didn't care whether or not the train runs on time, I slept. After a not so good sleep for about 4 hours, I woke up around 3:30 AM to see the train entering Villupuram Jn. – still running over 20 minutes behind schedule. The train slowly crept into Villupuram station and it was the time for a loco change because the Villupuram-Chennai Egmore route is electrified. The diesel locomotive (GOC WDP-3A) gave a way to an electric locomotive (AJJ WAP1). With another 167 KM to go in about 3 hours – I was very positive of arriving Chennai on time. The acceleration of WAP-1 class loco was so magnificent that it pulled the 19 coach long train with ease and crossed the speed of 100 KMPH within a few minutes – this was very encouraging for me!  It was around 4 AM and I decided to stand at the door again – the coach attendant was fast asleep on the other side of the coach so I was not bothered. The doorplating at high speed was so amazing but, of course, it was also very dangerous primarily because I was not fully awake.

The train was closing in on the suburbs of Chennai after some high speed run, although it was still running late by 25 minutes. We reached Tambaram – a suburb of Chennai around 5:55AM. Chennai Egmore station is about 25 KM from Tambaram and I was again positive that the train will cover this distance within 35 minutes. The train cruised through the suburbs at good speed and at this point I became absolutely sure that we are going to reach on time and that we wouldn't have to hustle up to catch the connecting train. Finally, around 6:35AM, the train pulled into Chennai Egmore station – a delay of mere 5 minutes, which was very acceptable, and as a result, we had almost an hour to reach Chennai Central station to catch our connecting train, the 22625 Chennai-Bangalore Double Decker AC express, to Bangalore City.
 This concludes the part -I of my travel from Rameshwaram to Chennai. Part-II coming soon.