Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Meter Gauge Travel in Central India

Trains in India are ubiquitous which everyone can relate to it and mostly would have traveled in it. However very few people look at it more than as a utility. The railways were one of the path breaking invention and brought in Industrial Revolution. Steel wheels on steel rails reduced friction and provided great way of transporting men and material. Very few people would know much about history of railways in India. It started on 16th April 1853 by running between Bombay VT (now Mumbai CST) and Thane. British rulers for their own sake of administration and trade built railways across length & breadth of India. Earlier Railways were in private hands and each princely state would cater to only their needs. Along with the whims the variation in terrain also led to variation in gauges suitable for train operation.
India became a country with four various gauges, Broad Gauge, Meter Gauge, Narrow Gauge (2 feet 6 inches) & Narrow Gauge (2 feet). Note that we never had Standard gauge in India which is so common in European countries. After independence Railways were nationalized. With growth in economy movement of men and material increased and transferring things from one gauge to another (trans-shipment) became inefficient. To remove this bottleneck railways adopted project Unigauge i.e. converting all gauges narrower than Broad Gauge into Broad. Meter Gauge has been quite common in India with dense networks in North, North-East and South. However, there was no North-South link at the time of independence. Then a line was constructed from Purna to Akola in the 60s decade which connected these two islands. Now it was possible to travel all the way from Rameshwaram to New Delhi on Meter Gauge. However, with project Unigauge the meter gauge is slowly getting converted to broad gauge. The link between North and South was again broken when Akola – Purna section was converted to Broad Gauge. Earlier there used to be passenger trains all the way from Kacheguda (Hyderabad) to Jaipur traversing the heart of India. The line further from Ratlam is already converted to broad gauge. So now there is a section of meter gauge which is left out there isolated from Akola to Ratlam and a spur to Ujjain. This is one of the longest section left with meter gauge in India. For all rail enthusiast who are witnessing sad demise of meter gauge in India, traveling on this section is like experiencing something which will never be like that and there would only be memories to relish. The section passes through one of the remote or not in mainstream areas of this country. There are no major towns once we leave Akola all the way till Indore. The line crosses over Gavilgarh range of hills and then Choral valley which has its namesake river and thick forest. There is one unique thing on this line which is nowhere in India. There is a spiral on this line i.e. the line curves around and goes over itself to gain height (around 80 meters). The loops in Darjeeling are a different thing. There the line doesn’t go over itself.
I along with one friend from Bangalore decided to do this line and date decided was 1st January. The train leaves at 6:00 AM in the morning from Akola. So I had to be at Akola station before that. I booked myself in a bus going to Nagpur which reaches Akola by 4-5 AM. It was a semi-sleeper Volvo bus so slept comfortably. Akola is on the main line from Mumbai to Howrah. The station was abuzz with activity due to constant train traffic. After freshening up at station, we decided to move to the platform which had our train. We had reservations in same coach but different seats. We asked TTE to shift our seats closer. The TTE obliged heartily after hearing that we have come all the way from Bangalore and Pune to travel on this line. It was still dark at 6:00 AM. We left on time and train chugged its way out of Akola.

Akola station in the morning
We kept the window shade open even as it was cold so that we could look outside. The headlight piercing the dark was cool. After 7AM there was some twilight and slowly out of haze and cloud on horizon we witnessed the first sunrise of 2011. Our new year started on good note. The warmth of sun was welcoming in this cold weather.

First Sunrise of 2011
The seat on which we were sitting had an emergency window. These windows are meant for evacuation in case of emergency, so does not have fixed grills on the outside. There is a grill which could be pulled up. This was fortune for us as we could stick our neck out as much as we can and take photographs. A similar window was there on the other side. The train was going at steady pace of around 30 kmph as my companion showed me in his GPS.

Akola - Ratlam Fast passenger
At Akot, we had hot samosas for breakfast which were great in this weather. After Akot at Adgaon Buzurg, a family joined in the same cabin going to Indore. They obliged by giving us the berth with emergency window and went off to sleep. We shifted back and forth from this window to that window and door. The train initially passed through fields of cotton, jowar, wheat which were still under haze due to early morning and crop was glowing in morning sunshine.

Fields along the tracks
We were going parallel to the Gavilgarh Hill range (part of Satpura range) but later took it head on and climbed over it. There were gradients up to 1 in 100 and few tunnels which we passed. The vegetation became thick and train was making tight curves gaining height. We were in fourth coach from rear and could hardly see the engine.

Window to the world

Train passing through thick vegetation
We came to station called Wan Road after which the spiral would come up. The station scene was simple. Rural folks hurrying up & down the platform to get into the coaches exacerbated due to some reserved coaches in the middle. Elderly, men and women carrying kids, sacks, wicker basket and potlis. It was a typical small town chaos but still quite peaceful as compared to cities.

Wan Road station
After Wan Road we were ready with our cameras in anticipation of the spiral. On this way first we pass over the line on a bridge and then come down to pass underneath. We were able to capture the signs of spiral very well.

The line underneath

Board depicting the spiral
After that it was leisurely pace all the way to Khandwa. The train was a “Fast” passenger but stopped at every station. The villages on the route were so small & quaint that it seemed that this train was their only lifeline. The train had significant people traveling, alighting or embarking. I noticed that villages are just a settlement of few houses, not very big, no signs of commercialization like shops, STD/PCO or market. These villages were living in a different reference of time or probably we city dwellers have moved onto another planet. These people may not have seen a computer or an ATM may be only heard about it. The stations had hardly anything to eat, no biscuits, chips or mineral water. Everyone would be out of their homes and watching the train as that is the only visitor in their still life. The weather remained perfect being bright sunny day but chill was in the air.
For some time we passed gingerly through a thickly wooded forest of Sal trees and crossed Tapti river which drains the southern slope of Satpura range.

Semaphore signals

Passing through forest

Tapti river
We passed through stations which make some of the 7 Lakh plus villages and small towns which are there in India. All different but still alike. There is nothing alike in sight but all the same at superficial level. At one such station Tukaithad witnessed sibling brotherhood of three puppies, clinging together to remain warm in cold breeze.

Puppies keeping warmth
Noticed that even though there have been few months since monsoon ended still there was water in streams, rivers and ponds. This was evident in some lush green plantations which we witnessed.

Banana plantation

We soon reached Khandwa which is a major junction in MP. The train stopped here for a long time possibly for a crossing. We searched around for some decent lunch but could not get any packed lunch even on the Broad Gauge side and this being lunch time. We settled for some puri subzi which was ok. Our companions had offered us their food which we refused as an etiquette but now I regretted it. They had plenty and it was home cooked food. After Khandwa the speed increased considerably and train started doing 75 kmph which is a normal speed on Meter Gauge. One of the station enroute is Omkareshwar road where the line crosses Narmada river. The bridge is immediately after the station. We readied ourselves and clicked. The river had green-blue water and an old-style road bridge. The river was really wide and shallow. From here onwards we could see people going up on the coaches to sit there.

Narmada River near Omkareshwar

Rooftop traveling
Now we waited for the climax of the day which is Kalakund-Patalpani section which is a ghat section with 1 in 30 gradient. Here a banker engine gets attached at the rear which pushes the train up the gradient.

Train with Banker attached
This region is valley of Choral river. There is a quaint temple on the other side of Choral river at Kalakund station to which drivers at this section pray for safe journey up the ghat.

Temple at Kalakund
Apart from the train phenomena Kalakund is also famous in a small way for its Kalakand which are milk cakes. Not sure whether the name of the place came first or the sweet. It was being sold on the station and we had a taste of it. There were two varieties one too sweet and one mild.
This was evening time and valley was glowing with orange sunlight. The valley was really wonderful with trees, fields and river. We were sticking to the edge of mountain and passed through many twists and turns and tunnels and witnessed the choral valley.

Choral river valley

Train trudging along the section
There is a point from where famous Patalpani falls are visible. The point comes in a flash and goes away. I could not get a good view of that though water too was very less. However, I saw that there was a mela like situation at the top of the falls and many people had walked across the railway line to get a good view of the falls. Soon we reached Patalpani station where all the Sunday revelers who might have come to visit the falls attacked the train. The train was jam packed now. The banker engine was detached and we proceeded to Mau.

Train packed leaving Patalpani
Mau is a small town important because of its cantonment. In English it is spelled as MHOW which translates to Military Headquarters of War. It is also a major Meter Gauge station and has regular services to Indore, Ujjain, Ratlam. It has shed for maintenance of meter gauge locos and other rolling stock. We were tired by now and hoped that train reaches Indore on time. However, it took its time to reach Indore just like a river when it meets the sea. My companion decided to go up to Mau and catch the train back all the way to Akola as he had to reach Hyderabad next day. I decided to stay over in Indore for the night and start next day. I inquired about the retiring room. The lady and gent attendant doubly made sure that I was alone and there is no one with me and I was not in a hanky-panky business. There were only double rooms over there for price of 300 with 24-hours checkout. I asked at the enquiry and to the caretaker about hot water for a bath but did not give any clear answer. The housekeeper who opened the room said that there is a 24-hrs hot water supply. Once I checked into the room I was delighted. The room was huge with high ceiling, clean room and linen and bathrooms and yes there was really hot running water. Where else do you get all this for 300?

Retiring room at Indore MG station
After freshening up I went to bus-stand to checkout bus timings. There was a wedding reception of one of my colleague which I could attend on Sunday the next day at Aurangabad where people from our office were expected. I thought it would be very easy to reach Aurangabad it being a big town. There were not many buses in the day still I made a mental plan to take a bus and go upto Dhule and from there to Aurangabad and reach there by 6-7 PM. In the morning I took a round of the station. The housekeeper came to provide tea and newspaper. What a royal service!
After leisurely checking out I went to bus-stand. The MP Road Transport seem to be compromised. There were only private buses visible and agents hawking to the passengers and there was even a report in local newspaper about how govt is unable to control transport mafia. I steered clear of them and walked towards Maharashtra buses which I thought would be familiar and faster. As I was walking towards it, a person came to me and said the MP transport bus is leaving early. I guessed that since its a state transport bus so it would go swiftly to Dhule but it did not turn out that way. As soon as bus started moving I regretted the decision. The crew was collecting passengers like local bus and stuffing them inside. My companion too turned out to be a student heading for Pune coming from Kota. I just grinded my teeth and kept humoring myself that such misadventures happen and one has to take such things in stride. The bus soon came to NH-3 Agra – Mumbai highway. The road is a pleasure and bus also did not disappoint and kept good speed. After some 70 odd km it got off and went inside a town called Dhamnod. I soon realized that Dhamnod, Sendhwa and Shirpur are towns enroute where it is going to stop. I just gave into it and focussed on the terrain and passengers. The passengers were from rural background. The towns were crowded and filthy. Even Indore did not impress me much. The place where I had dinner had a number of restaurants. There was crowd but no management. The road was cobbled stones and passing vehicles had to manouvere through the street, no policeman in sight to control. The bus-stand itself was shabby and did not look like serving a big city. We stopped at all three towns but did not get time enough to have food. I thought of having food at Dhule if we reach in reasonable time. The road as it was good earlier turned out to be bad later on. The construction or maintenance work was going on and mostly it was blocked to be made a single lane. This led to reduction in speed and jams. This was the situation all the way to Dhule. Once we reached Dhule I enquired about bus to Aurangabad. There was one ready coming from Nandurbar. It already had people sitting. The next bus was an hour away so without wasting time and skipping having any food I decided to take the bus. Till Chalisgaon we proceeded well and was hoping to reach Aurangabad by 8:15 PM. However at Chalisgaon there was huge crowd waiting for the bus. As the bus came to halt there were handkerchiefs, bags, shawls being put in from the window to occupy the seats. I managed to get a seat in front. The bus got jampacked. Soon it left and while passing through the town was intercepted by a procession. Intially it looked like a marriage procession but turned out to be a religious one. Our bus was simply stuck and the procession refused to subside. After half and hour the driver reversed the bus and took it through another route. With my plan evaporating in thin air I turned caustic and cursed the state of affairs in our country. Anyways, after the town there was a big ghat road which was full with trucks and it took lot of time to cross that. After becoming numb from constant travel and losing hope of making it to some comfort of the wedding reception I just sat still. We finally reached Aurangabad bus station at 9:15 PM which was too late. I called up a colleague who had come to reception and consulted with him and agreed that I will not come now and it was too late. So, first thing I did was have dinner at a hotel. Since I was hungry since morning I treated myself to local delicacy of Mutton thali which tasted amazing. After filling my stomach I enquired about buses to Pune. There was one semi-delux bus ready to leave at 10:30PM. I simply got into it for another 5 hour journey. I managed some sleep in the bus and woke up only near Pune and was comfortably dropped on the highway point near by house which is 10 minutes walking distance. I considered this to be fortune as getting an auto at 3 in the morning would not have been easy. I walked back home, had hot water bath and crashed in the bed. I had started from Indore at 9 in the morning and reached only at 3 AM to Pune traveling in three different buses for 18 hours. What a journey it had been.