Of Curves, Crossings and Dust Storms

2008-06-02

Since childhood, I have travelled between New Delhi and Madras on more
than 100 occasions. There are many locations on this route which are of
tremendous interest to the rail fan – The three Ghat sections, Sewagram
curve, Balharshah curve, the great river crossings and many more. One
interesting section, which has always captured my imagination – is the
wild country between Gwalior (GWL) and Jhansi (JHS).

Those who have travelled on this route in daylight, would have
definitely seen the wild twists, turns and curves that the track
negotiates in this section. Add to the that the thrill of deep rock
cuttings, Omega loops (yes, there is one here too) tunnels and crossovers
- and you have the perfect recipe for rail fan heaven. However, the same
section has barely been explored by IRFCAs, owing to its remote location
from major cities. It had been my dream to rectify the situation one day
- and finally it got down to turning these night time fantasies to a
muck and grime reality.

First step as usual was the replay of all the mental videos that I have
of this section in my head. This was followed by hours and hours of map
reading and exploration on Google Earth and Wikimapia. Then followed
inquiries on stay options, local transport and other essentials
(including the safety aspect), where a colleague’s aunt from Datia (DAA)
helped:-) Suitable trains were selected for our journey to and fro and
then the invitation went out to a bunch of rail fans residing in the NCR
who were willing to sweat it in open country in middle of May!!

Quite a few mental cases volunteered and there we were at Nizamuddin
Station waiting in the drizzle for the Amritsar – Dadar Express. The
boarding party consisted of Sid Ganesh, Ankit Bharaj, Vivek Mathur and
yours truly. Sriskandh had boarded at NDLS, while Nishant was to join at
Faridabad. Unfortunately, I was in a different coach than the rest of
them, but had my own share of adventure in the night.

We set off from NZM about 40 mins late and picked up speed past the
yard, only to come to a grinding halt at Okhla. The ferocity of the
brake application and the long wait thereafter did raise a slight alarm
in my head but I could not figure out why we were made to halt at Okhla.
A little while later, the Karnataka Express overtook us – but the funny
part was that we were hogging the main line while the KK took the
painfully slow route via the loop. Ten or so minutes later we set off
again and trundled past Tughalakabad. Somewhere near the Junction Cabin,
we halted briefly and were crossed by the New Delhi bound Shatabdi
running slightly behind schedule.

Anticipating an early start ahead, I went to sleep – but it was hard to
come by considering my frame didn’t fit the side lower berth – and the
uneven height of the two halves made matters worse!! However, Maharaja
Thali hogged at Comesum prior to boarding the train did its job fairly
well, and I managed some sleep in fits and starts. In between there were
some fast runs up to Mathura, but the going was by and large sedate.
Mathura came and went, and there were unscheduled halts at Farah and
Kitham which were utilised for a quick smoke on the deserted platforms
lit only by a brilliant moon. A WAG-9 hauled freight crossed at Kitham
and I turned to sleep again… Only to wake up at Raja Ki Mandi followed
by the next halt at Agra.

Past Agra, the WAP-1 ahead set a scorching pace and the cool breeze
lulled me into slumber again….. that quickly changed as the moon
disappeared in a huff and our train found itself in the middle of a
hefty squall. In moments, wave after wave of dust laden wind at high
speeds hit us, filling up the compartment totally with dust in no time.
Since my window was open fully, I caught a few gusts smack on my face.
Since I am in the habit of dozing with my mouth open – you can guess
what happened next and I was just one of the many that on the train who
spent the remainder of the night coughing, sneezing and trying get the
dust out of their eyes, ears and pyjamas!!

As with all squalls, this too passed soon, and we were back running on
normal pace. Sleep by then – had gone for a toss. Which was a good thing
in fact – as I was treated to the Chambal Valley in all its beauty
bathed in pearly moon light casting a lovely glow on the dull brown
sands of the ravines. The mighty river itself was crossed in a flash as
the WAP1 roared across the bridge at a full 110kmph. The bridge in the
GWLJHS direction is one of the very few major river bridges in India
which allow trains to run at 110kmph. All the more better because the
noise is simply intoxicating – almost like a Rammstein concert!!

I dozed off again, and was woken up by Sid poking at me through the
window. We had reached Gwalior and our destination, Datia wasn’t too
far. More importantly, the section that has been the core topic of this
entire expedition lay ahead.

As the crow flies, the distance between GWL and JHS is about 80 kms,
however the track distance is 97km. A major reason for this difference
is the incredibly twisty alignment that the track has to follow. Scores
of hills – offshoots of the Bundelkhand uplands dot the terrain. In many
parts, the up and down tracks follow totally different alignments. If my
knowledge is correct, then one of the two alignments was built much
later. Can anyone with a deeper knowledge of this section’s history
clarify?

Both alignments have their own share of interesting features. For
example, as one heads from GWL to JHS past the suburb of Sitahuli, the
two tracks split and the GWL -JHS (Up Line) enters a spectacular Omega
shaped loop, much like the one on the Pune – Miraj line (so famously
covered by the Pune gang). This loop can clearly at these coordinates:
26°6’34"N 78°12’50"E and URL:

http://tinyurl.com/48sjpg

We saw this loop clearly in the night and one could see the proceed
signal for our train at a 90 degree angle from our window, nearly a
kilometer to our right. The whole bunch got so excited by this point,
that the racket nearly woke up everyone in the coach. Anyone paying
attention to our babble would have wondered what sub-specie of mankind
we belonged to??

The tracks rejoin past the loop and spilt again a little further as one
moves towards Antri. Here, the Dn line towards JHS passes through a 350m
long tunnel, which can be seen here Coordinates: 26°4’18"N 78°12’1"E
and URL:

http://tinyurl.com/45xs8n

This is the northernmost in the
country tunnel I presume, before one reaches the hills in Himachal.
Onward towards the sleepy little town of Dabra, the terrain is
unremarkable until one reaches Sonagir. This place is famous for its 14
beautiful Jain temples perched atop a series of hills.

The scheduled halt at Sonagir, was also used by the Dakshin Express to
overtake us. The entry into the station is via a shot climb and one
could see the glow of the WAP4s headlamp get bigger as the loco crested
the gradient. The horns blared and the solid beam dazzled our eyes as
the 24 coaches thundered past at full speed, providing a magnificent son
et lumière, and in the process waking up the precious few who had
managed to stay asleep through the racket we railfans had been causing.

Between Sonagir and Datia lies the most interesting section in this neck
of the woods. As I’d mentioned, the two tracks were built in different
eras. As aresult, the newer track follows a different alignment, which
takes it over its opposite number and cross back again a few kilometers
later. As a result, the two tracks run on the wrong side of each other
in this sector. The first cross over point can be seen here:
Coordinates: 25°41’47"N 78°25’4"E and URL:

http://tinyurl.com/4u5z92

while the second one is here: Coordinates: 25°40’32"N 78°25’36"E and
URL:

http://tinyurl.com/53vsdk

After a 15 km run from Sonagir, we pulled into Datia, just at the crack
of dawn – about 40 min late, but the adventure had just started…

We got off our train and got to the other side of the station and hailed
two of the most rickety autos that you would ever find, to take us to
our hotel. The hotel, or Datia Motel as MP Tourism likes to call it is a
pretty little place with 4 rooms and perhaps the best staying option in
Datia (DAA). For railfans, it is all the more enticing as it overlooks
the rail tracks. Check this

http://irfca.org/gallery/fc/datia/001-23214.jpg.html

Those with interest in history and archaelogy are also recommended this
place as it overlooks the amazing Datia Palace, built by the Bundela
chieftain Bir Singh Deo. This was the view of the palace from our hotel

http://www.flickr.com/photos/shanx13/2507309899/

We checked in, had some chai… unpacked our gear and set off in the
same autos. Our plan was to get as close to the base of the hill over
looking the second crossover point. This hill also has a Hanuman Temple
called Urnu Ki Toria Coordinates: 25°40’22"N 78°25’33"E which is
reached after a steep climb of 350 steps. Check:

http://irfca.org/gallery/fc/datia/006-UKT.jpg.html

http://irfca.org/gallery/fc/datia/IMG_0270.jpg.html

While we perched on this hill (Hill #1) here Coordinates:
25°40’31"N 78°25’50"E, Sid decided to climb the steps and this was his
view:

http://irfca.org/gallery/fc/datia/IMG_3287.jpg.html

However,
poor Sid didn’t last long at Urnu Ki Toriya he came scampering down even
before he caught sight of a single train as a bunch of ‘nasty’ looking
snakes loitering around got the better of his nerves and he rejoined us.

The wait for our first train was pretty long, but finally we were
rewarded by the sight of a late running Garib Rath Express on its way
from Chennai to Delhi. From then on it was a steady stream of trains in
both directions, which were snapped from practically all angles possible
by the six photographers present. we moved to another hill (Hill #2) on
the other side of the tracks Coordinates: 25°40’42"N 78°25’40"E. This
hill can also be seen in Sid’s pic taken from the top of Urnu Ki Toriya.

However, patience grew thin as the sun climbed up in the sky and
temperatures rose, which would have made sure that the snakes would have
made themselves scarce by then. We got down from hill #2 and moved
closer to the crossover. Ankit and I chose the worst time possible to
climb the step. Our water supplies had run out and our physical strength
gave up in the 40 degree heat. The steps afforded no shade, and my head
hurt big time from the heat. I climbed back down and found precious
little shade under some shrubs as Vivek decided to make his way up the
steps. While he did manage to get to the top – the heat sapped more
energy from him than he would have bargained.

Ultimately, the prize photos of the 2002 NDLSBPL Shatabdi was snagged
by Sid, Sriskandh and Nishant who had been wise enough to stay at the
bottom. Sid’s pic can be seen here:

http://irfca.org/gallery/fc/datia/IMG_3365.jpg.html

The Shatabdi was
gone in a flash, while we were still left with the task of trudging 2km
back to the highway, where our autos had promised to meet us by 1130
hrs. Roasted to the bone and thirstier than a camel, we stumbled in to a
road side shack that offered pure manna from heaven – cold cold cold
Pepsi!!! However, I knew better than that – I crossed the road and
filled up my bottle with cool water stored in earthen pots by the
blessed CRPF(Railway Protection Force) folks who have a battalion camp abutting the highway.

A liter of lovely sweet water down the throat, I got back to the shop to
find the rest of their gang attacking their Pepsis like an American
soldier in Burger King after a 6 month tour of Afghanistan. Needless to
say I joined the party and nearly three dozen (and I am not exaggerating
in the least) cold drinks later, our autos turned up to whisk us to the
cool environs and the waiting air conditioners of our hotel.

20 Aloo Parathas later, the six of us were sprawled across our beds
enjoying the cool blast of the A/Cs when the power conked out, not for
the first or the last time of the day. We spent the afternoon between
sweaty power cuts and fights to lie down next to the A/C. By the time
lunch came, most of the hotel staff had melted (pun fully intended) and
we were just left with the cook who expressed total inability to serve
anything beyond Dal and Rice despite the tall claims of the menu card.
All of which was stuffed into our faces with the help of more Pepsi and
cold bottles of coke and we retired, comparing photos and trying to
entertain ourselves by watching an old agricultural science professor
extolling the virtues of potash fertiliser on the only channel available
on TV.

As the sun inched towards the horizon in the west, we gathered our limbs
together and set out again, this time towards the rocks below the
Bhairav (Shiva) temple at Panchamkavi Ki Toriya Coordinates:
25°40’1"N 78°26’21"E and URL <*http://tinyurl.com/5csj4w>. The object
of our desire was again the Shatabdi Express, this time on the return
leg to New Delhi. Pictures here:

http://irfca.org/gallery/fc/datia/014-2001.jpg.html

http://irfca.org/gallery/fc/datia/IMG_0326.jpg.html

A few other trains livened up the evening as well.

Returning back to our Hotel, we gathered our stuff, while capturing a
few night shots of the Datia Palace. Despite their promise, our faithful
auto wallahs failed to turn up to take us to the station. We walked to
the main road and presently caught a bus to take us to the main town.
Enquiries for meal and a drink were met with an overenthusiastic
response from fellow passengers who were stumbling over themselves to
suggest the best fare that the town had to offer. Thankfully, we were
able to get off the bus before a full fledged riot broke out between the
locals. But then so is the loving hospitality of small town India, a
feature so sorely missing in the big cities.

We found Apna Dhaba along the highway, were a massive meal helped by
more than a few beers took care of the grumbling tummies. We walked
roughly a mile to the station, where our train – the Malwa Express
turned up a bit behind schedule. Again, my coach was different from the
rest of the gang and again a massive squall on our way back made me bite
the dust all over again!!!

However, the food and the beers held their own against nature, and I
blissfully slept through the night only to find myself back at my
confounded office desk on Monday morning….

Shanx

PS: A big word of thanks to my fellow travellers for making this whole
trip memorable. Lets plan another one soon…….


Material provided by Shashanka Nanda, Copyright © 2008.