Gauge conversion (GC) work was in full swing in Jodhpur (JU) division in 1993-1996 and by 1996, the main line from Jodhpur to Phulera (FL) was BG, with concrete sleepers and welded rails. The JU - Jaiselmer (JSM) section had also been converted into BG, though using second hand metal sleepers and single/ short welded rails. The 292km (if I remember correctly) long JU-JSM section had been blocked for only 13 days for GC, which was a record of sorts at that time. This section had originating loading of limestone and gypsum amounting to 40-45 rakes a month.
In the summers of 1997, my wife's maternal uncle met a road accident resulting in his death at Jagdishpur, UP. On getting this unfortunate news, I took some leave and we left for Jagdishpur by Marudhar express (4854/4864 express). However, soon after reaching Jagdishpur, I received an urgent SOS that a derailment has taken place in Merta Road (MTD) - Degana (DNA) single line section between JU-FL and that severe track damage had resulted in total blockage of through traffic. Trains were being diverted through MTD - Bikaner (BKN) section. (The JU - Luni (LN) - Marwar (MJ) section had not been converted into BG till then.)
On inquiring from the control office, I learnt that a BOX rake filled with lime stone was going towards FL when the brake assembly of a wagon fell off and as a result one axle of the following wagon derailed. The brake pipes had not disconnected and the lateral displacement of the derailed wheel set was very little. The driver failed to notice this and kept on running. As a result, the derailed wheels traveled along the foot of the rail, completely crushing the cast iron (eye shaped) inserts on the concrete sleepers on outside on the left rail and on the inside on right rail. The sleepers were so thoroughly crushed that the vertical stability of the rails was in doubt. Gauge holding was also a problem. The derailed wagon traveled for 5km length before the gateman of a manned level crossing noticed the derailment and stopped the train. A total of 7,000 sleepers had been crushed.
My DRM rang me up (no cell-phones in those days) and while acknowledging the delicate personal circumstances under which I had gone to Jagdishpur, he requested me to return as early as possible. I arranged urgent return reservations the next day and we left for JU. In the meanwhile, the traffic had been restored with a 10 km/h 5km-long speed restriction but this long speed restriction was crippling the train movement and so, many trains remained diverted.
I was eager to reach the site and take charge and hence was leaning out of the AC coach as the train pulled into DNA. As I tried to spot anyone familiar on the platform, I found the Assistant Engineer (AEN)/DNA and his section engineers wading their way towards me through the crowd milling about on the platform as happens after arrival of a train. They were waiting for me anxiously on the platform, having learnt about my return. As I hurriedly gulped down something to eat and took some delicious tea brought in by the AEN, I requested my wife to carry on to JU on her own and went ahead to board the engine. We got off in mid-section, where the derailment had occurred. In the meanwhile, I had been apprised that engineering staff was arriving in droves, diverted from all over the division, to take up the restoration work. Luckily, 2 concrete sleeper manufacturing plants were nearby, one at Marwar Chhapri, which was the next station from MTD towards BKN. The other plant was at Degana itself. Concrete sleepers had been loaded into D/BKMs (military flat wagons, for transporting tanks and other vehicles) which had been commandeered from military reserves maintained on this border area railway division. Unloading of these sleepers in block section was in progress.
The immediate concern was to arrange staying arrangements for the engineering staff reporting with arrival of each train which came from the inner areas of JU division. Several gangs had arrived from the far off MG sections like Luni-Samdari-Barmer-Munabao and Samdari-Bhildi sections. (JU division extended up to 50km into Gujarat, on Samdari-Bhildi section). Soon the number swelled to 700 men. The derailment site did not have water, which was one of the prime concerns to be addressed immediately.
While we were taking stock of the situation, the Pradhan of a nearby village approached us with other senior members of the community and requested us to make use of the village school, which had 7 big rooms and generous verandahs. The school was closed for summer vacations. The precious village 'bawdi' (open water source, with stepped approaches right up to the ground water, instead of vertical walls as in wells) was also offered for water. The population and their cattle depended on this source for water supply to last the summers and as rains in that area were uncertain, hence replenishment of the water source was not very certain in the monsoon too. So we thanked the pradhan and his community for offering the school but politely declined the offer to use the 'bawdi'. Care had to be taken in wording the refusal to use the water as the 'sammaan' (honor) of the villagers would have been hurt at being judged as having insufficient water to offer. Urgent quotations were awarded to bring in water in tanks loaded on to tractor trolleys.
As the gangs were asked to settle in the school for a long stay (we expected the replacement of 5km of track to take 10 days, under running traffic), we mulled over the scheme to start the work. The sides of the track (cess) was choked with new sleepers which had been unloaded and the supervisors set about checking that sufficient numbers unloaded in each TP (telegraph post length, there being 15 TP poles in a kilometer in that area). 15-20 senior gang mates (in charge of the gangs, typically 10-11 in strength each) approached us in the camp office set up below a tree and politely requested a day off! They informed us that as they were from MG sections, they have never seen a PRC sleeper (275 kg in weight) and were not familiar as to how to handle it. Actually, the gangs work with simple instruments and the principals of levers and fulcrum etc., matter a lot in their way of working. These gangs were mixed with the BG gangs to learn and they did learn fast.
We used to get up at 4 am, start work at 0430 hours and close down the work at 1200 hours, when it became too hot to even touch the rails. The stretches renewed in the morning were packed and attended in the evenings. We set up a frenetic pace of work and aimed to replace a minimum of half a kilometer of track in a day. Food was cooked in the open in community kitchens, and the villagers fed me with enough desi ghee to last me for a lifetime! Their affection was to be seen to be believed. The 'Arian' (as they used to call the AEN) and the 'Platier' (Section Engineer) were seasoned enough but they were very curious to know as to how a 27-year-old 'Balak' or 'Chhora' (as they used to call me behind my back) can be the 'Bara Sahab'! I tried the food cooked by the gangs and it was an uphill fight as the chapattis cooked by the hardy gang men were big and stiff enough to kill with a swat! Bhajans, chorus singing (thankfully, noone from the village complained!) and campfires in the night helped in keeping everyone's moral up.
One major irritant was not being able to talk to my wife, who was worried, alone at home in the huge government house at JU. (The rooms were so big that 4 'Good Knight' tablets burnt on an 'upla' (cow dung cake) would only be effective enough to drop the mosquitoes off the over 4m-high ceilings!) She had asked our housemaid to live in for the period I was away. Although I could get the control line patched to talk to her but we were so conscious of the entire section's ASMs and the Controller listening in that we thought it would be better to exchange letters through the trolley-men who shuttled between the site and JU, replenishing fresh clothes and eatables. This was the 2nd phase of almost daily letter exchange between us after our courting days before marriage .
One important issue was how to engage the gangs in the day time when it was too hot to work. Idle minds led to small incidents and skirmishes and soon we hit upon the idea of hiring a TV and VCR. We ran non stop shows of Ramananda Sagar's 'Ramayana', tapes of which were brought from JU. Imagine 700 men in front of a 21-inch TV! I still don't know what they were able to see or hear, but the idea was a great hit!
A track tamping machine arrived in no time and we finished the replacement work in 7 days flat. The speed restriction was removed on the 20th day after the derailment as accolades poured in from an anxious HQs.