It's raining bombs!

12-15-2005

by Bharath Moro

Prologue

I did this trip on the diwali weekend. The original schedule was to take the Rajdhani to Warangal, wait for a couple of hours and then switch to the MAS bound GT. But when floods and rains thwarted this plan, I decided to head to SBC instead and catch the SBC-MAS express. Apologies also for the poor grammar. I switch between each tense alarmingly often.

Are we at war?

This is was the question I asked myself as soon as I stepped inside NZM station. There were policeman everywhere and on platform 1 outnumbered passengers. It was no surprise when one of them stopped me and motioned me to a set of chairs. I was asked to open my rucksack for checks. Not wanting to antagonise anyone, I duly complied. Check over, I headed to pf 4 from where the the 2430 Rajdhani to Bangalore was expected to depart. Having reached way early, I decided to explore the station a little more. A hard working WDS 4 was shunting a nameless rake in one of the through lines. On platform 3 was the Udaipur bound Mewar express. A sizeable crowd was milling around the GS coaches waiting for the doors to be opened. A little while later, BRC WAP-4 22392 came in silently and coupled itself to the rake. The PA system was on overload with announcements about potentials bombs being everywhere! Somewhere in all this a poor guy missed the arrival of the GT mail from BCT and was cursing IR for overdoing the secuirty stuff and not doing "proper" announcements.

At around around 1950, the Mewar express departed leaving me nothing else to do except swat flies and try to comprehend the workings of sodium vapour lamps. By the time it was 2015, a bright headlight indicated that my train was being shunted in. The top headlights raised my expectations of being hauled by a brand new LGD WAP-4. I was in for a nice surprise when the loco neared  it was 22633 from JHS! Nice way to start what would turn out to be a very eventful journey.

Hmmm..where do I put my bags?

A melee ensued as soon as the empty trains came to a halt. I am not sure what drives otherwise educated and well mannered people to do such things, but the resultant scene was shameful, to put it mildly. Anyway, I waited for about 10 minutes until people had calmed down and boarded the train only to find that a guy had stuffed cartons and assorted things under the seats and had not left any space for the others. I was furious and confronted him. But he was one too many a peg down and couldn't comprehend that I was yelling at him. All I could get from him was a weird "Please, ya!" umpteen times. A few minutes later, the guy managed to clamber up the UB and promptly started to snore away.

Royal Challenges

We soon got going slowly negotiating our way past NZM, Okhla and TKD picking up speed only after Faridabad. It was becoming chilly at the door and headed back to find that a "Challenge" had been thrown. And accepted! Accompanied by some salted cashews, peppered paneer and sliced carrots, the party continued way past Agra. It was briefly interrupted by dinner consisting of very good roomali rotis, rajma and alu-mutter. Ice cream was offered after the meal, but I turned it down!

We halted at Agra for a few minutes when I noticed much to my surprise that the crew was changing. I had always assumed that the Delhi-Jhansi run was done by a single set. On an adjacent line, a smart looking grey/blue WDS-4 was idling away, it's puny headlights shining through mild fog. Despite being only October, the air was decidedly cold. This had me scampering inside!

Is that someone weeping?

As soon as I was back inside, I heard a strange muffling sound coming from near my bay. At first, I thought it was some blowing his nose because of a cold but the sound got louder by the time I reached. I realized that it wasn't someone with a handkerchief blowing his nose when I saw the drunk guy on the upper berth sitting perilously close to the edge. And crying. I got half way up the grab rails to find out if something was wrong with him. And then I slipped! Landed on the floor with a thud. All this woke up a couple of other people. The lights came on giving me the feeling of a jailbird who's fleeing with the warden hot on his heels with an accurately trained spotlight! Luckily the sobs from the drunk diverted attention away from me. One guy climbed on top of the berth to find out exactly what was going on. A few minutes later, it was gleaned that drunk guy was a soldier returing home from Leh and the voice of his daughter had made him emotional. I suddenly felt very foolish for shouting at him earlier.

We left Agra soon after. With the day's events leaving me drained and strangely remorseful, there wasn't any point in staying awake waiting for the next stop or station. I pulled the blanket over my head and went off to sleep. The soft sobbing from across the bay gently reminding me of the "humanness" of travel on IR. Loco numbers, footplating etc; seemed to pale in comparison.

Next Morning

Found out peering through the window that we had stopped at Budhni. The starter ahead was green, but there no signs of the train moving anywhere. I was about to get down and find out more about the reason for the halt when the WAP-4 sounded the perfect morning raaga! We were off in a flash and in less than 3 minutes blowing up mist covered corn and sugarcane fields at over 110kmph.

Turning back inside, I noticed most of the coach was still asleep and the great toilet rush hadn't started. Making best use of this situation, I jumped into a toilet for a wash. And when I got out, there was a old gentleman waiting at the head of the queue. He gave me a grave look similar that headmasters give young pupils to let them know they are to be disciplined. We were at Itarsi now. The complicated layout makes all trains crawl past the station at 20kmph and we were no different. A WDS-6 was bellowing for no apparent reason. Apparently, this must have irritated a WAG-7 which started it mournful wail. I spotted the WDM-2 twins that would haul the KK later on in the morning. One of them looked like a 3a, thanks to the standard DCW livery.

One of the more irritating things about traveling in a Rajdhani is that the door is off limits in the morning. Blankets, breakfast trays, flasks and other things are stacked high. The attendant flatly refuses to move any of them when confronted with a request! With nothing to do and the rest of the bay still soundly asleep, I was forced to head back to the UB and stare at the design of the rivets on the roof.

A gentle pat wakes me up. Breakfast time. Tired of the flat omlette, hard butter and three peas, I had ordered the veg variant this time. Turned out to be an inspired choice. On the menu, were hot upma/chutney, a nicely done toast slice and wonder of wonders, soft butter that could be spread easily. How I wish WR's Rajdhani's could learn from this. The smile on my face was shortlived the minute coffee/tea started to be served. Why can't the bonehead babus understand that mixing creamer, hot water and coffee powder at 120kmph is an impossibly hard task? Why can't passengers on the Raj be served "regular" coffee/tea. Is there some snob value associated with making one's own tea or coffee? Sigh!

Green is the grass and thick is the forest

By the time I was through with the tiresome exercise of making coffee, we were skimming past Ghoradongri. Not too long to go for the ghats to reappear. I headed back to the door now taking in the nice, cool morning air. The headmaster lookalike joined me and soon started the standard railfan intro talk. He seemed astonished that anyone would spend so much time and money on such trivial pursuits. Rather annoyed, I asked if there was any other "nobler" hobby!

I hadn't noticed, but at the end of the exchange with the headmaster, we were braking rapidly and soon came to a halt. I peered outside and it was Dharakhoh! Old friend 23333 from BSL was still doing banking duties and was waiting noiselessly on a loop line for an arrival. 23296 (can't recall the shed) was also moving about and for a second I thought we would be getting a banker. But it wasn't to be. The starter turned green, people scrambled back inside, the asst. waved green and we were off. Wanting to relive the trek experience, I stood glued to the door. And boy, wasn't I pleased. The old gang hut was still there and more impossibly was the gangmen with whom we had shared water and chocolates! A wave to him was returned and there seemed to a moment when his jaws dropped. Whether this was because of recognition or astonishment, I will never know!

We were steadily climbing now. My mind was taking in the scene and at the same going back in time and juxtaposing the trek with the sights. Somehow, the forest seemed greener and thicker than in August. The confirmation came when we exited tunnel 2 and entered viaduct 1. The lush green forest stretching for miles all around and small streams making their presence felt. Hardly a few minutes later, much to my disappointment, we rounded the curve into Maramjhiri. A walk that took close to 6hrs was dismissed in less than 15min! The sight of the "escape" road running behind the signal cabin brought back a smile. I still can't forget that we had to scamper an extra 2kms to the road, after the ardous climb. All because the RPF was hot on our heels! Jš We immediately picked up speed and were soon rocketing along. Betul came and went in a blur.

A story I'll never forget

Back inside, the drunk soldier had got up and looked sober. He quietly gobbled his breakfast and was about to head back to his UB when I asked him if he was feeling OK. He replied in the affirmative. That broke the ice and soon the rest of us in the bay were asking him questions about his life, his time spent at Leh and so on. I got to know that the man was from Tutircorin and was on his way to meet family there. He had obtained leave with great difficulty and that 21 days was hardly enough. I also learned that he was posted at a remote outpost in the Leh sector. That he had lost three fingers on his left hand because of frost bite. That he had not eaten a decent meal in the last 6 months. That he was involved in a copter rescue mission that had gone wrong. That he had to fill up coffins of soldiers with stones because the weight of the body parts recovered were hardly 3 kgs. That his unit had to play PR with folks who wanted them out of there. That he feared for life every minute. That he had lost hope.

Everyone went silent for a while.

Alok Patel, where art thou?

"I am 20 min away", flashed a SMS on my screen. We were about 15min away from Nagpur and I felt reassured that I will atlast meet a friend, whom I have known for more than 3 years, but met only once and that too for about 5 minutes. The other reason I wanted him to be there at the station, was to pick up a packet of the Haldriram's famous orange mithai! The entry to NGP, as with most big cities, is an eyesore. Slums, overflowing drainage and all prevalent stink dominate. The sight that distracted me from all this was the NG. A bright orange ZDM was gurgling at the head of a 5 coach passenger which seemed to be overflowing on all sides. On the other side, a bright red WAP-4 was bringing in a train from the Howrah line.

We soon came to a halt and I strained my eyes to catch Alok. I waited for full 5 minutes before deciding that a loco checkup is in order and sauntered ahead. The fresh crew had downed the front panto and were raising the normal one. Soon, the blowers switched on making the flies underneath the platform rise up in unison! I tried calling Alok, but kept getting his voice mail instead. Annoyed and disappointed, I went back inside the coach and waited for departure. Not long after, we moved out slowly. Spotted a dual WAP-4 headed train about to pull into the station. The rear loco was dead. Nevertheless, a grand sight indeed.

Crossing Ajni, I receive another msg from Alok  "I am 20min away"! Sigh! Maybe next time, Alok!

Where nothing happens

There seemed to be a lull in the banter across the coach. Maybe it was the expectation of lunch or the growing wearniness, the coach felt very cold and remote. I decided that this was a good time to catch some forty winks. But lunch interrupted. Standard Raj fare of roti's, alu paneer, dal, rice later I was back on my berth gently snoring. The soldier too had had enough of repeating his stories to everyone and did the same. The sadness in his eyes was still very much evident.

One Giant Caution Order Stretch

We were late pulling into Ballarshah which prompted me to call PVS Praveen in Hyderabad to update him on the run. He had let me know that he'll probably meet me at SC. On an adjacent platform was AJJ WAM-4 21268 with a Kazipet bound passenger. Bathed in soft diffused light, the station looked perfect for a nice photograph, but before I could bring out the camera, the starter turned green and the wonderful horn of the P-4 let us know that we were off. I was expecting a fast run on one of most "up & down" sections on IR. Boy, didn't I get it wrong.

The first 10 min: Clearing the yard and turnouts, we slowly made our way out. We never crossed 50kmph and the monster up ahead was straining to free itself from the leashes of the A-9 and SA-9. The only thing I can hear is constant hissing!

Next 20 min: Still at 50kmph. Wow, one big caution stretch.

Another 30 min: Problem. We haven't gone anywhere close to top speed and the constant hissing of the brakes send alarm bells ringing in my head. I head off to find the Train Supervisor to find more. As usual, he is nowhere to be found.

90 min later: This is depressing. I finally get hold of the TS who lets me know that the entire stretch from BPQ to SC will be run at a speed of 50kmph! SCR doesn't want to take anymore chances with broken tanks and fallen bridges.

15 min later: I am fuming. Not only is the train going at a snail's pace, the PA system is belting out third rate bollywood abonimables. Making it worse is the crappy quality of the tape. Kumar Sanu sounds like a chipmunk for 10 secs and then suddenly morphs to Pavarotti and then as abruptly turns into Tina Turner.

Kato..quick there's a baaemb in the room

I am sure no one else on the train thought about Peter Sellers in a seminal moment in one of the Pink Panther movies. But the first thing that came to my mind was Inspector Clusoe when the attendent came charging down the coach shouting "Bomb, bomb, Hum sab mar jayenge!" For a second, no one said a word and there was absolute silence. Then just as suddenly, an old woman started wailing loudly. This was enough to send the whole coach into panic. I quickly rushed outside to find out more. Not surprisingly, the next coach was in panic as well. There was absolute chaos by now. Everyone seemed to be going in circles, with only the train continuing straight!

Luckily, we entered Jamikunta just as the panic was becoming frightening. The train came to a sudden halt. I noticed on the platform that there was an army of police and sniffer dogs. The entire station seemed to cordoned off, with only the SM visible as an IR employee. Over a loudspeaker, the captain of the bomb disposal squad instructed people inside the coach to calmly get down and not panic. There seemed to be authority in his voice which helped diffuse some of the tension. As soon as all the passengers were outside, the train was "attacked". All passengers were asked either to move to the other side of the station or completely exit the building. I chose the former and went to the far edge of the opposite line. I was joined by the drivers who jokingly said this was an event in their careers that'll never be forgotten!

I am not sure how long we waited but the SM walked over to the drivers and gave them the all clear. We were to depart in another 5 minutes. The captain with his booming voice instructed us to calmly make our way back inside. There was some apprehension at this point, but a few folks took up the challenge and entered. This helped break the ice and within a few minutes all had boarded.

The coaches were a mess! The squad had turned over most of the luggage and there were shirts, trousers, ties, blankets, briefs, panties and bra's everywhere :-) As one lady found out, packing things back in, even at 50kpmh is a tiresome task!

Where I almost give up

Much much slow running later, we labour into Kazipet at 1950, more than 3 hrs late. I am tired, smelly and very angry. If this slow running continues, there is no way I can make the 0815 connection with the SBC-MAS express next morning. To compound matters, I confirm from the drivers that the run to SC will be at 50kmph only. I quickly call PVS to give him an update. I also futher instruct him to get me a seat on any flight out of HYB to MAS. I desperately need to reach MAS and my hope in IR to get me there has dwindled completely. The entire train is on edge because of the slow running and tempers start flaring when soup is accidently dropped on one of the passenger's trousers. The news on the air ticket front isn't comforting either, with PVS reporting that there are no seats available.

Chuck it. I'll just roll on

A quick dinner later, I am back up on my berth resigned to the fact that I won't be making the connection at SBC. I start making alternate plans to get to MAS, but tired to think I promptly doze away. I wake up at 0445, only to find out that we still haven't reached Raichur. The coach attendent confirms my worst fears. The entire SCR has a speed restriction of 50kmph. While I am talking with the attendent, another passenger(who also wants to reach MAS) has a bright idea. He says that the 6011 passes by RC at around this time and we should jump train. My eyes light up at the thought. Sadly,when we eventually reach RC at around 0530, that train has passed. We slump back to our berths. I don't wake up until 0720 or so. It's belting rain outside and the gentle smoking of the WDM-2 at last brings back a smile to my face.

The big curve into GTL brings me back to the door and I stay put for the next 45 min. Normally, one of the driest parts of India doesn't see huge quantities of water, but when ones sees the level just one feet below track level, the magnitude of rains becomes very apparent. Tanks are overflowing and the normally dry bush has turned into a swamp. At Gooty, there are wild sights. The HYB bound Charminar is waiting on the opposite platform with twin WDG-4's at the head! An unknown train hauled by twin ERS diesels is waiting for us to crossover to the DMM bound line.

A Bus.. A Bus& I'll believe in God now!

The sight of an APSRTC bus on the nearby road suddenly perks me up. I get wild ideas of bussing it to MAS. I plan to get down at Anantapur, take a connector to Chittor. And getting from Chittoor to MAS is trivial. I call dad and appraise him of the plan. No sooner than I start packing my bags, the bad news filters through. Chittoor has taken a battering in the rains and road conditions are unknown. Damn! By the time Anantapur is reached, the only option left is to carry on till SBC and catch the Shatabdi at 1630. I call my cousin in SBC and ask him to book a ticket. In EC, no less. No skimping on what is turning out to be my wildest IR journey to date! Jš

I won't bore you now&

The rest of the journey to SBC is uneventful, except for the sighting of two tunnels on the DMM-SSPN line. The scenery is wild, with amazing rock formations. Best time for photography would be in the summer. Just don't forget the cooler, full of beer and water! SSPN is a typical modern IR station, overdone in areas that don't require it and underdone in basic necessities.

SBC is *eventually* reached at 1400 hrs. Smelling like a pig, I make my way to the waiting room for a shower before heading out to Comesum for some lunch. I collect the ticket from cousin and head back to the platform to wait for the arrival of the Shatabdi.

The final leg

The Shatabdi arrives bang on time with WDP-4 20008 at the head. F1 pit crew rivaling speeds means that ED WAP-4 22244 is attached before anyone can Jack Robinson. It's by far the best loco change operation I have ever seen. Leaving on time, we crawl through BNC and BNCE. Speed picks up after that and we are rattling towards BWT. Then comes another roadblock. The recent bridge collapse has resultant in all trains on the BWT-JTJ section running at 60kmph. Having had enough of this nonsense, I force myself into a slumber, occasionally woken up the catering crew. Sick to death of eating paneer, I decline dinner.

Because of the sustained slow running, we reach MAS late by about 45 minutes. And I still have 30 odd kms to go before I reach Vandalur. Sigh. Forcing myself to Park, I board a near empty EMU to TBM. 40 minutes later, I am haggling with the autowallah for a price to Vandalur. Settling for 60rs, I begin the last kms of my very very eventful journey. 52 hours later, I am staring at the wicker gate in front of granny's house. Much to everyone's bewilderment, I rip out my shirt, put on another one and enter the house.

The T-shirt reads: Mission Accomplished.

Material provided by Bharath Moro, Copyright © 12-15-2005.
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