Travelling by Vanchinad Express during 1985-86
by Jimmy Jose
My father used to have all kinds of stories for me about trains. Something like Thomas The tank engine. Even before Vanchinad Express was introduced, he used to say that there will be a train called Vanchinad Exp from Ernakulam to Trivandrum, it's locomotives are from Mitsubishi, it's horn said "everyone move, here I come". The train is very fast, had rooms for children to play and so on and on. He used to tell me that the driver of this train was Thomas Chakkapuram, who is a very good driver and a drunkard. Strangely, all his stories turned to reality.
I have made several trips by this train with my dad. All were really exciting, each one had something new. My father used to go to Kerala Financial Corporation HQ in Trivandrum. I used to stay at my cousins house and play cricket.
My father traveled a lot to Trivandrum during those days. I used to beg him to take me on his trips. Just to travel on Vanchinad Express.
Vanchinad, or lovingly called by localites as Executive Express was the synonym for fast, efficient, no nonsense mode of transportation between Ernakulam and Trivandrum. If at all a similar train exist today, it is the Trivandrum-Ernakulam Jan Shatabdi. The word Vanchinad means "A land in the shape of a boat". The old state of Travancore had this shape and was the official nick name for it. While roads, and all other trains took more than four hours to cover the journey, Vanchinad took three hours and fourty five minutes. The train used to have Parrot Green livery with yellow bands in between. It used to have similar liveried locomotives too. Recently when I went through one of my old diaries, the loco that hauled our train on 16 June 1986 was 18325, having the same livery as the train. Where is this loco now? In the beginning, it did not have a pantry but soon, a refreshment car, similar to the one which exist only in Deccan Queen now was added. At first, it had one First Class Chair car but later one more was added. We used to travel in First class only. One chair car had grey seats but the newer one had brown. I particularly liked the older one since it's seats could be rotated and placed in any direction, so there was no need to face backwards when the train sent forward. Sometimes when the coaches were empty, it could be turned to the direction of the windows and I could look out without turning my head! Second class seats were all padded with 3+2 configuration. Soon an ACC was added and the train had both AC and non AC chair cars. The non AC chair car, being a First Class cost more than the AC and has been removed.
The train had wonderful timings. It left Ernakulam at 06.00 am in the morning and arrived Trivandrum at 09.50 am. On the return, it left at 05.10 pm and arrived Ernakulam at 9.00 pm in the night. It had just two stops, one at Kottayam and other at Quilon. All other trains coming in the opposite direction waited for the train. If I remember correctly, Kottayam Ernakulam Pass waited at Kottayam, Venad at Kayamkulam, Parasuram at Karunagapally, Mumbai Janata at Quilon, Kerala (not daily) at Varkala. Bangalore bound Island Express used to wait at Trivandrum or the arrival of Vanchinad to depart. Of these, Venad had a similar green livery as Vanchinad, Kerala had a striking yellow + green livery and the rest were ordinary maroon.
A typical journey would start with me going sleepless the previous night, thinking about the trip. If at all I slept, dad used to wake me at 5 am. We used to purchase the tickets the previous day. We would arrive at the station well in advance so that I could get a window seat. The FC was not really crowded, but the other coaches used to become full from Ernakulam itself. PF no. 3 at Ernakulam Jn was reserved for the train. The train used to get a lot of passengers (even today it gets) coming from Trichy in Tea Garden Exp.
I would start getting tempted to go and stand near the doors and my father definitely refused. A waiter was separately assigned for the FC coaches. He used to come and take the orders for breakfast. My favorite used to be Poori Masala. Breakfast used to be served after Kottayam. During those days there were no Mineral Water available at stations. So we used to carry our own supply of water. Once in a while we used to go to the Refreshment Car too, to buy wafers and short eats. The train had a non smoking compartment too.
Soon I would start praying that Venad will be at my side of the train so that I could get a better view. Mostly, I used to sit on the side facing east, the loop lines at Kayankulam were at the eastern side. And most of the times it worked. Venad too had the similar livery and matching locos. Sometimes I used to fall asleep and if I slept, my father would not disturb me since he knew I had no sleep the last night. When I woke up, I used to ask my father why he did not call me, I have missed many sights.
After Quilon, the Pantry used to bring snacks. Cutlets, Vada etc. definitely, I used to eat all those. Next stop was Trivandrum and I used to be sad that the journey has come to an end. We used to refresh ourselves at the Platform waiting hall, comb our hair etc. There used to be thousands o office goers leaving the train
On the return, the train used to be packed with office goers returning home. People used to crowd at the platforms to get a seat. Even the FC coaches used to get crowded nasty since many people working for railways at TVC had FC season pass. Sometimes late comers did not even get a seat.
On the return too the train maintained it's speed and timings. I used to peep out to watch the incline at Chirayinkeezh. The crowd used to drop drastically in the FC coaches at Quilon with most office goers disembarking there.
After Quilon, we used to have our snacks and watch the night sky. Mother used to come to station to pick us up. All this were done by missing my school. My father used to go wild at me crying, asking him to take me to Trivandrum, missing my classes but Mummy used to plead with him and make him agree. Next day she used to write something like "had severe stomach ache" or so in my school diary.
We soon bought a dieselized AC Ambassador Car. My father had the loans sanctioned from Trivandrum. Rarely when he went, he used to take the Amby. And I started to concentrate more on my studies and did not travel in my favorite train for many years until 1992.
During 1992, after a gap of more than 6 years, I traveled in the train once again. This time it was just for fun during my leave after 12th Standard. The Parrot liveried coaches were gone, regular maroon ones took it's place. The coaches, though maroon, were quite new with tube lights, and well maintained. The two First Class chair cars were gone and a single AC Chair Car took their place. The refreshment car too was gone and a pantry car occupied it's place. The food was so poor. Catering had been taken over by the Catering Department. And new stops at Chengannur and Varkala were added. Speed was reduced and the scheduled arrival at Trivandrum only at 10.10 instead of 09.50. Due to the new stops, crowds increased. The train had started it's slow downfall from it's hey days. Day by day, each politician interfered with the timings of the train and wanted the train to halt in his constituency. So, Railways had to bow down to request from the populist leaders.
During 1995, the new Ernakulam-Trivandrum Intercity Express was introduced. Vanchinad lost all it's importance to the people of Ernakulam. Intercity went via Alleppey and this meant fewer number of stops and crossings, and much better speed. The occupancy of Vanchinad soon started becoming lower.
The next time I traveled in the train was only this year, 2005, after 13 years. I was in for a real shock. The train was more like a passenger than an express. Numerous stops, oh my god! I regret that I had to travel in this train. I traveled in the Trivandrum-Ernakulam stretch. The train now has 16 coaches, all in very poor shape. Even the AC was ancient, having 89xxx numbering. The reserved coach was 93xxx numbered. I wanted to take a coach closest to the locomotive but the first our coaches did not have padded seats and vestibule. Earlier, the train departed from PF no. 3 regularly, but now it departed from PF no. 5. From Trivandrum the train was jam packed. Why not, it stops everywhere. It stopped at almost every station from Quilon to Kottayam. Small stations were in the schedule but many were unscheduled too. The food was so poor. The suppliers looked like beggars with torn uniform. I asked for a pair of cutlets and the supplier to finish his load, put 5 in a plate and poured sauce all over. I was forced to buy all five. I just ate one though. They tasted more like boiled potatoes. The coaches were so unclean and even had cobwebs. I had a look at the AC coach, it was really pathetic with broken backrests and tables. Now it took almost five hours to reach Ernakulam. From Kottayam, it was almost empty, indicating that people in Trivandrum-Ernakulam sector no more travel in the train. I never will.
This elegant train lead the list of dethroned Superfasts of yesteryears. Following closely are Vaigai, Pallavan, Kovai and Brindavan. Each of these trains had an identity of their own, be it the livery, be it the timings, or the catering service. It is very strange that IR decided to scrape the glamour from these, rather than upgrading them and maintaining their illustrous past. So sad that many of these trains are reduced to unofficial shuttles. And so sad we will miss their charm and romance forever.