To Guwahati & Back by Rajdhani
by Mohan Bhuyan
This is long overdue & rather long - just like my responses to IRFCA mail! Anyway on June 5, we ( wife, kid, ayah, me) reached NDLS at 1.40 pm with barely 20 mins to spare. Luckily, the 2424 GHY Raj was on PF 12 ( next to the "VIP" parking on the Ajmeri Gate side). After hastily installing the family and our unnecessarily extra luggage in AS 5, plus a quick trip to the magazine stand, I headed up front to check out the loco, which turned out to be a MGS WAP 4 ( 22529). I asked a man on the PF who I took to be the driver, whether this train ever got a WAP 5. He said "No" and moved quickly away, correctly assuming that he was about to be assaulted by a barrage of silly questions.
Giving up, I stood there wondering how Prakash & gang manage it, which was fortuitious because I remembered those other fiends on IRFCA and with less than 10 mins to go I proceeded on a brisk walk down the length of the train noting each coach on the back of my NR TT. So for those of you obssessed with coach compositions, here we go...
Loco - Brakevan - HC1 - PC1- AS1 - AS2- AS3 - AS4- AS5 - AS6- AS7 - AST1 - A1 - A2 - Generator (14). By the time I got back to AS5 I was hot and sweaty and swearing I wouldn't ever do that again, and never during the summer!
We started as soon as the clock struck 2 and proceeded in a stately manner out of NDLS. Being the Raj, I hoped it would get into its stride after Shivajai Bridge, but it barely went beyond 50 till Ghaziabad. The Jamuna Bridge must be having a permanent speed restriction, because we braked to a crawl just before we were treated to the sights of its vile waters ( I wonder how the Jamuna looks so lovely at Allahabad!).
Between Sahibabad and GZB we played cat & mouse with the Delhi - Hathras Qila pass, both vying to reach GZB first. For a while there it looked like the Raj was going to be disgraced, but we pulled through in the last minute. The GZB electric shed had a good number of locos loitering outside - including a couple of WAP 5's, but by then our WAP 4 had decided to show its stuff, and they were gone in a flash. Soon we were clipping along at a satisfying 110 kph (by my calculations). Since I had been confined to Delhi for a few months, the usually monotonous miles and miles of crops of Western UP cheered me up even though I didn't have a window seat. We crossed numerous coal trains and a few expresses, but I couldn't make out which ones they were. Plus my nearly two year old TT wasn't much help ( those days the Ghy Raj left NDLS at 5 pm).
Although we had a reasonably good run, we reached CNB 10 mins late but there was enough light to see that the Anwarganj - CNB MG line still existed. At CNB I spent most of the 10 mins searching unsuccessfully for Brittania's flavoured milk. Back on the train, we soon settled down to what turned out to be quite a nice dinner served by waiters in pin stripe trousers, name plates and bow ties. Intrigued, I asked our waiter about his natty uniform and he said he worked for a private catering firm that had only recently won the Raj contract. Though they were still dependant on base kitchens, their presentation was great - neatly arranged trays with paper mats that had the entire menu from breakfast to dinner printed on it, et al.
After Kanpur, we roared on into the night, little could be seen outside and I fell into a deep sleep soon after we crossed Allahabad without stopping. When I woke up next morning we were already passing through Khagaria - I had slept right through the reversal at Barauni. I was pleasantly surprised to see the train going along at a fairly decent speed and thought that NER must have improved the track by now. But I spoke to soon - after Mansi Jn ( where I got the first glimpse of the MG line that plays hide and seek with the BG line all the way to GHY) the familiar rolling motion began.
At Katihar, a crowded MG passenger left for Jogbani on the Nepal border just as we pulled in. On the way out I saw a brand new NFR rake with Katihar- Amritsar Express boards. New train, Vijay & Sagar? I thought it was rather odd that it got an NF rake when it didn't travel so much as a kilometre in that zone. Not long after, we slowed down to join the main line ( double) from MLDT at Kumedpur. Actually, Kumedpur is an important junction ( but where no decent train stops) and Samit and I have often wondered why the railways don't call it so in all their TT's and maps. Well Samit, you will be happy to know that one signal cabin had "Kumedpur Jn" proudly emblazoned on its walls.
Soon we were rattling through Barsoi Jn and I headed for the door to once again delight in one of the most spectacular curves in IR. After Barsoi, both the MG and BG lines have to turn northwards to enter the narrow Kishanganj corridor between Nepal & Bangladesh. That curve is an acute angle like this:
So one continues to see the Barsoi Jn yard by looking straight out of the window, long after the train has left it behind. Also at Barsoi Jn, an MG passenger from Radhikapur on the Bangladesh border was waiting for us to go by before crossing the BG line to join the MG main line to Katihar.
Proceeding north through the Kishanganj corridor, the line switches between Bihar & West Bengal several times. One can check which state one is in by looking at the Station boards - Eng, Hindi & Urdu for Bihar while Bengali replaces Urdu in Bengal. I sighed in relief when we crossed Kishanganj without stopping. The people there tend to agitate to force a halt - I guess even they realise that their town doesn't merit a Rajdhani halt. Just after Kishanganj,the MG line, the two BG lines, and NH 31 run right next to each other for some distance. When they began the BG doubling I wondered how they would accommodate the second BG line, since the MG was close on one side and you could literally touch the trucks & buses on the other side. Looks like they shifted the MG line outwards to make space for the second BG line. Now NH 31 is also getting doubled ( it's a part of the East-West corridor, being the only highway to NE India).
Not long after Kishanganj we passed the infamous Gaisal, where I glimpsed a few remnants of that terrible collision. Still can't believe how they managed that - one of the trains was on the wrong track for 15 km without the drivers, signalmen, asst. stn masters et al, having a clue about it.
Now that we were firmly in the clutches of NFR , the delays began. Perhaps the NE Express was in front of us, I thought. Another reason could have been that at several stations we had to overtake on the loop line, while a goods train was kept stationary on the main line. Most annoying!
At Aluabari Road, the MG line that had been with us from Barsoi left on a westward detour through Naxalbari ( birthplace of the Naxalite revolution) & Bagdogra to Siliguri Jn. We would be meeting again only after Alipurduar. Soon we saw the first tea gardens and my beloved Darjeeling hills. Tried vainly to make out Kurseong & Tindharia, but it was too hazy. It's easier at night with the lights. Soon we were at NJP and I went forward to check out the engine and the crew change. A Mughalsarai WDM2 was doing the honours. I had my ordinary aim & shoot camera with me so I took some rather unspectacular shots of the loco. No 24 carat gold for me. NJP was rather quiet at that time of the day - no other trains. Saw a nice looking dull blue & cream WDM 2 from NER's Samastipur Shed.
As the train left NJP, I thought it would be a good idea to photograph the NG shed & coaching yard from the door. A couple already at the door couldn't resist asking what I was up to. When I told them they gave me the look people usually reserve for the clinically insane, and withdrew. Undeterred I took several shots...there was a B class I could see in between the carriages. Still no 24 carat gold.
After NJP, the double line continues till the next station Ambari Falakata, after which it is a single line all the way to Dibrugarh Town. At Raninagar Jalpaiguri, there was a passenger train on the line from Haldibari ( the old line from Parbatipur Jn in Bangladesh) waiting for us to cross before entering the station. Took a couple more photos of that rather nondescript train still looking for that elusive 24 carat gold. Soon we were crossing the first of the mighty rivers of the Duars - the Teesta. I took more shots of the river and the parallel road bridge - a complete waste of film, my wife said when she saw all the prints later.
Lunch was lousy - the difference between the base kitchens in NJP and Kanpur was telling. I settled on a side berth, a compartment away from my overactive daughter. The line from NJP to NBQ & Jogighopa was laid in the 60's or 70's and isn't a great one. Those of you used to the Roaring Raj's will be disappointed - we just trundled along like any other mail/express at about 70-80 kmph, often even slower. Except for the superb rivers ( Teesta, Torsa, Jaldhaka, Sankosh) and the occasional tea garden the Southern Duars aren't so scenic. the MG line gets all the scenery, traversing as it does the Northen Duars. Many stations on the BG line have the prefix "New" in their names - New Domohani, New Maynaguri, New Coochbehar, New Alipurduar. They are not exactly close to their respective towns - so more monotony. Of course, its much greener than North India, and it was obvious that the monsoon had already passed by that way.
After a brief scheduled halt at New Coochbehar, we rejoined the MG near New Alipurduar and I began to notice several interesting things. Firstly, the yellow & chevron tailed distant signals ( upper quadrant semaphore) seemed to be disused. Not that they had an X sign on them, simply because the coloured glass for night use (yellow& green) were all removed - leaving gaping holes that made them look quite forlorn. Secondly, at all the MG stations, the third line (or the second loop line) seemed not to be in use as there were no starter signals for it plus it didnt have the tell-tale "glint" on the rails. I found it strange because we crossed many more MG trains than I could recall from the past, although they were all passengers with one or two mixed goods & pass. Seems to me that NFR uses the MG for short distance passengers while most of the goods are borne on BG.
Thirdly, a strange kind of doubling/conversion work was going on in full swing between Alipurduar & New Bongaigaon - embankments, culverts, minor bridges. Strange, because the construction was right next to the MG line (including when it took small detours), not on it. Certainly a new line was being constructed, but it didn't look like gauge conversion to my untrained eye. It has been announced before that this particular MG line (Siliguri-GHY) is going to be converted, and it certainly makes sense to convert an existing line, but how come the construction isn't disturbing the MG? If the MG is to be converted, why is the construction going on right next to it and not near the BG? Someone help!
At Srirampur, we crossed into Assam. Soon I saw the first army foot patrol. There is tight security trackside, with occasional patrols, light engines, etc. All major bridges are guarded round the clock. Between Fakiragram Jn and Kokrajhar the line passes through a teak forest much favoured by Bodo militants intent on blowing up trains. Both the Assam Avadh and the Brahmaputra Mail have been ambushed there before. The MG line had a station in the middle of the forest, abandoned after militants killed the ASM a few years ago.
Kokrajhar, the main town in the Bodo area is now a scheduled stop for the Raj. A purely political halt - didnt see anyone get off. The Raj laboured on to its last stop before GHY, New Bongaigaon. Used to be a big transhipment yard in the days when the BG to Assam ended here. Now it looks like a vast junkyard for condemned wagons. The new South bank line from GHY (Kamakhya) via Goalpara and Jogighopa joins the main line here. So far none of the existing expresses to Delhi & Howrah have been diverted via this route. The line looks picturesque - after NBQ, it skirts the North Salmara Hills before crossing the Brahmaputra on the new Nar Narayan Setu at Jogighopa. On the South bank it runs in the shadow of the Garo Hills of Meghalaya for a while before rejoining the main line at Kamakhya.
Although the line after NBQ is smoother than the section between NJP & NBQ, we couldn't make up lost time - by now we were more than 2 hours late, we had barely crossed NBQ when the scheduled arrival time at GHY ( 5 pm) came and went. As the Raj went deeper into NFR territory the delay increased. This was strange because the departure from NDLS had been advanced to 2 pm from 5 pm precisely because they wanted the Raj to cross the Bodo areas and reach GHY in daylight. But no one was showing any urgency. We seemed to be stopping at every station, even though all other trains were being crossed by us. These included the down North East Express, the Kamrup Express and the Brahmaputra Mail Perhaps there was an engine running light ahead of us as is normal practice in insurgency prone areas. At a small station called Baihata we were stopped for so long that I decided to go out and have a cigarette on the tracks. Soon the reason for the unusually long halt became clear - we had stopped for the Guwahati Dadar Express. Now that, was adding insult to injury!
For most of the route from Barauni, the signalling is through lower quadrant semaphores. A few stations such as NJP and KIR have colour light signals. Since the line from NBQ to GHY is fairly new, the signals are MACL. The NFR main line signals must be the most diverse for any main line - beyond GHY upper quadrant semaphores are used - hand me downs from the MG era.
After Baihata it became dark and there were no more stoppages. We skipped between the hills north of GHY and soon reached the Saraighat Bridge over the Brahmaputra. As is the tradition, a few people went to the door to toss a coin into the river. Thankfully, we didn't stop at Kamakhya - its proximity to NFR HQ at Maligaon usually ensures a stop for all Mail/Exp trains. After a 10 minute crawl through the meaner parts of the city, we reached Guwahati Station a little after 7 pm, about 2 hours late. The end of a Rajdhani journey that felt quite ordinary.
Arrived well in time at PF 1 GHY, but our co-passengers had got there earlier and usurped most of the luggage space. Made a mental note to argue again with my wife about what travelling light actually meant - we seemed to have more luggage on the return, desptite having disposed of all the gifts we had brought from Delhi. Departed on the dot at 6 a.m. and soon I was standing at the door and looking at the Brahmaputra. At GHY, the river is actually at it's narrowest - only 1.3 km across, but it looks great with hills on both sides. From a distance, even grubby GHY looks nice, stretched out on the south bank.
At Kamakhya we had crossed the arriving Cochin Harbour Terminus - GHY Express and soon after we crossed the Saraighat Express from Howrah. These trains cross the Bodo areas in the wee hours - so NFR's threat perception must have declined in recent times or they are confident of the security measures they have taken. I also noticed that the New Guwahati shed livery is orange and cream.
We were leaving Assam with far greater urgency than when we entered - we rattled along at about 75- 80 kmph for most of the time. Plus, most of the overtaking was done on the main line, rather than on one of the loops.The Rajdhani is the first train out of GHY in the morning so all the trains we overtook were goods. We also crossed a few MG passengers - I was on the lookout to see whether the sightless MG distant signals were in use, but couldn't spot one with the semaphore up. At New Coochbehar I saw a long goods train on the MG line from Alipurduar Jn to Bamanhat waiting for the Rajdhani to go past it before diamond crossing the BG line. It was the first time I had ever seen a train on that particular line. Also at New Coochbehar we had to wait for a minute longer than normal as our bespectacled driver decided to relieve himself trackside after the starter turned to off! But we were making good time so I guess he could be excused.
As we climbed the embankment to the Teesta Bridge I noticed for the first time that an MG line passed below on a North-South heading . It was the recently reconstructed New Mal Jn-Lataguri-Changrabandha line -the ballast was fresh and gleaming white, which was what had drawn my attention. Years ago, the hardly patronised line had been devastated by flood waters from the Teesta. Vijay Balasubranium had sent a link to some CAG reports not long ago, where I had read that NFR had been asked to explain why the line had been restored apparently after NFR itself had declared it a "sick" line years ago. I believe the line is used by just one almost empty passenger nowadays. Strange are some of the ways of the railways!
By now we were ahead of time so we stopped for a few minutes at Ambari Falakata, the last station before NJP. At NJP I went forward to see the crew change. The new assistant was a very smartly dressed young man, who looked fresh out of loco driving school.I thought only A specials or A graders got to be drivers & assistants on the Rajdhanis, apparently not. He looked like he knew what he was doing as he opened the side doors of the MGS WDM2 and checked whatever he is supposed to check and I was pleased for him.
The afternoon wore on and the Rajdhani kept pace with it - nothing spectacular in terms of speed, though we were now in a double track section. At Katihar we bid goodbye to NFR and rolled our way once again towards Barauni. The landscape is absolutely flat. At one point the train went through the middle of a vast treeless plain - just acres & acres of cropland and not a single tree in sight. I was longing for some action and finally got it near Mansi, though not quite what I expected. Suddenly there was a sharp sound and my window cracked into hundreds of lines forming a rather beautiful pattern. There was a small hole at the bottom left corner from which all the lines or cracks spread out to the rest of the window - forming an intricate pattern but making it quite useless for looking out. There was much speculation in our compartment about what had happened.The consensus was that someone had chucked a stone, but I hadn't noticed anyone. I thought some sort of explosive decompression had occured, perhaps as a result of an initial tiny hole ( isn't there a vacuum between the inner & outer glass?). I studied economics, so all you engineers please explain!
Luckily, dusk was fast approaching so the useless window wasn't as off putting as it would have been if the incident had occured in the morning. Before long, we were on the curved approach to Barauni Jn and I was elated to find that Barauni had been electrified. This was something I had advocated when IRFCA was discussing the electrification of the MGS-Sitarampur main line, so I was quite pleased. While our diesel was changing ends, I queried a staff member on the platform about the electrification. He said though the lines were up, electric traction was yet to begin at Barauni, but it wouldn't be long before it did so. I guess in the near future, trains from Delhi to the northeast will change from electric to diesel and vice versa at BJU instead of at MGS - makes sense because of the reversal involved. Now with both Barauni & Lucknow Jns having been electrified, it means that only the luckless NF railway doesn't have so much as a metre of electrification within its jurisdiction.
After Barauni, I decided to hang around at the door till after the Ganga was crossed on the Rajendra Pul near Mokama Jn. It was a long wait, I had forgotten that for some unfathomable reason trains really crawl from BJU to Mokama. But it was worth the wait - even in darkness the Ganga was looking nice and wide and I tossed a coin in for good measure. Good decision, because after Mokama the driver opened the throttles and for the first time it felt like we were on a Rajdhani.
At Patna I went to the door away from the platform for a post prandial cigarette.The HWH-PNBE Shatabdi pulled in on the adjacent platform behind an orange and blue HWH WAP 4, quite empty. I guess it won't be long before that particular Shatabdi is quietly withdrawn! After we left, I foot boarded for a while longer, as we went through the Western suburbs of Patna. But the train picked up speed and I beat a hasty retreat. Before long I was fast asleep on the top berth.
Morning found us barelling along at 120 kph or thereabouts well west of Kanpur. The difference from the previous day's laborious trundle was telling - we know which zones get the best lines! I have always enjoyed the power trip one gets when one's train thunders through a largish station at top speed, with people on the platform standing well back and mouths open. Firozabad didn't disappoint but at Tundla we slowed down to 40 kph. Just as well because I got a good look at the trackside colonial style railway bungalows which are well preserved and in use. Especially pleasing was the inspection bungalow or guest house.
The Raj sped along, we were before time and enjoying it. Then the coach attendant found that he was two hand towels short and identified our compartment as the culprits. Being the only man in the compartment possessing passable Hindi I became the unwilling spokesperson (our three towels were accounted for). The chap said that the penalty was Rs. 50 ( for a towel that must have cost Rs. 5) I asked him to do a recount and if they were still missing to come back to us. He came back after a while and demanded we pay the fine. I said we would but counter-demanded a receipt, whereupon he disappeared again and came back later with the conductor - a no nonsense type Sardarji. The Sardarji asked the attendant again whether he had done a thorough count and then explained to us that the fine was steep ( Rs. 45 per towel, not Rs. 50) because the cost of missing items was normally deducted from the attendant's wages. I asked him to make out the challan, and just as he began to write, a passenger from one of the end compartments showed up with one of the missing towels. The Sardarji blew his top and let the attendant have it. But that didn't prevent him from making out the challan for the remaining towel, which I paid. During all this, I missed Hathras Jn, where I was hoping to spot a train on the high level MG station. The moral of this long story is that be careful about the cheap linen they dole out in the AC compartments - they can cost you much more than you think!
A few minutes after the Sardarji departed with some of my hard earned income, we reached Ghaziabad at about 9.20, well in time. We stopped for a signal before Sahibabad and again at Tilak Bridge. As we entered NDLS, the train made a sharp right that brought a smile to my face - we were heading for Platform 12 right next to where my car would be waiting. The smile became wider when I spied the obviously late Mumbai Rajdhani come in slightly behind us and head for one of the middle platforms. Just compensation for the missing towel, I thought.