Bedlam at NDLS

2003-04-16

by Mohan Bhuyan

Sometimes when I have an hour or two between meetings, I steal away for a spot of railfanning. Usually I head for Tilak Bridge or Okhla but today I decided to go to NDLS around 3.30 pm, just as the Mumbai Raj was being shunted in to pf 12. At the far end I saw that a WAP 5 was waiting for the run to BRC. But the sun was strong and the P5 too far away, so I resisted the urge for a dekho.

At NDLS, I usually prowl around the FOB - you get a good view of the goings on, plus up there in the sky it's much cooler if there is a breeze. It was a good decision to go to NDLS - I saw a couple of things I had only read about, never seen.

First off, I noticed an unusual cream coloured rake. Closer inspection revealed the Dehradoon Jan Shatabdi and the new style second class chair cars. Descending from the FOB, I took a long hard look at the interiors and I must say that the airline style seats are a big improvement on the old hard-on-the-butt second class sitting favoured by IR for its day trains. A Shatabdi liveried WDM2 was out front and within 2 mins the Sardarji asst. was waving his flag and away it went. I was glad to see that the train was nearly full but strangely, the last two coaches were totally empty! Ghaziabad/Meerut quota, I thought.

Back on the FOB I spied a white electric loco running in light from the loco shed end. Another WAP 5 I thought, but when it was directly underneath I saw that it was a WAP 7 - another first! A fresh looking "East Central Railway" was stencilled above one of the buffers, on the other side from "GMO" for Gomoh. The name "Navbharti" was emblazoned on the sides. I'm no expert in these matters but to me the P7 looks more squat than the P5, a fatter version perhaps.

Nevertheless I was intrigued enough to want to see it from up close and waited to see which pf it would back into. Turned out to be PF 4 on which a long queue had already formed, waiting for the general coaches of a rake that was yet to make its appearance. Descending, I asked one of the chaps in the queue which train he was waiting for. It was the Poorva to Howrah. Braving the hot sun, I moved out to where the P7 was waiting. The driver was standing at the door while a shuntman squatted in the shadow thrown by the loco. I peeped inside and took in the uncluttered layout...the seats looked comfy, the notching wheel had been replaced by a lever, an array of multi coloured indicators gave the console a high tech look and everything looked within reach of the driver. Except for the speedometer which was placed so awkwardly, that it would even tax the driver's peripheral vision.

The rake arrived and stopped barely five feet from the P7 (giving the assistant a moment of alarm). The driver, with one hand on the notch lever, the other on the "shunting brake" (AS9??) and a glance at one of the dials, expertly nudged the P7 forward and the coupling was achieved with barely a shudder from the Poorva rake.

After that I was witness to scenes that no P7 could possibly compare with for the sheer drama of life. The Poorva has two and a half general coaches and about a million people trying to get in. The rake comes in with the doors bolted from the inside. 8-10 cops were supervising the queue and at first everything went according to plan, though it was not a pretty sight. The doors are opened one at a time beginning with the one closest to the loco. The queue shuffles forward eagerly, desperation writ on every face. There is some amount of shoving borne out of this anxiety to find a perch for the long journey ahead. Using shouts, curses and frequently their batons, the cops ensure that a single file is maintained till the door. Once in, it's every man (or woman) for himself and there is a mad scramble for the seats. Soon every available space on every berth, corner and crack is occupied and the first door of the next coach is opened for the entire proces to be repeated.

Within a few minutes the two general coaches plus the half section in the luggage van are chock-a-block with people, yet there are many more left on the platform. Things almost break down at this point - the cops are confused about their next course of action, a fight breaks out in the first compartment, and those at the back of the queue rush forward in desperation. With more shouts and curses, the cops restore a semblance of order and they start dividing those remaining into batches for each compartment. The elderly Havaldar supervising the operation sees the concerned look on my middle class face and tells me not to worry, "everything will work out in the end, it always does". Somehow each batch squeezes in - many people are standing, each side seat has two sometimes three people sharing it with a few more in the space in between, the top berths are also full - 5/6 persons apiece, maybe more, it's difficult to see inside. The corridors, toilet area and the space between the doors are jampacked. Soon every one who has to travel is inside - a minor miracle!

Then I see how this miracle has been wrought - there are many folks not travelling at all, but who were part of the initial scramble. Once they find space for their friends & families they get down and congregate at the windows, chatting away merrily! The Havaldar confirms it - "problem is that there are too many people who come to see off other people and we can't tell the travellers from the rest." I asked him if this was the case for every train. "No, only the ones going through Bihar. The Vaishali is the worst, NorthEast Express in the morning is also bad," he replied.

For the uninitiated, the police's crowd control methods look brutal, reminiscent of the SS. But I guess they have to be tough - the crowd is way too big and prone to disintegrating into utter bedlam given the slightest chance. One can tell that the cops hate this part of their job, who wouldn't? Sometimes they give in to their humane instincts - one cop actually took a woman and her three children under his wing and found space for them. The loser of the fight in the first coach was given a space in the last general coach. Even the blows from the batons didn't elicit yelps of pain. Nobody protested at the treatment meted out - in fact they all seemed to be happy that the cops were around supervising.

The irony of the whole scene was that right after the last of the general coaches was the First AC, almost empty. Next time a new train is announced for Bihar, I won't complain!

Material provided by Mohan Bhuyan, Copyright © 2003.
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