Across the Aravallis on a YDM-4
by Mohan Bhuyan
Mavli to Marwar via Khamblighat - after having read a couple of short articles on this section a few years ago, I knew I had to see it for myself one day. This was really the main reason why Samit and I had come all the way to Udaipur, and there was only one way we wanted to see this line - from a YDM-4 loco. So we pulled a few strings, but when we reached Udaipur City Station before dawn on a cool Sunday morning to catch 484 Passenger to Marwar Jn, we didn't know whether we had been at all successful.
Not having been contacted by our 'contact' we crept timidly into the loco lobby and tried to be our convincing best to someone who looked like he was in charge. This gentleman was kind and required little convincing and we followed him gleefully to the loco to be introduced to the Driver. Then our contact (who had been hailing us over the PA system all the while) turned up as well but our Driver wasn't really sure if he'd like us on board just yet. A few days earlier a carriage of 484 Pass had derailed up on the Ghats, the inquiry was on, and officialdom was still lurking on that section. He needed time to think this through so he asked us to board the first carriage and speak to him later.
With the starter already at 'off' we went past a second 'dead' loco and got into the first, totally empty coach that turned out to be a Sleeper. After struggling past a bicycle that someone had thoughtfully parked right across the narrow passageway, we sat in the first compartment, opened all the windows, lit up cigarettes and planned the next course of action.
Meanwhile after stopping at Ranapratap Nagar (where the Assistant came and gave the offending cycle to someone waiting on the platform) our Driver really opened up the throttle and both of us headed for the door. I wanted to capture the Debari Gate against the backdrop of a rising sun but much to my chagrin I had selected the wrong side. Of course, Samit who was at the other door got all the cool shots!
At Khemli (which has a substantial goods yard by MG standards), the Driver maintained a furious pace almost all the way in and superbly timed his entry into the platform loop. Dismounting he made for the station master's office and seeing me at the door he invited me to call our 'super contact' at Ajmer on the SM's telephone, after which he would let us board his loco. There was no way in hell I was going to call anyone that early on a Sunday morning, besides, we hadn't ever met the man! I said it was really all up to him now and we would be grateful if he allowed us in only for the Ghat section, which was still several hours away.
Since we had stopped to let the Lake City Express from Jaipur go by, the Driver returned from the SM's office to chat with us and I complimented him on his driving thus far - praise that was as tactical as it was genuine! Quickly summoning Samit, we explained our interest in the Ghat line and all things railway. He said he would help us later and that we should relax in the mean time.
At the next station Bhimal, we were held up for a long time by the incoming Chittaurgarh-Ahmedabad 'Mewar'Passenger and Samit and I got down to photograph the crossing. Soon all 4 Drivers (two were for the dead loco and were travelling as passengers in our Sleeper) joined us and we had an interesting conversation about Dynamic Brakes, Ball Tokens and Gradients. The dead loco's assistant was especially intrigued with us and was quite friendly. He said that at Mavli our train would split and that they would take the first loco and the first two carriages (including ours) for the run to Bari Sadri.
Spotting the two avid photographers, the Driver of the Mewar Pass. hailed our man over the radio and inquired good humouredly whether the latter planned to have his photos taken all day or would he be getting down to some driving as well! He also mentioned that there was a huge crowd waiting for 484 pass. at Mavli Jn. When I asked our Driver about this crowd he said that the other man was joking. There had been a Mela at a temple farther up the line recently but everything was over now.
But when we reached Mavli we could see a gigantic crowd on the platform and Samit and I knew we were dead because we would have to leave the carriage we were already on and get into another one. And there was no way we Johnny Walker swilling softies could compete with that waiting mob of farmers. Sure enough before we had even stopped, a wave of bodies surged into our coach and for one scary second I lost my grip on the door handle and teetered precariously on the edge. Shoving back angrily I shouted that the coach was headed for Bari Sadri and the way their expressions instantly transformed from triumph to consternation would have been comical, but for my near-death experience moments before.
On the platform Samit and I looked resignedly at the scramble for every inch of space within the coaches and on the roofs. Seeing our no doubt hopeless expressions the friendly Assistant (he of the dead loco) offered to place us with the guard in the leading SLR. As luck would have it, the guard's cabin was locked and unbidden the Assistant said that he would intercede with our Driver and get us on the loco. We watched anxiously from a distance as the two exchanged a few words and then a miracle - the Assistant turned and smiling broadly beckoned us to join them! So ironically, it was that huge crowd at Mavli that finally assured our much-anticipated passage in the loco!
Now some elaborate shunting began. First the two locos and the leading two carriages (including the one we had been on) were pulled out and dispatched to a distant siding to form the Bari Sadri Passenger. Then the first loco came back to reattach the dead loco to our rake and left again to take final charge of the 2 coach Bari Sadri Passenger. Finally a fresh loco in Sabarmati Shed's blue livery assumed position as our lead loco. All this time our Driver remained with us on the platform while his Assistant brought the Sabarmati loco in. Thanking him for letting us in, I mentioned that the crowd had nearly thrown me off and he sighed and said that illiteracy was the bane of the region and destination boards were of little use. I hadn't bothered to notice the Bari Sadri boards on our Sleeper until much later, so I refrained from further comment!
Once the loco was attached, we were told we could board but not from the platform side, in case anybody important was watching. While Samit went to get tea for all of us the Driver and I chatted about the line ahead. He said that the maximum speed allowed was just 40 kph till Khamblighat and a mere 19 kph on the Ghats. Before Samit returned, the Chetak Express from Delhi pulled in quietly left equally quietly ensuring that he missed it completely!
Our train was quite a sight. Rajasthanis wear colourful clothes, especially the women. Moreover a lot of the men were wearing Safas (turbans) of different hues so the top of the train was a melange of riotous colours. I asked the Driver if the Mela was still on but he said that it was some kind of a political rally at Marwar that had drawn the huge crowd. I don't know if he was entirely correct because I didn't see any party underlings whose job it is to mobilise and shepherd crowds for political jamborees.
When we departed a cheer went out from the festive crowd which by now was having a whale of a time on the top. In fact throughout the journey, whenever they saw us photographing from the loco there would be much waving and a round of cheering. It was going to be a fun trip, not just because we were in the loco!
Samit sat half-seat with the Assistant, a jovial yet conscientious fellow. I sat behind the Driver (we were SHF), on his box. By now the Driver was at ease with our presence and he chatted with us freely. He said that for Udaipur based Drivers this was the least popular line because of the slow speed and the tricky Ghat section. He preferred the run to Himmatnagar Jn on the line to Ahmedabad followed by the run to Chittaurgarh. Also, there would be no crossings till Marwar as the first train of the day from that end is when 484 returns in the afternoon as 483 Passenger. Nor would there be any goods trains
The Assistant was superb - crisply calling out each signal, caution sign and halt station. He was born and raised in the area we were crossing so everybody seemed to know him well. In fact both Driver and Assistant waved back at each and every pointsman, gatekeeper, gangman, peasant and child who saluted them. I found that heartwarming.
The area we were crossing is a tableland called the Bhorat Plateau and is about 1500 feet above sea level on the average. The landscape is undulating for the most part with a few hills and ridges coming up now and then. The land is hard albeit arable with maize, barley and henna being the main crops. It took a while for my city eyes to recognise that the maize crop had been lost for the year and what remained on the fields were the dead stalks gradually turning brown. The Assistant confirmed that the monsoon had failed in the region and I wondered whether the maize fields I had seen the previous day near Chittaurgarh had faced a similar disaster.
Because of the undulating nature of the land the Driver kept a wary eye on the speedometer and frequently resorted to Dynamic Braking when the needle threatened to go past the 40 kph mark, sometimes adding a touch of Train Brakes for good measure. Only railfans would find that high-pitched whine musical and we recorded it on Samit's digicam.
The first station of note after Mavli is Nathdwara, which is about 10km from it s famous temple town. Because it's a center of pilgrimage I was expecting a platform and at least a couple of loops but its just a halt station. Here (and at every station afterwards) a small knot of people waiting to board would look at the approaching train with increasing dismay on their faces. But like everywhere else in crowded India, they always managed to find some space and throughout the journey nobody attempted to cling to either of the two locos, as is the norm in Bihar and UP.
Most of the stations on this line are halt stations without any IR employees and private contractors do ticketing. At others the Guard issues the tickets and this usually meant that we would be stopped longer than is usual for halt stations. Signaling is simplistic - stations with loops were equipped with just a distant and a home signal sans route indicators. Neither starters nor advanced starters. To know whether we were being led into a loop, the Assistant would look at the colour of the indicator on the facing point (white for loop, red for mainline) and call out accordingly. The line itself looked well ballasted and clean, with steel sleepers most of the way (wooden on the Ghats). I remarked to the Driver that a limit of 40 kph seemed a tad conservative, but he shook his head and said it was appropriate for the age & condition of the line.
Most of the level crossings were unmanned (including a couple of fairly busy ones). Here we would come to a complete stop before proceeding slowly again. Inevitably somebody would zip across just as soon as we had given a long blast of the horn and restarted! Each time I was infuriated (Delhi style road rage) but the Driver showed no emotion at all.
Not long after Nathdwara we crossed the Banas River, which is believed to be the westernmost tributary of the Ganga but didn't have much water at that point. On seeing the bridge I leaned out to take a picture and saw a sign saying 'Photography Prohibited'. Since we are all programmed from birth to fear the government I hesitated for a second, whereupon the Driver grinned and said, 'Just take it', and I did!
Now all this while our conscientious Assistant had been blasting the front horn, which was located just in front of the Driver's seat. After one particularly deafening blast he turned around and inquired whether the Assistant was planning to kill him that day! Whereupon the latter laughed and promised to use the rear horn henceforth, which was a relief for all of us!
The Assistant comes from the village of Lawa Sardargarh just after the town of Kankroli, an area that is noted for it's marble. While he proudly indicated the sights I could see that some of the ridges were badly scarred by the marble quarrying. And at certain spots along the line mounds of fine white powder (perhaps the residue after scouring) had been dumped. A mini environmental disaster in the making no doubt.
The next station was Charbuja Road the railhead for a famous temple in the vicinity and site of the recent Mela. But the crowd was obviously headed elsewhere today, so maybe the Driver was right after all about the rally. Not long afterwards we passed a JK Tyres factory near the town of Kunwarthal, the only organised industrial unit in the area with it's own township and school. Though it's next to the railway line, all the raw material and all the finished tyres come and go by road. No goods trains ply this line anymore.
At some point an aqueduct passes low over the railway line and our ever-alert Assistant mindful of the rooftop passengers and the fact that it came just after a curve, reminded the Driver of this. The latter agreed that we would pass underneath at about 20 kph adding humorously; If you like I'll stop before each carriage reaches it.' Much before the aqueduct, the Assistant started signaling to the crowd to keep low and I joined him as well. Of course, the crowd loved this and waved right back, cheering us on! We could only hope that they had got the message because the aqueduct is not visible from afar and comes up suddenly. Thankfully, nobody was knocked off though when we looked back just after the aqueduct, we could discern a few sheepish grins directed at us.
After some more time the Assistant nudged me and pointed at Samit who now occupied the Driver's box. Well, if you have ever wondered whether an ardent railfan can actually fall asleep in the midst of footplating, then wonder no more. We laughed as his head fell to one side and I took a couple of quick photos to record this rare phenomenon for posterity!
At the town of Devgarh Madariya we could see a nice looking fort cum palace on a small hill overlooking the line just beyond station limits. I carefully positioned myself and waited expectantly with the camera. When nothing materialised I asked a now wide-awake Samit whether the fort was still ahead. He said we had passed it on the right and again I felt foolish.
Not long after Devgarh we approached a Level Crossing for the Mumbai-Delhi National Highway 8 - manned and with a signal protecting it. The Guard asked the Driver to stop at the LC, as someone from the Railway had to get down here. As we came closer I saw a long line of cars and buses on both sides and a bunch of foreign tourists had got down and were gaping at the approaching train and reaching for their handycams. 'Terrific', I remember thinking, 'another bunch of foreigners will go back with the wrong impression of IR!' I briefly considered shooting them as the loco went by but the camera was out of reach and the moment passed. Of course, the folks on the roof had a totally different take from mine and why not? They gave the performance of their lives, waving and cheering lustily! In the mean time I thought the Driver had forgotten the Guards instructions because he made no move to slow down even as we went past the LC. But our man had a deft touch and he stopped with the last vehicle on the LC!
On the approach to Khamblighat (where the hill section begins) we passed a sign that said 'Highest point of Northwestern Railway 2198 ft, 669.95 m above MSL'. 'If this is the highest point', I wondered, 'what about the Ghat section'? Actually if I had studied the geography of the region before going I would have known that Khamblighat to Marwar involves a descent from the Bhorat plateau through the Aravalli Range. While the Aravallis are very long, stretching from the Mount Abu area to the environs of Delhi, they are not particularly thick through the middle. Hence, this Ghat section is only 22km long
So we reached the famous Khamblighat where we would pick up the crew for loco # 2. Khamblighat must have been a fascinating place under steam. We could see the aesthetically appealing loco shed that once housed BR and GR locos but was now abandoned and forlorn. At least they hadnt pulled it down so that neophytes like us can come up once in a while, take photographs and wonder at what must have been.
Our Driver said that he would now be concentrating hard for the next 22km and wouldn't be able to talk to us even if he wanted to. The second crew powered up their loco and we were off. I wanted to ask how the two Drivers communicated; I didn't see MU cables or obvious hand signals nor heard any radioed instructions throughout, but didnt dare to disturb our man. After we had reached level ground, I quite forgot about it and now I'm dying to know!
On leaving Khamblighat one is confronted by two signboards, one in standard railway livery and the other with the standard governmental 'thou shalt not' red full caps on white background. The railway sign says 'Ghat Section, Speed Limit 19 kph'. The govt. sign is a senseless 'PHOTOGRAPHY TOTALLY PROHIBTED', as if our WMD's are stockpiled along the line! So while the crew were mindful of the first warning, Samit and I quietly prepared to thumb our noses at the second.
The first km or so after Khamblighat gives no hint of the beauty that follows. This particular Ghat section is SPECTACULAR! One normally thinks of the Aravallis as dry, rocky, barren and reddish in colour but the hills were green covered with grass and shrubs that had little yellow flowers. At several places, particularly near water channels, the foliage looked thick and impenetrable. Troops of monkeys and langurs (maintaining the required six degrees of separation) thronged the line, no doubt conditioned to expect food whenever a train passed. There was no human habitation to mar the splendour; just hills, tiny valleys, streams, trees, rocky outcrops and a twisting railway track. I told the Assistant that I felt like settling down there and he said that we should have come during the monsoon when there are dozens of streams cascading down the hills. Of course, in the midst of all this beauty my borrowed digital camera just had to run out of battery power and I was forced to resort to my aim & shoot (without zoom)!
We coasted along with the wheels squealing on every curve, the Driver with one hand permanently on the A9 to maintain the required 19 kph. Earlier I had remarked that 19 kph was a rather odd figure, and 20 kph would have made life easier for everybody without significantly adding to the danger. In response the Driver had said that Permanent Way people consider the condition of the line, the gradients & the average load, do some esoteric math and come up with the speed limit. So 19 kph it had to be not the easier-to- read-on-an-analog-speedometer 20 kph!
At three or four places there are catch sidings, each guarded by a semaphore that is permanently at 'on' so a train has to compulsorily stop. The Assistant is armed with a huge key from Khamblighat and he has to dismount, walk up to the signal and disarm it. Up ahead a pointsman unlocks the point, throws the switch towards the mainline and simultaneously changes the signal to 'off'. If a train fails to stop beforeany of these catch sidings it would quickly find itself charging up an extremely steep hill with the promise of a precipice at the end. Of course, we had no such luck and maintained a normal course downwards, on rails that had a comforting glint on them. Earlier I had asked about the steepest gradient but I can't for the life of me remember what it was now. Perhaps 1:42 or thereabouts.
There are a couple of 50-m long bridges on the route. One of them a curved beauty that marks the point where the line takes a westward turn (we had been heading due north thus far). There are also two tunnels of which the longest would be 100 m. Enough for the rooftop mob to break into their umpteenth round of raucous cheering! The tunnels were dug in 1934, so presumably thats when the line became operational.
Charming Goramghat is the only station in the Ghats and comes shortly after the curved bridge. We could see it from a long way off, on the opposite hill and across a deep gulch. I wanted to get off and never leave but Samit was put off by a band of monkeys who seemed to have the run of the place. Our halt there was altogether brief and as Samit stepped down to take a photograph with a wary eye on the simians, I could only fantasise about the photographer's paradise it must have been when two trains, each armed with a pair of sturdy steamers, met here for a crossing!
After Goramghat one gets a superb view of the broad Pali Plains that separate the Aravallis from the Thar Desert. Somewhere out there but lost in the haze was Marwar Jn and the end of our ride, but immediately below on the edge of the plain we could see a beautiful lake, no doubt fed by the run-off from the hills. Amazingly, we would be skirting this lake after a while but at that point the only way to it seemed to be a running jumping off the cliff. Way behind us and far above, the Assistant pointed out the exact spot where we had exited the Bhorat Plateau. Actually the line descends just 500 m or so but it looks much more. And the line hugs the contours so the 22km actually feels far longer.
It got warmer as we finally came off the Ghat and pulled into Phulad where the train has to reverse. It was time for some much-needed chai and a bite because we hadn't eaten anything since the previous night. The only stall was making a killing that day with some nice tea but really awful pakodas. Eager to please, we braved the thronging crowd to get some refreshments for the crew. But they knew better, first switching the loco to the other end and making their way towards the station house only when the frenzy had subsided. They wanted us to join them but we had already bought more than we could consume.
At the business end of Phulad there is another big sign 'totally prohibiting photography'. Now totally irritated, I shot the sign as we came abreast of it in the loco and felt much better. The short run to Marwar over level ground allows speeds up to 50 kph and after the several hours of slow running, it was quite exhilarating. But now the long hood was in front so there was a lot of diesel exhaust entering the cabin on the Driver's side. At least steam smelt better!
The last station Marwar Ranawas Halt is an extremely busy one for the Guard. Here his proceeds from ticket sales have to be deposited. The last train of the day picks up the money from all the stations and whatever is deposited by the Guards at Ranawas and carries the day's total to Mavli from where it is subsequently dispatched to the divisional h.q. at Ajmer.
As we approached Marwar we were brought back to the real world by the appearance of a MACL Warner displaying double yellow. Further confirmation of modern times came with the appearance of the MG platforms. Not so long ago Marwar had been an important MG junction before gauge conversion of the mainline and the branch to Jodhpur changed all that. Now MG seems to be an embarrassment; relegated to the southern extremity of the station and allowed only two loops, thereby ensuring that only one train could come in at a time. The long trudge from the MG platform to the booking office reinforces this feeling.
As we neared the platform, we could see that a large number of people were waiting to board it including many army recruits who looked like they had just been granted their first furlough from boot camp. The Driver apologetically asked us to get down on the side away from the platform so that nobody would see us. Thanking him and the Assistant profusely, we did so. But it wasn't a discreet exit for Samit, who decided to go down the ladder facing outwards. Not finding terra firma upon extending his foot & weighed down by his bag, he was stuck in a kind of limbo! He hovered there for a few seconds before recovering, remounting and descending the right way!
As we emerged near the booking office after Long Marching from the MG side, we were accosted by a Ticket Collector who wanted to know whether we were bonafide passengers or not. When I asked him to return our cardboard tickets he refused. When asked as to how we should account for the journey he replied that we would have to write down the ticket nos! 'Welcome to the big line', I thought.