Typical journey on Howrah-Madras Mail
by S Kumar
Thought I would describe a typical journey on one of my favorites, the Howrah-Madras Mail. This train has not withstood the onslaught of the past decade and a half very well. It has been outshadowed by the Coromandel Exp., Konarak Exp., the Guwahati-Trivandrum(?) Exp., and even the likes of the Krishna and the Godavari Exps. not to speak of the stiff challenge from the likes of the Sri Jagannath Exp.
But "The Mail" as it was affectionately known all along the Coromandel coast used to be queen on the eastern coastal line for many many years.
I enjoyed the southward journey more as it meant that I had a good month or two to spend in Madras doing nothing but eating, sleeping and meeting friends and relatives!
The Mail would start from a rather obscure platform because the pride of place at Howrah was reserved for the E.Rly trains. It would depart around 18:30 hrs. just as dusk was falling, usually pulled by an electric locomotive (WAM or WAG, I don't remember). My eyes would be glued to the window and to try to find out where the Kharagpur line left the Eastern Rly line to Burdwan and beyond. I never could, because of the train yards. If I was lucky enough, I would be sitting on the side from which I could see the Howrah Maidan-Amta light railway trains puffing along on almost parallel tracks; the Mail would usually overtake a couple of these trains. Anyway, soon the Mail would pass Santragachi Jn. and we would be well on our way to Kharagpur, picking up speed. Darkness would soon descend and stations flash by with the occasional encounter with EMU's which ran between Howrah and Kharagpur. I could hardly read the names of the stations, but could guess their names..Uluberia, Kulgachia, Bognan, Mecheda, Panskura (after crossing the Roopnarayan river). About two hours later, we would reach Kharagpur with its long platform (longest in the world). It was time for me to go to sleep. The electric loco would be replaced by a WDM diesel and soon the train would depart bidding adieu to the Nagpur/Bombay line and its competitors for prestige, the Howrah-Bombay Mail and the Howrah-Tata Steel express. The Mail was now queen till atleast Vijayawada.
I would be almost asleep and could only imagine the Mail racing through Hijli kissing the IIT Kh campus and venturing in the darkness toward the W.Bengal-Orissa border. Balasore, Bhadrak, Jajpur-Keonjhar Road would be lost in the night with only the thundering of the Mail over one of the numerous bridges serving to remind me of the great Mahanadi and the Baitarani. Cuttack would come and go with the Mahanadi. Bhubaneswar would be lost in the darkness. Khurda Road Jn. was next and I would usually wake up here as the stop used to be long and it would be about 04:00 hrs or so. The Puri-bound passrs. would get off and the Mail would continue southward. I would wake up at around 05:00 at the crack of dawn as to see what, I still believe, is one of the most beautiful stretches on the Indian Railways. The timing of the Mail used to be perfectly synchronised with the rising sun over the Chilka lake. A picture-postcard scene....I'll never forget this. The non- stop, fast, early morning run to Berhampur was exhilarating.
The next stop would be in A.P. and for the many southies on the train this would be like the beginning of a homecoming. Palasa would be that stop, followed by Srikakulam Road. The sight of a track merging from the west (from Sambalpur) would indicate the proximity of Vizianagaram Jn. This station used to remind me of Vizzy the famous cricket commentator. I would be getting hungry; but Waltair was more than an hour away. The Mail would play hide and seek with the Eastern Ghats south of Vizianagaram and finally reach Waltair around noon or a little later after looping the famous Simhachalam temple hill. The first half of the journey was over.
After lunch and a reversal, the Mail would continue under the auspices of the SC Rly. An 18 mt. run to Anakapalle. Tuni would be next, on the banks of the Tuni river. The richness and fertility of coastal A.P. would be evident as the Mail roared toward Samalkot Jn. (famous for gingelly oil). At this point I would be starting to get goose-pimples at the thought of coming crossing of the mighty Godavari at Rajahmundry. I would be excited at Rajahmundry and my heart would be thumping as the engine sounded for the Mail to depart. We would slowly pick up speed and head towards Godavari station; some older women would offer a quiet prayer or two. The Godavari station almost ends at the bridge. The old Godavari bridge has no truss structure on the side and the train was completely exposed to the river; this no doubt added to the quiet excitement of the occasion. I think that the bridge is almost a mile long; people used to drop money into the river. Eventually we would be on the other side with the thundering giving way to the much quieter clattering of the wheels. We would speed toward Kovvur and race past it toward Nidadavole Jn.
Nidadavole Jn. is the branch-off point for the Bhimavaram Town-Gudivada loop line to Vijayawada taken by both the Kakinada-Madras Circar Express and the Howrah-Madras Express (and later in its reincarnation as the Tata/Bokaro-Madras Express). I remember that at almost every station whenever people attempted to get on our train someone inside would say "this is reserved". The people outside would be skeptical until the magic words "but this is The Mail" were uttered. They would then draw back with reverence. Such was the respect commanded by the Mail.
After Nidadavole would come Tadepalligudem, an important rice marketing center, again testifying to the richness of coastal andhra. The name used to amuse me and I would jokingly refer to this as Thedu Pallikoodam which means "find the school" in Tamil. Nightfall would have occured as we speeded past Vatlur and Powerpet into Eluru Jn. An hour later we would be going past Gundala into Vijayawada. If I was lucky, I would catch the Kazipet line; I could never catch the Gudivada line.
Dinner at Vijayawada (20:30 hrs) would be followed by the passengers getting ready to sleep by unfolding the middle berth. I hated this because I loved to see the Krishna bridge. Anyway, I would manage to sit crouched on a lower berth and await the first canal bridge, the Krishna River bridge and the second canal bridge. Krishna Canal Jn. would follow (used to be called Kistnacanal Jn.) leading into Kolanukonda. The Mail would haughtily ignore both. Upon the insistance of my mother, I had then to go to sleep. Tenali, I would notice because I would still be awake half-hour later. I would be half asleep at Ongole, Nellore and Gudur Jn. Passengers who were detraining would wake me up with their conversation. Eventually the activity in the compartment would signal the proximity of Madras. It would be close to 04:00, but people would be up packing and washing up. I would quickly wash up and come back and stick my face out of the window; I can almost reel off the stations we whizzed past.....Akkampet, Tada, (AP/TN border), Arambakkam, Elavur, Gummidipundi, Kaveraipettai, Ponneri, Anubampattu, Minjur, Attipattu, (bridge over lagoon), Ennore, Wimco Nagar, Tiruvottiyur, Tondiarpet, Korukkupettai, Basin Bridge Jn. We would invariably stop at Basin Bridge with the odor from the Buckingham Canal mixing with the coal-ash odor of the Basin Bridge loco-shed and the thermal plant mingling with the whistles and the whoosh-whooshes of the numerous steam locos. Things would be quiet on the Arakkonam line; I always wished that the Bombay-Madras Mail would turn up!! Soon we would be off and come to a halt at platform 1 at Madras Central to the shouts of coolies and the sight of passengers craning their heads to catch sight of their loved ones!! The time would be 05:15.