BZA Jan Shatabdi Trip
by Sridhar Shankar
It was still dark, and the incessant beeping noise turned out to be the alarm on my cell phone. After shutting it down before it woke up every one around, I lay in bed for a few more minutes. Finally, I got up groggily - it was 5:10 AM on Thursday Oct 9th. I had less than an hour to get to Egmore - we were to take the Jan Shatabdi to BZA and back and I was to meet Poochi Venkat at 6 outside Egmore station. After a quick shower - I stepped out from home at 5:30, and it was still fairly dark as I set out looking for a rick. Now, Madras is a city that wakes up early - perhaps due to its east coast location, and is quite awake even at that hour with newspaper walas, milk walas, in addition to the junta out for the early morning walks. And early mornings are when the city's oppressive heat and humidity are a little under control, and it was actually quite pleasant when I hit the road. Soon enough I spotted a rick, and after negotiating the ransom - we set off to Egmore.
The plan was to meet up at Egmore, have break fast and then hit the station. As we were nearing Egmore - I got a call from Poochi telling me that he had already reached, and that he was at Vasanta Bhavan (opposite Egmore Station) having breakfast. As I walked in Poochi was chowing down heartily and nearly done. Soon I flagged down a waiter and ordered a breakfast of Idly / Vada and washed it down with a cuppa of Coffee. Ah, the pleasures of being in Madras! And for good measure we packed some Idlies and Pongal for the day ahead - just in case! It tuned out that we need not have not have bothered, there is never a lack of food on Indian Railways, and the Jan Shatabdi would prove to be no exception.
It was about 6:20 when we walked in to the station. The platfoms were full with the early morning arrivals from the south. The trains were discharging their human cargo of surly, half awake people. The Jan Shatabdi was on platform 4 - the modest 7 coach rake was spotlessly clean. An AJJ WAM4 (20508) in the striking Green and Yellow (Saptagiri livery) was at the business end. AJJ must be complimented for keeping the aging WAM4 looking young and fresh. The rake was composed of 1 AC CC, 4 CC (numbered S1- 4) and 2 'unreserved' Guard cum CC on either end (SL1 and SL2). We were booked on S1 - sixth from the loco, and that was the only coach that seemed crowded. We decided to move shop to SL1 - right behind the loco. We were the only occupants of the coach at the point, so we spread out our wares and settled down comfortably.
I have mixed feelings about the JS seat layout. The layout gives you the feeling of being in a bus rather than a train - which I am not sure is a good thing or a bad thing. After much thought, I decided that I prefer the standard layout - it has a more informal feel to it compared to the highly impersonal individual seats. The seats (3+3) were a tight fit for me - and I wondered how happy I'd be if all three were occupied. Luckily for me - the load was light and we were able to sit quite comfortably for the entire journey.
After settling down - we made the customary walk up to the loco to say 'hello' to the chief. They crew seemed busy with their chores and we decided to leave them alone. Promptly at 6:45 with a sharp blast from the horn we set off. The track from Egmore to Madras Beach is laid on the old MG alignment and is full of twists and turns, and we crawled along through the newly renovated Park station, then through Fort and eventually reached Madras Beach. After Madras Beach the track takes a sharp left turn and onto the semi-abandoned Royapuram station. The station buildings are still functional though in a rather dilapidated condition. This the site of the first train in southern India - from Royapuram to Wallajah - circa 1855 or so. Our callousness when it comes to preserving historic sites must be unmatched worldwide.
We then crawled past Washermanpet and came up to the main line coming in from Basin Bridge at Korukkupet. Things started to pick up once we joined the mainline. The Chief was notching up aggressively - and seemed to fit the description of Zubin's type 1 (or is that type 3?) driver. The WAM4 made mincemeat of the 7 coach rake and we were accelerating like an EMU. I guess that was no surprise as we were running at about 10 hp/ton! We zipped through Tondiarpet and Thiruvttior. Soon we were at Ennore and slowed down at the sharp left hander ahead of the station. Right past the station is the Ennore Creek and the right hand side (east) offered a stunning view of the Bay of Bengal and the fishing boats against a rising sun.
We maintained a solid pace - skirting the Pulicat Lake and on to Tada across the Andhra border. We made it to Sullurpet on time - just past 8:00. An interesting aspect of this section is that the NH5 (Madras - Calcutta Road) keeps company all the way from GPD to Ongole, frequently switching sides. One can see the hectic construction activity on the NH5 as part of the GQ effort - it was heartening to see the progress. Sullurpet is also the railhead for Shriharikota (and the SHAR), and Poochi pointed out that the town was actually visible from the station. After a quick halt, we were off - a kept up a good pace maintaining 105 -110 kph all the way. We pulled in to Gudur by 8:55 - a good 20 mts ahead of schedule. After a longish halt, we were off again . GDR marks the end of SR and beginning of SCR territory - and the land of continues caution orders. A little perspective here - there are 73 caution orders in place on this 432 km section between MAS and BZA! How painful for the crew - more on this later.
After a slow run full of cation orders we pulled into Nellore - a full 15 minutes behind. The 40 odd km took us well over 45 mts. Nellore seems to have grown a lot in the past decade -Secunderabad style apartment complexes (with their covered minaret styled balconies) appear to have sprouted on either side of the tracks. After a quick halt we were off - and on to the bridge over the Pennar river. Nellore is part of the the 'rice belt' of AP and its 'super fine' Ponni rice has a legendary reputation. In fact - Nellore derives its name from the Tamil word for rice paddy - 'nell', and literally means rice town!
We moved along keeping a good pace - with halts at Ongole, Chirala and Tenali. At about noon - the lunch we had ordered showed up. It turned out to be a sumptous meal - Veg Biriyani/Raita and Curd rice, and was delivered just before Tenali. The food was quite good and the Biriyani infact was quite spicy with bay leaves used quite liberally - my guess is that an entire branch of a Bay leaf tree had been used in the cooking process!
After Tenali the transformation in the scenery was amazing - the semi-arid landscape gave way to lust green paddy fields and you could almost convince yourself that you are in Kerala! That is courtesy of the mighty Krishna River - and we were looking forward to the crossing. The entry to Vijayawada from the south is incredibly picturesque with the Krishna river forming a formidable barrier. (Wait for the pics in the next couple of days). As you approach BZA there are three rail bridges and the Krishna Barrage (which also serves as the road bridge for the NH5) right next to each other. The box girder railway bridges with 12 spans -each a massive 300 ft long, makes even a 24 coach train look puny.
Interestingly, Vijayawada (the nearby Indirakiladri Hills) - I learnt, is apparently where Arjuna made his penance and succeeded in winning Lord Shiva's blessings - or achieved 'Vijaya' and the locality or 'wada' came to be known as Vijayawada. It is also known for its incredible mangoes and 'aam papad' for the food minded!
We crossed the Krishna river via the middle bridge and halted briefly at the outer, and we finally pulled in to Platform 1. The generous running time between Tenali and BZA ensured that we reached the platform bang on time at 13:30 hrs. We had an aggresive scheudule in BZA - the return departure was exactly an hour away at 14:30. We went to work immediately...