Alcos, Abandonments and Alcohol
by Tim Wakeman
I was itching for an adventure on rails during my 1998 stay in India. So I rounded up a couple of "Golden Jubilee" timetables for the South Central Railway and Southern Railway. Also managed some local highway maps of South India from a local bookstall. Where to go was the next decision. I wanted to look for history. Steam had only disappeared from the south recently and I thought that there may be some residue left trackside in the form of rotting hulks or body parts of the locomotives. Maybe I could get lucky and find one that escaped the scrappers torch and continued to stand cold, but proud.
In 1994 I had witnessed YP class locomotives arrive from the north to Katpadi and then turned back. I eyed the maps and spotted Pakala Jct. a place 63 KMs to the north. There, the line split. One headed easterly to Tirupati and Renigunta AP. The other left town in a northwesterly direction that eventually ended in Guntakal. Pakala, appeared to me, as a location that might have served as a maintenance center. Another reason to ride this route was the fact that it was meter gauged and was due to be broad gauged in the future. Grading on the route was already taking place, so I felt it wouldn't be much longer and would probably be complete by time I visited again. After telling my wife of the plan, another little tidbit came up. Her uncle was the Station Master of Pakala back in 50's. This trip would make for some interesting conversation with him when we returned back to the US.
It was early March and the south Indian temperatures were already on the rise. Mid-day temps were pushing above the 40 centigrade mark. As most Indians in the south do during the "hot" time of the year was to take care of business in the mornings and later in the evenings. During the afternoon hours it is best just to stay indoors out of the oven. I chose train #188. It departed Katpadi at 05:00 arriving in Pakala at 07:10. Our return would be on the 157. This would give me about two hours to search the area and we could be back in town by 14:00 just in time to lay flat out under the ceiling fans in the cool confines of home.
March 15th came like any other day. My brother-in-law, Stanley, and I rose from bed around 04:00, grabbed my gear and headed out the door. It was very unusual being out at this hour. It was spectacularly peaceful. There were no sounds of motor bikes. No blaring car and truck horns. No music at the coffee stalls. The only thing overpowering the wonderful silence was the chirping of birds waiting for the sun to rise. An occasional crow would caw out loud as if he still wanted to sleep. It was beautiful listening to the silence. Oh, and of course a sudden air horn blast sounding the departure of a train would spice things up.
Being up at this un-godly hour had its pitfalls. Since no auto motors could be heard, that meant that auto were slim pickings and our trip to the station started as a hike. Once we reach the main road the ghost town atmosphere was still prevailed. Time was now against us and shrinking. After some worrying, an auto drifted up the road. I stayed back while Stanley went to negotiate. Being foreign and running about at this hour, there is no telling what he may charge for the two mile trip up the road. After being waved over and climbing aboard, I could see the displeased look grow upon the drivers face. If I had been standing by the auto during negotiations, we'd either be paying through the nose for the ride, waiting for the next auto or walking. I've learned a lot about the way tourist are treated. Not by accident, but by my family. I've even been let loose to do my own haggling at times and done well. One thing I must say, if a driver or vendor does NOT try to screw me I treat them very generously after the performance of duty. From then on a new local "friend" has been made. I would receive waves from them while strolling the village and would not hesitate to do business with them again.
We arrive at the station with little time to spare and head over the overhead walkway to the ticket office. We are the only ones there at the time accept for the lovely young agent behind the bars performing some duties on the new computers. We wait patiently as she prepares to help us. Just then a man comes in from behind us and barrages her at the top of his lungs with his ticket request. This really pissed me off. I sternly looked him in the eyes and stuck my arm out putting it between him and the ticket counter. He slowly backed up and placed himself behind us and remained peaceful. "My gosh!, I thought, "I just created the first civilized "line" in all of India!" A short one at that, but still a line.
We purchased our two tickets. They were 10 rupees a piece. Half the cost of the auto coming to the station and we were about to travel 30 times the distance! Grabbing our paper with Stanley asking, "What track?", the woman pointed and we were off in a sprint to the overpass. It was already past 05:00, but after leaps and bounds we saw that our train was not leaving any time soon. I forgot. This is India and the unexpected is to be expected. Our locomotive, YDM4 #46131 would do the honors today as soon as it was decided that she would be coupled to the train so we could depart. I didn't appear that anything was holding the men up from doing it. It just seemed like they would couple on when they felt like it. Finally the locomotive was brought back and hooked to the rake. I watched as the man hooked and tighten the connectors. Nervously, Stanley said that we should board, so we did.
It was dark and gloomy inside. The aisle went down one side and wooded bench seats in compartment form were on the other. Very few people were on board. I could not see their faces. Only dark figures sitting with arms folded or bare feet extending out into the aisle as they slept. We sat and looked out the barred windows. A nauseating feeling washed over me then. I began to think what it was like to be in a jail cell. My mind wandered on how poorly designed this car was in case an emergency exit was needed. I was thinking that maybe this wasn't such an exciting idea after all. I held on though and was determined to go. Hell, it can't be any worse than a night trip I once took on a bus from Madras! That really sent streaks down my underpants. I survived that, I can do this. Just then as my mind was still pumping horrendous thoughts a young man sat with us and began chatting. A slight tug from the front told us we were leaving. There would be no bailing out now. Then, the driver pulled back on the throttle of that YDM and the music that only Alco could conduct filled the car. The massive anxiety weighing me down soon vanished into thin air. The crisp gurgling sound of the locomotive, the light cool breeze drafting through the barred windows and the sight of silouletted palms trees in front of the glowing easterly sky change it all and brought a smile to my face. We were moving. We were on an adventure, an adventure that I'd never forget.
A very sharp curve leads north from Katpadi right out of the station. The coaches creaked and groaned in retaliation. The YDM4 charged on into the hills. It was the only sound that could be heard. The murmuring voices within the coach had fell silent with the motion of the train. Many patrons began to doze. It was pure pleasure for me listening to the Alco gurgling. The driver must have had her wide open. After a few minutes we came to a stop. I looked around. The morning light that could be seen before was now gone. A very heavy cloud cover had moved in. We were stopped on a single track seemingly in the middle of nowhere with a bright ruby staring at us. The blade on the semaphore pointing out. I've never seen such a bright signal light such as this. It had a piercing laser look. It shone brightly off the sides of the coaches and shimmered on the rails beneath. Why were we stopped? The only thing I could think of was that maybe a gatekeeper was a bit late getting to his post. Or maybe he might have had some time between trains and dozed off missing our bell. Anyway, whatever it was, it wasn't long until the ruby became a shining emerald and beckoned our passing. I was in the third car so I was able to be near the signal as it changed back to red and the blade dropped with hesitation like toy slinky dropping down a staircase.
It wasn't long until we came to another stop. This time we were nearing Ramapuram. Train #643, the Tirupati-Villupuram Passenger had rights at the station before us. While he passed us I noticed how it looked just like our train with a single maroon YDM4 and a handful of coaches. A very mysterious, spooky looking train with all the lights out on the coaches. I'm sure most everyone were asleep for they had boarded at some un-Godly hour. Tirupati departure time for that train shows 02:45. Our train become much more lively after picking up at Ramapuram, everyone with a full nights rest and heading off to work in the larger surrounding communities. The lights were on and conversation was in full swing as obvious regulars chatted. A very stark contrast to the ghostly train we just passed.
We would stop at the villages of Peyanapalli H. and Siddampalli. Many others would join us. Looking out at the countryside, I could see how dry the land is. There were many rock formation type hills that looked as though the heavens had dropped a pile of sandstone and shale in a big pile and there they sat. At 06:16 we would arrive at our largest community along the route, Chittoor. We would stop for a few minutes. It was light enough outside to try and get a slow shutter speed shot of our train. While photographing, a woman had noticed me and seemed to insist on being part of the picture. This was nothing new to me, but she seemed very determined, even standing by the locomotive as if she were ready to hop aboard and drive away. I took the shot anyway and headed back to my seat.
It was another 55 minutes from there to Pakala with only one stop, Putalapattu. Now we could get some good running in. My mind began to wander. I was trying to compare this trip to others I had taken. The closest thing I could think of of what this trip reminded me of was riding an Alco diesel excursion here in the US. The open windows with whiffs of diesel exhaust drifting by my nose. The loud roar of the engine. The hearty conversation among all the patrons. An engineer with a heavy hand on the horn. And of coarse, the mobility and standing in the vestibule, (doorway), looking out at a land I have never seem before. Also, I was in no hurry. I was just along for the ride. A trip from point A to point B and return.
Finally, point A had arrived. We were at Pakala Junction. As we crepe toward the station I looked around at the surroundings. On the east side of the train there were several yard tracks. Most were empty with weeds crawling over the rail head. Some were host to several guard vans that must part of the permanent scenery for it appeared they hadn't turned a wheel in some time. It was odd seeing all of those MG tracks together. They gave a toy like appearance. I moved to the other side of the train to look. This was the side the station was on. To the west of the station was a host of more yard trackage. Beyond that, was pay dirt.
We clambered off the coaches and began to look around. The ticket agent told us it was too early to purchase our return trip and to come back later. The station itself was not too impressive. It was kind of scrappy looking and seem to belong in a railroad town. To the north was an interlocking tower that controlled the switch points on that end. I remember another tower to the south where the line from Guntakal came in. What was interesting about that point was that trains from Guntakal,(the north west), loop around a very sharp curve and join the line from Katpadi in a northerly direction entering the station from the south. So, if you were to come from Guntakal and want to travel south toward Katpadi and beyond, one must either change trains a continuing train would have to change ends with the locomotive. However, I don't think there are any trains that do that. There may be some that continue east/northeast to Tirupati, but not south. Here is a double crossover with a diamond at the north end of the station.
On the west side of the station,(Guntakal trains), a YDM4 sees servicing just in from the north.
Behind me is what I came up here to look for. Pakala was indeed a place for servicing and maintaining meter gauge steam locomotives. Remaining structures of what was once a fairly large facility still existed and had yet gone the way of the wrecking ball. Here are some pictures of the remains. A very large coal storage and fueling tower. A first of such that I'd ever seen.
A local takes rest on stairs, that would have been loaded with railway employees a few months earlier, leading to the locomotive shed.
At the office is the typical proud display of artistry.
However, a visit to the inside of the building, we find no one at home. And even more spooky, nothing outside.
Through the door and out into the yard we find an abandonment in process.
The tranquility behind the wall is overwhelming. You can almost hear the hissing sound of YPs around you. Superintendents are yelling. Hammers are heard in the distance working off tight bolts on the boilers face. Connecting rods lay to the sides of ailing YPs. The scent of human sweat lingers in the air.
Yes, there was steam here. The ghostly souls still linger in the shed. The stench of burned of oil. The scent hot coals dumped in the ash pits. The hazy smoke fills the entrapment of the shed. You have to close your eyes and when you do visions of these machines are abound in different phases of repair. Some are on the run through track receiving coal and water before being turned and sent to Tirupati. Others have the boiler face open with a hardy soul inside giving her a good scrubbing. Tires are being pressed. Heater tubes are being replaced. Its a fine sight, if only it were real. Once back into reality, somber feelings hit you like a tidal wave looking around the ruins. What you realize now is what you heard was the dismantling of these glorious machines. One by one, they were taken behind the shops and destroyed, piece, by piece. It was a slow death at Pakala. We were told that in February of 1996 that 20 YPs were based here. By November, there were none. Now I know why my senses are so strong on this day. The ghost of the YP just refused to leave. The ghost of the YP just refused to leave.
It was almost disturbing to go back to the platform and watch the recruited locomotives that replaced steam in this area. It's hard to imagine that I myself could now relate somewhat to my railfan forefathers of the United States. I was born even too late to hear a whistle blow even as a baby. And to hear some elders talk of "The Glory Days of Steam" is always intriguing, but you could see in their eyes that you really didn't understand. They were missing something I had never witnessed, until today.
Our train was being readied. The crews devoured the photographic attention that I was giving them. Our consist was one YDM4 in a cream and green color scheme. Behind it trailed 14 coaches. I thought this was a rather long train for a single engine, but I would soon find that it was quite capable. We hopped aboard to get our seats when suddenly a constable approached us behind demanding to know what I was doing with the camera. In the morning before leaving the house, Stanley had taken a railroad magazine that I brought with me from the States to show my family. It included an article about my train photography. He said it would be a good idea to have it with us, "Just in case". This was when he pulled the magazine out to show the "nice officer" my work. He made a few comments and realized that we were harmless souls and bid us farewell. I offered to take his photo, but he declined. Now, I guess, we were home free.
We just settled in to a compartment with an elder couple when the beast up front began to gurgle. Slowly we began through the switches out to the mainline. I could not sit still. It was now time to travel like a real Indian. Other young gentleman had the doors already open and were leaning out with their eyes pealed toward the head end. I was ready to join in. On the left side of our train I was invited to sit with a couple of young boys. They were definitely railfans in the making, if not already. I sat with my legs hanging down enjoying the view as you leave Pakala. The line turns sharply here to the south and the line to Guntakal turned sharply to the north. The entire train could be seen while the wheels squealed and the couplers and drawbars protested with grunts and groans. The signal blades stood at various positions.
After negotiating the junction the driver opened the throttle wide and let the old girl rip! Now the joy of riding with the doors open really settled in. Everybody by the doors fell silent. An Alco scented wind slammed into my face. An unusual constant hollow sound erupts from the coaches as they swayed clanked into each other. We were moving. No, we were REALLY moving! I sucked in the sights, sounds and smells for a good fifthteen minutes until I let another take my place and returned to my seat with my brother-in-law and company. It was then that I noticed the gentleman's pocket protector who sat across from Stanley. On it was stenciled the words, "South Central Railway". Through Stanley's translation, we assumed a conversation and a very interesting one indeed. He and his wife were on their way home to Katpadi from a lake house they owned north of Pakala. He was currently an inspector for the South Central Railway at Katpadi and said he'd remain as one until his retirement, which would be soon. It was a wonderful position to hold. He'd go to work in the morning and return to his home in the afternoon to eat dinner and be with his family, very much unlike his previous position on the railway. "And what was that?", I asked him.
"A locomotive driver.", he replied.
"And just where did you operate the trains?"
"I ran this very line we are on now. I ran the steam locomotives from Katpadi to Pakala and on to Tirupati."
"Steam locomotives?!?! Wow! So why didn't you continue to drive the diesels?", I asked.
He sat for moment. I'm not sure if he was looking for the right answer or just reminiscing. Then he said, "It's just not the same. I would have to train on the diesels and it just wasn't worth it. They already have enough diesel drivers. They don't need me. Besides, this inspector job is the best I've ever held. Like I said, I'm home every night. Driving trains, sometimes you never knew when you'd return home.", his wife nodding accordingly. " Many times I'd arrive where my tour was ending, but the replacement driver was no where to be found. Do you know what happens then?", shaking my head, "I have to continue with the train. Indeed it is not the greatest job, but I do miss running the steam locomotives."
"When was the last steam trains on this line?", I asked.
"In February of last year(1997), there were 20 locomotives based at Pakala. Through the year it declined. More diesels arrived and the steam locomotives vanished. It seemed like it was overnight but in reality it wasn't until November that all were gone. 20, 17, 12, 5, 2 and none. That's when I took my last train. And don't get me wrong, when I stepped off that locomotive, it was the best move I'd ever done."
BAM!!!!! Suddenly the air was dumped and train came to a screeching halt. I looked out the door just in time to see a railway man climbing off the locomotive. He began to inspect our train. Our new friend sat. "Nothing will be found. Someone has pulled the emergency cord because this area of the rail line is closer to their home than the station down the line."
Sure enough, as soon as the crewman boarded and a nice long blast released from the engine's air horn, we moved ahead and I looked back just as a half dozen people jumped off and headed for a small village. How convenient, I thought. He told us this will happen at least a couple of more times before Katpadi, it always does.
We traveled along in peace for a while. Stanley relaxed as I took in the sights. Then again the air was dumped. We sat for about 5 minutes before moving. This time the train was on a stiff grade. The YDM4 worked real hard to gain momentum on the hill. It was music to my ears as she struggle at around 6 mph. The crest could clearly be seen in the distance and on the approach of the summit the driver brought the throttle down one notch at a time as the speed increased faster and faster. The land was dry, rocky and clear of vegetation in this area making for wonderful viewing. After the hill, we were on a roll again. the next and last stop was to be Katpadi. We still had some time before our arrival and everyone had abandoned the doors, so I opened one on the west side of the train to enjoy the scenery. BAMMMMM!!SCREEEEEECH!!!! Here we go again........but wait.......what? Oh, aren't those guys lucky. Off in the distance from a small cluster of houses were two men running toward the train. I guess they want to take a trip into town and someone pulled the emergency cord right by their homes.
No.......something else is happening. There is a real old man chasing them down with a spade held high above his head yelling. Now the curiosity of others, including our railway friend, has arisen and are drawn to the excitement. The inspector begins to laugh aloud. Now, out of the trees comes two constables. A male and a female. The old man drops the spade and stops while the officers keep chasing down the other two men, one of them carrying a bag. They get to the locomotive and climb the ladder and drop off the other side. The male officer walks by on my side of the train toward the front while the female rounds the back.
"Oh well, they were foiled this time.", the inspector said. "Those guys are running alcohol. They must be making it somewhere on that old guys property and they have an accomplice on the train. That is why we stopped here. Those two guys are running the booze to give to whoever pulled the emergency cord and he'd take it across the state line and into Katpadi and Vellore to be sold on the "black market". I guess there won't be any drinking this weekend.", he says with a laugh. He assures me that this was a regular occurrence on his runs too. Finally we arrive at Katpadi and believe it or not, on time. After all the delays enroute I thought for sure we'd be at least 30 minutes down, but someone must have taken down time in consideration and designed a padded schedule. We bid farewell to our new friend, who I failed to get a name and headed our respected directions. I noticed many passenger leaving the train and heading across the rail yards. "Did they even have a ticket?", I wondered, for my brick like cardboard stub was taken when we reached the walkway overpass. I guess I should have asked to keep it for my scrapbook back home, for the tale of this trip would certainly be worth repeating.
Don't you think?
Hope you all enjoyed!