by Arnab Acharya
My youngest sister got married and the groom's side had their ancestral home at Gangarampur, some 2 hours by road from Malda. On the way from Calcutta on 10th June, we took an overnight bus there - leaving at 2130 from Esplanade. The relevant point is, when I woke up around 0530 or so, we were on the Farakka Barrage. On my left, I managed to see the Delhi-bound air-braked Brahmaputra Mail being hauled by a diesel. As soon as it crossed, I promptly went back to sleep. It started raining soon after. The temperature cooled. As we went further, I saw the BG track to Balurghat cross over the road, on an overhead bridge, near Gazole. Then on, it kept a kilometre's distance and ran on the right of the road to Balurghat. The stations were small pink rooms. Alas, no trains in sight, though! My brother- in-law tells me that only goods traffic is in operation while Samit tells me that a lone passenger is in operation. We reached Gangarampur at 0830 or so. The hotel was a minute from the bus stand. With the AC working there, I was relieved!
The marriage ceremony there attended, we started off on the 12th June morning by NBSTC bus for Malda. After an hour and a half's journey, we were at Malda Town, at about 1000. We went to enquire if tickets for 2510 or 5658 could be got. The reply was negative. On coming to the platform complex, we came to know that the HWH-bound Saraighat had left some time back! It was over 3 hours late! Left with no other option, we got general tickets for Sealdah and, had lunch at the decrepit railway restaurant. There was this one guy at the counter and another served the food. Non-vegetarian food there did not seem too appealing, so we settled for an egg meal. This had 2 full eggs in `jhol'/gravy, a vegetable curry, some pickle and some cucumber pieces cut earlier in the day. We were the only customers. There were 2 basins at the two ends of the eatery. I went to wash my hands at the closer one. The tap was a leaking one. After having lived in Bangalore, I've realised the value of water and couldn't help feeling somewhat upset at the wastage at the tap. The meal was not too bad, at 27 bucks per plate. By 1030, we were done. The heat was sweltering. I tried to get to the Upper class/sleeper class waiting room but the lady at the gate would not let us in, without valid reservations! Telling her that we were waiting to get into 2A was of no help and I chose not to argue. At the NJP-end of the same platform (1), there was this general waiting room, which had some four ceiling fans haphazardly distributed. We managed to locate one close to us and sat down. Fortunately, this room was not too dirty for staying put and somewhat cooler than the platform. As you know, a railfan can't be sitting down for too long in such a place! So, I ventured out and was rewarded with two 8-coach passengers coming in at 1044. The AB-rake of 801 Pass from Sahibganj arrived at Pf3, while the vacuum-rake of Katihar-MLDT Pass arrived at Pf2. The KIR train was to have come at 0925, the TT tells me. This had 4-digit markings on the coaches. The 801 coaches had `3467/8' marked on its ends. As the crowd of both the trains dispersed, I waited in the waiting room. The fans on the platforms were off, though there were the staff washing the Pf1.The KIR pass was shunted off to the yard, while the 801 rake stay put. A military train arrived at Pf2, soon after. I took a stroll on the overbridge, which was very airy. In that `aam-paka' (mango-ripening) heat, it was welcome! The Pf2 was being broken up and repaired. There were sarees and garments being dried on the 801 rake windows! Interestingly, at MLDT, none of the platform bore any numbers!
The military train made me curious. It consisted of some open vans (used to carry rails), some of which were carrying military jongas and large military equipment. There were 3 passenger coaches, all green in colour, with the typical border in light blue, navy and red. 2 of the coaches (general class) belonged to CR, JHS and the other to NR (probably the first class). The numbering of these coaches were like `CR/M61345', `M' meaning `military'? There were families travelling in the first class. A young, handsome officer of 22-3 years was waiting outside patiently, with an equally beautiful wife in tow.Towards the rear end of this train, there were these goods wagons, a longer one of which had food. There were some scavengers trying to get in for food. A military jawan shooed them away. By this time, I had reached the other overbridge (Chamagram-end). The military train blew the horn and moved out, towards NJP. Beyond the 801, there was this AB-rake, which had `110' speed markings. It turned out to be the 219/220 HWH-MLDT Fast Pass, which was 347/8 before. The yard for MLDT is located at the NJP-end, with the passenger rakes on the right and goods on the left, if you look NJP- ward. The view was more of greenery from the overbridge on the Chamagram-end. I spotted a blue MLDT WDM, some distance away. The CLOck was ticking close to 1230, so I returned to the waiting room, got some mineral water and started looking for the TTE.
The 16-coach AB-rake of 5658 rolled in at 1230. It was an NFR rake. In fact, when I saw off my sister and her husbands' folks off at SDAH- on 9th June on the 5657, I noticed the rake was fully NFR. So, NFR IS able to put full rakes now!
The TTE told us to get into seats 3 & 4 of the 2A, which turned out to be over 50% empty anyway! Kanchanjungha departed on time at 1250. I stood on the side of Pf2 and watched it gather speed. Our's was the 4th coach from the rear. As we settled down, we made an unscheduled halt at Khaltipur. The TTE charged my uncle, a senior citizen, the full 2A fare of Rs.589. I was told, that was the rule, even telling me that I could complain! The coach attendant was having his meal on the next aisle-side lower berth and, soon, supplied us with bed linen and pillow-cover in a brown paper packet, while the warm blanket did not have any cover. The pillow cover was torn at one end. The brown paper contents smelled of good detergent but bore black marks out of overuse.
Anyway, as I got my camera ready, we were crossing the Farakka Barrage! This journey brought back memories some 15-20 years back, both of a much-better-than-now Kanchanjungha and Darjeeling Mail. The gates of Farakka were crossed at some 30-40 kph and we arrived at New Farakka at 1335. I clambered down on the right and clicked some photos of the 5658. At 1340, the train moved and I helter-skeltered onto it. We saw a goods rake with MLDT WDM/2B attached to a HWH WDM/2. Someone had very nicely dumped some dal-rice at the doorsteps, making my entry difficult! Now, I stayed at the doorway… We soon passed the spot at 50-60 kph where the BAK, SBG loops interact.
Mohan and others will recall I'd posted a scanned diagram of the network here - in the map section on the site. 5658 made this northward-turn towards Barharwa, at about 1342. Tildanga was at 1347, where we stopped. On the left, ahead, there was this blue Andal WDG14774. We started soon. Within a minute or two, we galloped past Bindubasini Halt, Bonidanga at 1358. In between, we passed an express, with an AC coach - probably the 5657 to GHY. Soon after, we slowed and made the southward turn into SBG loop towards Pakur, bypassing Barharwa. In fact, at the closer tip of this u-turn, it's hardly a kilometre away! `Took some snaps again, to catch the 5658 turning. The better part of railfanning done, I moved into the coach. A TTE was puffing away at the other door! I glared at him and he pretended not to see me! I came in, got ready for some sleep. Uncle was already sleeping on the lower berth. There were 3 TTEs, taking it easy in the heat in the 2A. Their topic of discussion was how rude people of Calcutta were - "They ask you `chaa khaaben ki?' (would you be taking some tea?)! As if you ask such things of guests! In North Bengal, hosts will get you tea, without asking such stupid questions!" I was amused, having stayed both in North Bengal and Calcutta for the better parts of my life!
We were at Pakur at 1425 or so. Stops were made at 1605, 1622, 1735-45 - of the times I was awake. The smoker TTE also packed off onto the upper berth opposite mine.Tired as I was from the heat and the marriage activities, I fell asleep. 5658 being a crawler, it kept on halting in and out of turn. Add to it that our berths were next to the entrance, my slumber was for an hour only! Nonetheless, I lay there till we reached Bardhaman at 1752 - 1812 (17mins late). To my surprise, there were no loco changes, from the diesel! Even the 5657 that I saw off the other day had a diesel from SDAH-. Then why the 20 minute halt, I wonder!
I went to the pantry, the coach right before, for some food. They had packed off for the day! So, we took some jhalmuri (minus the `jhaal') and some bolied eggs, from the travelling vendors. The run till Dankuni was more or less respectable. We crossed some trains, on the HB Chord. Coalfield and Agniveena would be two of them, being just a streamset of flickering fluoroscent windows. Dankuni was reached close to 2000, where the track to SDAH- (CCRly) goes off from HBChord. We got into the CCRly, safely passing Dankuni and halted, in the middle of nowhere, even before Rajchandrapur. Thereon started the bad run! 5658 ran for some time, halted again. This went on in a bad loop mechanism. It reminded of me of the days, two decades back, when the Mail (3144) used to face this, as the rice smugglers used the stretch between Dankuni - Dumdum to dump bags of rice, all along the track. I'm told, the administration got tough with them on the Mail, so they moved to the Teesta-Torsha! (This was so rampant on the BWN-SDAH- local, that ER could not discontinue the train! On the HBChord, I'm told, the EMUs don't start unless the rice smugglers wave the green `gamchha' from their girth! The red one is waved to the driver for longer halt requests!) Rajchandrapur was in total darkness, though the sorrounding shops had lights. I was waiting on the right side of the train, looking SDAH--ward, to catch a glimpse of the 3143 Up. My wait was rewarded, when we were waiting before the Vivekananda Bridge before Dakshineswar.
A diesel purred its horn, came on with increasing speed, with an argosy of 21 AB coaches, some 5-6 AC coaches and some 9-10 sleepers. Most of the coaches had fluorescent lights. So, in 15-20 years, it had grown some 4-5 coaches! The moment was, indeed, nostalgic! As the whole train went by, I looked at its tail, the last coach having a large window on the back. Probably, the guard was sitting at it. 5658 started off. Was it because the Vivekananda Bridge was not in too good a shape, which meant that only 1 train got on it, at a time?! Or else, why would we be waiting? Or, maybe, there was a DKAE-SDAH- EMU ahead? Anyway, we finally arrived at SDAH- at 2100 at Pf9A, past its actual 2035. Announcements of 2510 arriving soon were being made! 2510 was to have overtaken us at BWN, arrivimg SDAH- at 1955!
As we walked out, I heard the announcement and caught glimpses of the New Coochbehar-bound Uttarbanga Exp, on Pf8, scheduled at 2115. It started raining again. Outside, the mud and slush turned off my mood. Anyway, I was home… to fly to Bangalore the day after morning!