Metric Musings: Across the Vindhyas
by Binai Sankar
Prelude: A marvellous video presentation by Poochi Venkat at the IRFCA Convention on the Dhul Ghat spiral ignited a to visit the place in the minds of many. However, the distance and lack of encouragement, left the desire within many people. The Mumbai gang decided to finally make a visit to this place and they invited more people to join. The initial plan involved very little MG journey and was forcibly replanned. Independent from the plans of the Mumbai gang, some of us here in Bangalore decided to make a trip to the same place. For the sake of convenience, the same dates were chosen as that of the Mumbai Gang.
Finally on the 12th of March, four members from Bangalore, and two from Chennai, embark on a journey from Bangalore to Nagpur. We took the Rajdhani express to Nagpur, and then the Pune Garib Rath from there to Akola. Akola is a small town in the heart of the state of Maharashtra. The gang was to travel from Akola (in Maharashtra) to Indore (in Madhya Pradesh) covering the scenic Dhulghat spiral and the jaw-dropping ghat section from Kalakund to Patalpani. The chosen train was 458B passenger, that leaves Akola at 0800 and arrives Indore at 1755, the same day. (The journey was on March 14, 2009)
Now, some history: The history of Metre Gauge lines in India dates back to 1872, when the then Viceroy of India, Lord Mayo chose the Metre Guage for railway lines across the country. The idea was based on the fact that, a gauge of 3'3" could seat four persons abreast. However, the push for a metric system changed the gauge to 1 metre. The world's first Metre Guage line was laid between Delhi and Farukhnagar in 1872, and the first commercial service was run between Delhi and Rewari in 1873.
Following this, many princely states began building their own railway systems, all using Metre Gauge. However, there existed a dispute between the gauges, and this dispute between gauges was solved by Lord Salisbury in 1878, ordering that all railways in India should be built on Broad Gauge system (1676mm). The broad-gauge policy was overturned in 1879, and the usage of Metre Gauge resumed. The section from Khandwa to Indore was built by the Holkar State Railway in 1878. The line was extended to Ajmer by the Rajputana-Malwa Railway in 1881.
By now, South India had a relatively dense Metre Gauge section (about 7940 Route kilometres), which remained isolated with the system that existed in the north (a part of which was the Khandwa-Ajmer railway line). The much needed connection between the two systems came in 1960, with the construction of a railway line between Khandwa and Akola. This line extended further south to Hingoli, and further on to Secunderabad. The legendary Meenakshi express ran from Jaipur to Secunderabad on these very tracks.
Project Unigauge ate up much of the distance of this marvellous west-south connection. Secunderabad to Akola and Ratlam to Ajmer are now in Broad Gauge. The death warning has been sounded for this section too, and the railways are planning to close the Ratlam-Indore section too very soon for conversion. The Akola-Khandwa section too is expected to close not much later. Reliable sources point that the Spiral and the amazing Patalpani ghats would longer exist after conversion, since the new Broad Gauge line would take a totally different route.
The Present: The impending conversion would mean that we would no longer be able to enjoy a metre-gauge journey across a ghats, complete with a banker loco! Initial planning involved choosing the right train and days. All this was made convenient, thanks to the extensive experience IRFCA members have on the section. Trains were quickly chosen, and as if it was made for us, we had tickets available for all the legs of our journey! Messages were quickly exchanged, and the plan was sent for regulatory approvals (read: permission from home).
Once the plans had the mandatory green signal, the work on reservations begun. We divided reservations among ourselves, and the tickets were all ready - confirmed! The wait till the day of the journey was exciting. The appointed day came, and we all met outside our coach - B4 - of the Rajdhani Express. WDM3A #18897 of Kazipet did the honours of taking us till Secunderabad - a journey that I would love to forget. The run was slow, the food was average, and the ride was pathetic. Leave that aside - I promise to write a report on the Rajdhani ride separately…
The Metric journey: It was a rather excited start for us in the morning… the first metre guage ride for many.. The start was somewhat confusing - we had to take a call on whether to have some breakfast from outside the station or settle for what we had parceled from home! We decided to head to the station straight. The Mumbai gang had already arrived, and they were put up on a BG platform. We quickly asked them to come down to the MG platform, while we all headed straight to the South Central Railway portion of the station. Our train had already arrived, and the loco was reversing to take charge of taking the train back to Ratlam.
The loco that brought in the 11-coach consist from Ratlam was YDM4 #6719 of Mhow. We went in search of our coach - S3. We walked along the coach, and found one coach with a marking S2. But S1 and S3 were conspicuously absent. Some of us, by now, rushed towards the loco, to take some photos. By the time, we returned to where others were standing, they had recieved some kind of information about which was our coach. Our coach - 88964Y - was the sixth from the loco. The coach had incandescent bulb lighting. We had two adjacent "six-seater cabins" and were closer to both the doors! Unlike BG trains, MG trains have three doors on each side.
We savoured Kachoris for our breakfast, washed down with hot tea. We also stocked some Kachoris for our day ahead. The train started from the station perfectly on time. The puny loco smoked its way out of the station quickly. The "cabin" adjacent to ours was occupied by two cops, the TTE and another railway guy. The TTE quickly said that we could close the doors to restrict other people to crowding the coach. We stopped at a small station soon after starting from Akola. The station did not figure on the timetable, and the reason why we stopped there confounded us.
The railway guy traveling in our coach got down and met the station master. He got some register signed, and then the train started moving. The station had absolutely nothing but the station master's cabin. These halts were well utilised by the TTE to move from one coach to another, since these coaches were not vestibuled. The string of halts continued well until we reached the first scheduled halt - Akot. Akot station has one platform line, and one through line. The through line was occupied by some decript MG wagons (flat cars and BCN wagons). Akot station serves as a watering point for trains, and our train too was watered here. However, the station had only two pipes (rubber hoses) for watering. So the entire process was too slow since they had to water coaches, one by one.
Akot station had plenty of food options - including Samosas, Kachoris and Oranges! The unreserved coaches were filled to the brim, while our coach had enough place for us to play around! The run was pretty eventless from here on, other than the excitement among us to see the spiral at Dhulghat. The windows were all occupied and there was a mad rush to the doors as the train slowly approached Wan Road. We were all determined to capture the "dwarf" signal outside Wan Road station. One group argued that the signal would be on the right, while the other said it is on the left. We finally decided to divide and 'guard' both sides.
The train ran through a tunnel, and we slowed down on approaching Wan Road. Lo! There stands the signal beckoning on me! All cameras went clicking at a mad pace. It was time to move to the other side of the train, for we have a crossing set ahead! YDM4 #6737 of Mhow was waiting on the loop line with an Akola bound passenger train. Both trains departed in opposite directions at the same time, and we continued our run towards Ratlam.
The speed of the train was surprising us to no end, since we were expecting a snail like crawl, when the train was actually cruising at about 75kmph. The spiral approached soon, and the arrival of it was announced by a board stating "spirral". The train went over the spiral bridge at a slow pace. The bridge was rather long. The train took a sharp right curve. Finally the train came down a gradient, and we ran perpendicular to the train that were running earlier, but below the bridge.
The ride continued eventlessly as we progressed towards Khandwa - the next major junction en-route. Shantanu, who was among the 15 traveling in the train, was getting down here. He was to take a train back to Mumbai from Khandwa. We crossed over the main lines and continued our run towards Khandwa station. The train runs through a sharp curve to enter Khandwa station. The train runs through a pretty nice MG yard. The Yard seems to serve as a transshipment facility between BG and MG freight, since there were BG lines as well along the MG lines.
The line also runs through a ghetto kind of area, and kids in the area seem to be too active. They threw all that was at their reach on to the train. This included baloons filled with water, colours, buckets of sewage (from a drain that runs along the railway line) and stones. Utmost caution is recommended to every body who wants to travel there. We were lucky enough to notice this on time, and we downed our shutters at the earliest.
The train slowly crawled into the station now. The MG section of Khandwa station had two platforms, and three lines between the two platforms. Catering facilities seemed poor at the station, and there was nothing beyond a small stall that sells Kachoris and pooris. We savoured on Kachoris and Pooris for lunch, downed with a couple of cold beverages. Two members of the group went outside the station, and got good food packed from a hotel outside the station.
The train moved out of the station at 1344. It got all clouded by then and was getting darker now. We were expecting very harsh climate during the day ahead, and were really surprised to see an overcast sky. It drizzled slightly as the train moved out of Khandwa. The train deviated away from the main line, and we continued our spirited run towards Indore. We crossed an Akola bound passenger at Ajanti - YDM4 #6736 of Mhow was in lead. Both the trains got starters together, and we continued out west-bound run.
The sleepless night the previous day started showing its effect on me, and I had a strong headache. I had a short nap as the train pulled out. We crossed another train on the way. I couldn't note further details of the train. I had yet another nap, and got up just as the train reached Omkareshwar Road. We crossed the marvellous bridge across Narmada shortly after the station. I was back to the berth now, with Colin jumping on to the middle berth.
Another short nap later, it was time to get ready, as Kalakund was approaching soon. Colin was "unloaded" from the berth soon, and we all were ready to pounce on Kalakund (the station… not the sweet). The entry into Kalakund is across a small curve. The train curved into the station at 1623. The station had four lines - including three loop lines. There is only one platform, and our train was admitted in that line. The Banker loco - yes! The train requires a banker for its up-hill journey to Patalpani - was waiting on the main line. YDM4 #6307 of Mhow was assigned as our banker. The loco attachment took a while, and we managed to cover it fairly.
We started our up-hill journey with the banker pushing us up the ghats. The ghat section had sharp turns, long bridges and four tunnels. There was one amazing viaduct enroute too. The section had a gradient of 1 in 41 (for the record, the spectacular Braganza ghats has a ruling gradient of 1 in 37). The section, sadly, would cease to exist once the section goes under the Gauge conversion madness. It took about half an hour to reach Patalpani from Kalakund - a route that is recommended to every body who wishes to enjoy good metre gauge action. We were all expecting the banker loco to be disconnected at Patalpani - but that was not the case. The loco continued with us till Mhow.
Mhow is a pretty big station, with a huge yard. I saw the first ever MG freight in my life pulling towards the station from the yard. Mhow has a diesel loco shed, which handles all the locos working on the section. Mhow is recommended to all who love watching MG trains and MG locos. The station also houses the only coaching depot on the route. There were lots of MG coaches and wagons parked around the station. We crossed a train heading to Khandwa, and 'overtook' one heading to Ujjain. The station also had two MG Generator vans, parked at the Ratlam end of the station. It was still cloudy, as we pulled out of the station.
The run was eventless after Mhow. All of us - fourteen in all, now - were busy discussing our plans after Indore. The 'Bangalore' Gang was getting down at Indore, so was the Hyderabad gang. The 'Mumbai' gang was continuing on the MG train to Ratlam. The train stopped at a station 'Rajendra Nagar' for a crossing. That was the first time in our entire journey that we stopped for a crossing - our train was allowed to run through at every point till then. The station's name brought a lot of amusement among ourself - for its similarity to another station up north in the country, which gets all the blessings of our respected railway minister.
A while after we stopped, a YDM4 came smoking in to the station. As the loco entered the loop, we felt something amiss! It was not one, but two locos!!! We were all excited to see a double headed train - the locos were YDM4 #6735 and #6638, both from Mhow. The train had about 18 coaches, and all of them were full. We started from the station soon later. We continued our run towards Indore. It was then a mad dash to pack our belongings - timetable, maps and some other stuff.
Soon a big BG yard - not a yard, but some trains parked close by - was visible. That was Indore station. The train pulled into Platform 1 and stopped for a while. We all bid adieu to the trusty - and rusty - MG train and moved towards the exit. The Mumbai gang re-assured that we would meet again the next morning at Vadodara. We went around to enquire about retiring rooms. The person manning the counter flatly refused to accomodate all of us - six in all - in one room. We later found our way to accomodation, and quickly got retiring rooms, paying the required rent. We went out on some night time photography of MG trains. The action seemed really high for an MG station.
We returned from Indore by the 9310 Shanti Express. On entering the coach, we found that the train had Side-middle berths, and our seat numbers changed as a result. It was all a mess, and took a long time to settle. Having our dinner became a challenge as we struggled for space to sit. Soon enough, the issue was settled and we decided to hit our berths. With clouds looming large, it was cold at night, and this helped us have a very nice sleep. I slept almost instantly after the train left Ujjain, and slept till were at the outskirts of Vadodara… (The journey from there would be narrated separately.)
A Metre-gauge journey is a must for every railfan. My first journey on an MG train happened by a chance of luck. The Akola-Indore section is one that is recommended for every railfan. The Akola-Khandwa section, and the Ratlam-Indore section may be closed very soon - perhaps before this year ends. The spiral would be history once the Akola-Khandwa section closes. The spectacular ghats between Kalakund and Patalpani too would be destined to the pages of history, while the broad gauge section takes a less ardous way to reach Indore from Khandwa. I would congratulate my stars for the chance to cover this section before the train travels into oblivion.
See images of this trip here. Please feel free to write to me with your comments and suggestion. Wait for the next part.. which'll describe the journey to Akola, and the one from Vadodara to Bangalore.