Yeh Yatra Puri Kab Hogi?
by Karan Desai
This trip report narrates my experience on the 41 hour epic journey starting from Valsad in Gujarat and ending at Puri in Orissa. The report is as long as the journey, I hope you will not get bored midway!
The day had started early, 3.15am to be precise. Breaking the silence of the sleepy town, an autorickshaw we had "booked" the previous night had come to pick us up. Within ten minutes, he deposits me, my parents and our luggage on to the main concnourse of Valsad railway station, teeming with people waiting for the early morning departure of Gujarat Queen to Ahmedabad. The train is already berthed on Platform 1 and I walk long way along the 23 coach rake to find an unreserved coach with cushioned seats and a vacant Emergency Window. Leaving parents and luggage behind, I walk all the way to the front to see the loco attachment. By now offlinks have become synonymous with my travels, so I was not surprised to see a BL WCAM-1 come up for duty instead of the customary BRC WAM-4. By the time I walk back 20 coaches, I realise something strange- all the coaches have filled up considerably apart from the one where we have settled. Then it dawns on us- this is the unofficial "pass holders" coach! Before it is too late, we move one coach ahead leaving the goon territory.
The train departs precisely at 04.05am and me and dad are the only two passengers in the coach not sleepy. The WCAM-1 does its duty with clockwork precision and we reach Navsari five minutes before scheduled time. A large crowd boards, and we heard commotion from the adjacent coach. The "pass holders" had arrived and were forcing unsuspecting passengers out of their "territory". One of the women sitting next to us commented nonchalantly- "Its a daily thing." as we stopped briefly at Udhna Jn. With a loud horn and raising a huge dust storm the Mumbai bound Rajdhani Express blasted past us at close to 120 km/hr jolting awake everyone from their sleep. As we approach Surat, I realise the passengers wanting to board the train far outnumber the ones wanting to get off (just the three of us), and with some effort we manage to disembark with all the luggage. Luckily the air-conditioned waiting room was right opposite us and we swiftly made our way in. There was no one guarding the entrance, yet the only occupants of the well furnished room with swanky sofas and televisions were bonafide passengers. The next couple of hours were spent partly in the waiting room and partly in the newly constructed cafeteria serving delicious hygenic snacks. Out of curiosity, I went down to the Enquiry counter teeming with people and asked the irritated man at the counter about the platform allocation and coach position of the Surat-Puri Superfast Express we were to take. His reply- "maybe 3, maybe 4. Hear the announcements, don't bug me!" I don't blame him for being irritated- there were three trains to UP, Bihar and Orissa scheduled to leave in the next two hours and the station was jam-packed with confused semi-literate labourers working in Surat's diamond and saree industries making a journey back home.
Finally at 8.00am, with just one brief announcement, the empty rake of 2744 Surat-Puri Express was brought into Platform 3 by a puny shunter. This train was launched just six months before my date of travel and I was hoping against hope to see a brand new rake, but it was not to be. The train was put together from random old coaches. There was chaos to board the unreserved coaches, and we waited for it to clear before walking up to our AC 2 Tier coach number A1 and settling down inside the very old but clean coach. A look at the reservation chart revealed there were only 12 passengers booked in our coach of capacity 46! I walked up to check out the locomotive, and needless to say, offlink again! A bright red ET WAP-4 was ready to haul us! Since the coach was sparsely populated, passengers spread out to seats they liked, and our bay of six seats (and as a result, windows on both sides) was left only for the three of us! Sweet! As scheduled, we pulled out of Surat at 08.30am and after a brief halt at Udhna Jn, veered to the left, away from the mainline on to the Tapti Valley line to Jalgaon. This train, in spite of having a 32 hour travel time, has no Pantry Car, but as soon as we were out of Udhna, a caterer came asking for lunch orders! We asked him where would he get the food from, since the first scheduled stop is directly Jalgaon, at 2:55pm. He replied, "Nandurbar!". Before we could point out it is not a scheduled stop, he confirmed- "Yes, we will stop. Guaranteed!". It is not for nothing that Gujarat is called a land of enterprenuers- these local caterers had made it a full-fledged business of catering packed lunch in trains like this one having no Pantry car! The order was despatched to the "base kitchen" by a cellphone call, ensuring hot and timely delivery on arrival.
Signs of doubling were visible everywhere but it majorly remains a single line electrified section. We stopped once for crossing with a late running passenger, and pulled into Nandurbar at around 12.30pm. As promised, the lunch was ready to be loaded, and so were other vendors selling snacks and cold drinks. The lunch, comprising of roti, dal, rice, mixed vegetables, curd and pickle was neatly packed in plastic dish and came with plastic spoon, fork and paper napkins! Better than the official IR pantry! The run through internal Gujarat, back into Maharashtra was monotonous, and the WAP-4 making merry with the 17 coach load made us reach the outskirts of Jalgaon at 2:30pm and were made to wait in a goods yard outside the station. No sooner had we stopped, a cold-drinks seller boarded our coach. Curious, we asked him how did he happen to be at this place at this time? "Sir, I take an auto-rickshaw and come down to this place every day this train is running. I know it always comes before time and stops here!" Creative business sense! After waiting for Pushpak Express to charge down the mainline, we entered Jalgaon Jn for a brief halt. No new passengers boarded, so peace continues. All passengers in our coach except the three of us had dozed off to sleep in the cold quiet environs. Now on the Mumbai Howrah mainline, the red beast let loose and we covered the 25 km distance to Bhusawal Jn in 20 minutes, when the time allocated in the time table is 45 minutes! We were at Bhusawal 20 minutes before time, which meant a long 30 minute halt! I ventured out on the platform and purchased some hot pakoda and ice cream. We departed from Bhusawal at 3.45pm and I stood at the door until we negotiated the huge yard and separated from the mainline to Howrah on to the mainline to Nagpur. The ELS had both the elusive WCM-6 units on display. Now, it was time for fun- the next scheduled halt was Nagpur- 394 km away at 10.15pm, but I doubted if our train would indeed run non-stop for 6 hours 30 minutes! And I was right. As evening approached, armed with Samit's atlas, I knew we were approaching Shegaon- the first major skip, if it were to happen, and went out with my camera, but no luck! Home signal yellow! We slowed down to an unscheduled 10 minute halt, for no apparent reason. Half an hour later, we were speeding at close to 110 km/hr even as the kilometer marks indicated Akola Jn approaching. Hoping to see a high speed skip, I went out again with my camera, but it was not to be! We were greeted into Akola with the signal showing Yellow with Diversion!
We were made to slowly enter the loop at Akola Jn and the platform had a considerable crowd waiting for other trains. I got off on the platform and saw some passengers on the platform eyeing the half empty general coach in our train, eager to board it. The train being unknown to them, one of them asked me- "Where does this stop next?" I told him, Nagpur. Hearing this, the crowd reacted as if I had just uttered a profanity! "Directly Nagpur? No Badnera too Oh my God!", uttered one of them in disbelief! Soon, the reason for the halt became clear- there was no overtake involved. A "senior railway officer" wanted to board the train to go to Nagpur and he had asked for the halt. A small group of people came to see off the officer as he boarded our 2A coach, and one of them announced on his walkie-talkie- "Yes, the saheb has boarded. Clear the line ahead!" The saheb and his troupe occupied one empty bay in our coach, and this prompted the coach attendant and the TTE into action. They went around the coach, asking all passengers if they were comfortable and if the AC temperature was right! After an hour or so of precise high speed run, we reached Badnera, and again, as expected, we came to an unscheduled halt. I felt bad I discouraged all those passengers at Akola from boarding. They could have as well travelled to Badnera in peace. Again, ten minutes of halt for no reason and off we were. By now it was getting dark, so there was nothing to see, and I decided to take a quick nap. When I woke up around 9.00pm, we were pulling into Wardha Jn, slow and ready for another halt. Enough, I decided, I have to find out the reason for all these unscheduled halts. As I walked up to the loco, I saw the ALP had just climbed back up from under the machine, inspecting it for damage caused by a cattle runover some time earlier. I asked my doubt and got the answer I had expected- "What to do? We are reaching 10-15 minutes early everywhere and not getting line clear! So much extra time given to this train!" echoing my own sentiments. When a new train is announced with excellent halt pattern like this one, why give it so much extra running time that it defeats the whole purpose of long non-stop runs? Anyways, after half an hour or so, I felt we were approaching Nagpur and went to the door to check out the second largest city in Maharashtra for the first time.
The first glimpse of the city was through a small wait in the Ajni yard. Slowly we crawled through the city and entered the huge station terminus, all ten platforms gleaming with bright lights. Luckily, we were taken on Platform 1 for our long 40 minute halt (15 min official plus 25 min before time). This being enough time to explore the station for available dinner options, me and dad went out first to the Comesum outlet, and purchased some delicious hot snacks from there. Then, I decided to be more adventurous- I had seen a large crowd on a food stall on Platform 2/3, so I climbed the bridge to the other platform, went to the stall, purchased some fresh dhokla (Gujarati snack), hot gulab jamun and the famous Orange sweets of Nagpur, all the time keeping an eye on my train on Platform 1, hoping it doesn't start moving. Nagpur station has several water coolers from where one can fill up bottles with cold filtered water for just Rs 3 against the Rs 12 to be spent on bottled water, and we took enough stock to last us till the next day. We started from Nagpur at 10.35pm and amidst digging into delicious dinner just procured, I managed to get a brief look at the famous Nagpur Diamond Crossing and later one glance of a NG train. Post dinner, I decided to call it a day. I realised I would need a good night's sleep to enjoy the next day of journey- through the hinterlands of Chhatisgarh into Orissa. A long way to go!
I woke up to the sights of lush green forests on both sides of the tracks, and saw the train accelerating like an EMU, on diesel territory. I found this rather strange, but continued to enjoy the view as others still slept. We came to a halt at a tiny station in the middle of nowhere, and this being interior Chattisgarh- the area about which I had heard only in Naxal violence stories, I was a bit apprehensive at first, but the railfan in me could not resist getting out of the train to have a look at what's going on. As I looked out, the sight made me think as if we did time travel overnight. Last night it was double line electrified MACL territory with a no-nonsense WAP-4 at the helm, and now it is a single line diesel section with charming semaphores and a melodious diesel chugging away! I knew we would wait long enough for a crossing but did not muster the courage to go up to the front of the train, so the loco link still remained a mystery. At around 6.15am, we pulled into a small station called Kantabanji for a scheduled halt, and the Puri-Ahmedabad Express crossed us, hauled by twin VSKP diesels. The sight made me jealous, wondering if that train can get twin diesels, why not us? The acceleration from Kantabanji was again superb, very uncharacteristic of a WDM-2/3A I thought. Half an hour later, we pulled into Titlagarh Jn, and it was time for me to witness the first ever reversal ever since I started understanding railfanning jargon! Also, it being breakfast time, dad got off with me to search for food in what was totally new and alien part of India for us. As I reached the front of the train, the mystery was revealed- the superb acceleration I was witnessing was thanks to the combined power of twin VSKP WDM-3A leading our 17 coach load! More joy for me, it being my first ever journey behind a twin diesel hauled train!
The halt at Titlagarh was quite long. We found some snacks and hot tea from vendors on the platform and only after we had finished breakfast did the twin Alcos make their way to the other end of the train. There seemed to be no sense of urgency in this part of the country. After almost a 45 minute halt, we started off, now my coach being 13th instead of 5th from the loco, took a sweeping right turn on the line towards Sambalpur and quickly accelerated to a high speed run through a dense forested patch before opening up into plains and fields. From Titlagarh, the TTE had made some quick bucks by allowing an elderly couple into the empty 2A coach at a "settlement" rate of Rs 150 over their 2nd Class ticket. Quite a discount I thought. But it was not to be. The elderly couple did not want to travel long. They got up in an hour as we approached Balangir, struggling with a large amount of baggage they were carrying. Me and dad helped them disembark with their luggage and the sight of Balangir left me awestruck. It was such a beautifully maintained clean and tidy station, apparently in the middle of nowhere! From here, the TTE again allowed a couple of passengers in, for a short hop to the next halt- Bargarh Road. Another hour of high speed run and we were near Sambalpur. Samit's Atlas told me it was time to cross the Mahanadi and I went out of the cool confines of the AC and opened the door to a very hot dry central India day. We were halted at a small station just before Mahanadi for a long time in which an ice cream seller came from the village and made some quick business. Finally after waiting for half an hour at the open door, I got the view of the vast Mahanadi, albeit empty- all its water safely stored in the huge reservoir behind the gigantic Hirakud Dam visible in the distance.
The heat had me very thirsty by the time we entered Sambalpur and I immediately ran to the only open stall on the platform. I was subjected to a double surprise- firstly the stall was manned by a Sardarji speaking chaste Punjabi, very unusual for this part of the country, and secondly, he had cold packets of Amul Masti buttermilk- again, quite unexpected this far from Gujarat! I grabbed a few packs and settled back in the cold confines of the 2A coach. After a brief halt, we took a steep right turn to take the line to Angul. The scenery was beautiful and the twin deemers were having fun with the 17 coach load, merrily running non-stop as dozens of twin diesel hauled freights were crossed and overaken. This is totally a double diesel territory, dominated by pairs from Vishakhapatnam and Bondamunda. By noon, we began to feel hungry, and had almost run out of stock of water, so Angul was eagerly awaited. We pulled in around 1.00pm, but the station turned out to be much dead compared to what I had thought it would be. All we managed to get was one bottle of soft drink. No food. So, it was time to go to our backup- knowing there is no pantry on this train, we had packed a lot of home food, but had not taken it out all this while since we were getting fresh food from major stations. No vendors boarded from Angul, so we decided to wait for the next halt- Talcher Rd. It turns out Talcher Rd is just a tiny station, more of a junction cabin and although we did not halt much at the station itself, we were made to wait long at a huge sweeping curve leading to the double electrified line coming from Talcher for a coal laden freight to pass towards the Talcher Thermal Power Plant.
Once on the twin electrified line beyond Talcher, which seems to be well maintained, we started doing even better speeds than earlier, the twin deemers merrily whistling away at the hordes of freights we crossed. For the first time in the entire journey, now rain made its appearance, but thankfully went away after a few brief showers. The next halt, Dhankennal was again uninteresting with no signs of food. Two stations ahead, at Rajatgarh Jn, we left the line to make a fairly large right turn to take the line to Bhubaneshwar via Barang. The very next station, rather elaborately named tiny halt Radhakishorepur, we were brought to a grinding halt. With dark gloomy clouds, rain, and an incompletely made platform with no human in sight it was quite an uncomfortably wait for 30 long minutes. Little did we know that this is just the beginning of a rather long nightmare!
A little after Radhakishorepur, we crossed the mighty Mahandi for the second time, this time filled with water to the brim. Another small halt to join the Kolkata-Chennai trunk line, and soon we were at Bhubaneshwar, at 3.30pm, 40 minutes behind schedule. The platform at Bhubaneshwar was packed with passengers and the moment the train halted, a couple of dozen of them entered our 2A coach too. The coach attendant tried to argue with one such passenger explaining that this is a reserved 2A coach but the passenger would just not listen. His argument- "I have a ticket and I will board", proudly showing his II class unreserved ticket! The attendant gave up and the unreserved passengers settled in the various empty bays of the coach. Thankfully, none came to our bay asking to "adjust a bit". The halt at Bhubaneshwar was a rather long one, thanks to the missed slot and traffic ahead. We slowly pulled out only at 4.00pm and once again, the twin deemers had fun blasting at 110 km/hr on the trunk line until we reached Khurda Road at 4.25pm, delayed by one hour now. The unreserved passenger were making a lot of noise now, and more than anything else we were worried about our luggage. At around 4.40pm, we got the clearance to take the branch line to Puri, and Samit's atlas showed this to be a single line with doubling in progress but I saw double line, so I was happy that the journey would probably end sooner than expected. How wrong I was! The second line ended two stations later at Kanas Rd and at the next station Delang we were made to wait for a crossing. There were several passengers on the other platform so I thought a passenger train was expected, but soon I saw a sight I had never seen before- as the train came into view at a distance, a few passengers at the platform stood up and started waving at the train asking it to stop, like people do to stop an autorickshaw! The LP wouldn't care less and the WAP-4 hauled express just blasted past the station at high speed, leaving the passengers dejected!
The controlling in this section is rather relaxed, and we got the starter only ten minutes after the crossing had happened. The very next station- Jenapur Rd, we were on the mainline but came to a grinding halt as the signal ahead showed red! One of the two loop lines was occupied by Tirupati Puri Express while the other was empty. Now, the unreserved passengers of both trains got off at the platform, waiting to see which train gets the green first, and get on board that one! I stood at the door for some time during which a loco hauled DMU rake passenger crossed. The section controllers, following First In First Out principle, allowed the Tirupati Puri Exp to proceed while we stood still. By now a coconut seller had arrived in our coach, and realising he could speak some Hindi, we engaged in small talk with him, when he made us realise what a big blunder we had done in choosing our date of travel- today was the day when the famous annual Rath Yatra at Puri ends, attracting close to 10 lakh devotees! Hence, the big crowd! By now, we had still not got the starter, but the Delhi-Puri Purushottam Express came from behind and occupied one of the loop lines. Starter still red for both lines! After 15 minutes of wait, a WAP-4 hauled express crossed us, and after another 10 minutes of wait, the controllers finally decided to give us the proceed signal. The LPs made full use of the clear line, running at high speed through the next station Birpurshottampur but that was it. Next station- Sakhigopal and we were again made to stop on the mainline. This station has, from left to right, a platform, a loop line, a main line, a platform, a loop line and a smaller loop. The loop to the right of us was occupied by a OHE Inspection car leaving only left loop open for crossings.
We waited, 15 minutes, and a WAM-4 hauled train crossed us. I waited with bated breath to see if we get green. No luck! Another 15 minutes of wait, and a WAM-4 hauled DMU shuttle made its way into the station, stopped, and went, but no clearance to us. By now it had got dark, and everyone was quite irritated by this delay. The coach attendant had turned off the AC to conserve battery and gone for a walk. Another 15 minutes later, yet another WAP-4 hauled train crossed us. This was getting too much! Three crossings and not done yet. I tried going off to sleep but the temperature inside the coach was uncomfortable due to AC turned off. I caught hold of the coach attendant chatting on the platform and asked him to turn on the AC which he did. Someone came with more grim news- due to the huge Rath Yatra crowd, there were several extra special trains scheduled to leave at this time of the day and they had strict instructions to let all outbound trains go first, keep the inbound ones waiting! It was now that the absence of pantry was badly felt- we had run out of water and there was nothing at the station. By now, the section was getting saturated and the OHE van was cleared out from the right loop and sent to the small loop. This made space for the Purushottam Express to come and halt next to us. I immediately ran to the Pantry Car of Purushottam and asked him if they had some food. "No", came the reply "we are out of food, already delayed so much by the night travel ban due to Naxals and now this!" I asked if he had water at least, and he immediately brought out three bottles of water and handed them to me at the prescribed rate. Some more passengers came for the same business, and meanwhile someone brought the news that Surat-Puri will be given clearance now, so everyone ran back in! It was a false alarm though! One more train crossed us. The pantry in-charge of Purushottam was a smart guy- realising Surat-Puri has no Pantry and the passengers would be hungry, he sent one of his staff with a tray full of packets of Brittainia Slice Cakes into our coach and asked him to travel to Puri by our train, trying to sell off all his wares!
Ten minutes later, at 8.15pm, finally we got the starter, and the LP blew a loud long horn and pulled out the train in style, accelerating like crazy, making his frustration very visible! I was now standing at the door, and the run was absolutely fantastic. The LP took the twins in top notch, continuous twin tone horns blowing and blasted through the remaining distance to Puri in ten minutes, finally reaching the terminus at 8.30pm, 4 hours 15 minutes late, and taking four hours to cover the last 42 km of the journey! The station was totally jam-packed with pilgrims but surprisingly, there was order in the chaos, and we managed to exit the beautifully illuminated statioin building with no pushing or shouting, as if everything was being looked over by Lord Jagannath Himself!