by Shashanka Nanda
The evening of 19th November saw an excited me at the New Delhi station. The occasion - my first ever ride on an ER Rajdhani. After countless journeys on their WR counterparts, I was eager to check out the legendary ER ones and more so their cuisine about which I have heard a lot from fellow members. So there I was at the FoB heading towards platform 4/5 at 1610 hours, when I saw an LHB rake standing on the platform. For a moment I thought that ER has started using the LHB rake for its Raj, but a quick glance towards the starter told me the real story.
It was the 2952 Rajdhani to Mumbai headed by the famous WAP4 from Baroda, the Rajhansa (#22540). It was quite surprising to see this beauty contest loco hauling the Rajdhani as the shed prefers it primarily for long distance Mail / Express duty. In the 3 odd years that this loco has been around, it was perhaps the first time I saw it on Rajdhani duty. The reason for the delayed start (STD 1600hrs) for the Rajdhani was brake pressure problems. The crew just could not manage to get enough pressure built into the system to warrant a safe start, hence there was slight chaos near the loco with Khalasis detaching & reattaching the brake pipes a couple of times, the driver working furiously on the A9/SA9 while the train superintendent (TS) was in animated conversation over the walkie talkie with the guard and the cabin control. After much huffing and puffing, the BP finally reached operating levels and the Rajhansa glided forward at 1625hrs with a blast of its horn which hardly did justice to the 'Royal Swan' moniker. Frankly I have never been a great fan of the garish livery of the loco and age has made the faded colors look all the more harsh on the eye.
On the other side of the platform though, things were much more normal as Ghaziabad's WAP7 #30207 backed towards the waiting rake of the Sealdah Rajdhani Express. Now this train has swapped its Gomoh WAP7 link for a Ghaziabad one, while its elder sibling the Howrah Rajdhani has done the exact opposite. Soon after the 2952 left, Gomoh's WAP7 #30213 brought in the rake of the 2306 Rajdhani to Howrah (via Patna as it was a Friday) under its own power. Now this is not really the standard practice at New Delhi. Trusty WDS4 shunters bring the rake from the yard while the loco usually waits at the South end near Shivaji bridge.
After depositing my luggage in AS4 which was towards the rear of the rake, I jogged to the north end of the platform for a quick inspection of the trip shed. As always there was a battery of WAP4s from various sheds waiting in the shed along with sundry WAM4s and the odd 3 phase washing machines from Ghaziabad. The Sealdah Raj left bang on time and 15 minutes later we followed suit. At the begining and the end of a Rajdhani journey, garnering space at the door is near impossible as one end of the coach is swamped by the deluge of bedrolls and the other by stacks of snack trays and thermos jars!! With nowhere else to go, I deposited my ample bottom onto my seat and fished out my latest read - The Penguin Book of Indian Journeys (ISBN 0-14-100764-8). Its a great read with brilliant essays by writers like Salman Rushdie, William Dalrymple. VS Naipaul, Mark Tully etc. I wanted to keep track of the traffic in the opposite direction but that too was impossible as the trackside window was fogged out.
So I just sunk into my seat and waited for the evening snack which consisted of a sandwich or maybe I should call it bread butter as there was little else between the slices except for a quarter inch thick layer of butter. A paneer patty (or can I call it a cottage cheese croissant) which tookme on a treasure hunt to find the paneer within and in the end, all I found was a chit which says better luck next time (okay okay I am exaggerating, but where WAS the paneer?) Then there was a sweet (sohan papdi) along with HPMC's mango drink - 'Ditto'. Another thing that amazes me on board the Rajdhanis is that the pantry staff expects you to have piping hot tea/coffee within minutes of drinking an ice cold pack of juice!! Those apart, I was surprised by the lack of another item on the tray which is a staple on the WR Rajdhanis, i.e. the pouch containing the wet cologne tissue, paper soap, mouth fresheners and toothpick!!
The Raj crawled all the way up to Ghaziabad and beyond and it took us slightly over an hour to reach Dadri after which the chief opened up and we were cruising along merrily. Darkness had fallen as I read the adventures of Paul Theroux aboard the MG slip coach of the Delhi Mail in Jaipur. Soup (what flavor I couldn't tell) was served just past Aligarh after which the train came to an abrupt halt!! A good twenty minutes went past and there was no sign of any movement so I got up and checked. I found the TS in the next coach with the walkie talkie in his hand which was crackling with activity. The section controller's voice came loud and clear above the static announcing that a rail fracture had been detected just after the Sealdah Rajdhani crossed. Along with the news went all hope of cozying up in my hotel room in Kanpur to the TV with a nice drink and watching the antics of Sidhu and Co. on the Great Indian Laughter Challenge. Another 15 odd minutes later we crawled into Daud Khan station as I peeped out of the door. Barely 100meters behind us stood another train which crawled into the platform siding a few minutes later. Shortly, the TS addressed the passengers via the PA system and informed them about the reason behind the delay. It took us another 25 minutes to get going and 5 minutes out of Daud Khan, we slowed down to a crawl to pass over the affected spot. It was already 2005 hours and we were barely 150km out of Delhi.
I guess the chief took that as a personal insult because I was standing with the TS when we heard the guard over the radio giving the driver all clear after passing the restriction. 2 seconds later, I we heard the horns of the WAP7 blare over the WT and then the collective might of 6000 horses was let loose. The train was brutally pulled forward by an invisible force and before one could say Jack Robinson, we were way past the 100 mark and I guess 130 arrived only seconds later. My experience aboard the 12 coach Shatabdi to Chandigarh paled in comparison in front of this maddening force that carried us forward and there was no way I could NOT open the door. An icy cold blast hit me and outside the moonlit scenery went by in a blur. The WAP7 went on and on and on into the night slowing down for absolutely nothing. For the next 35 minutes we were treated to a masterclass in power by the WAP7 whose forward march was slowed only by the necessity of a 45kmph crawl through Tundla yard.
Dinner was served just about then. I had ordered non-vegetarian food, something which I don't do aboard the WR Raj's but here I was not disappointed. Served alongside soft Roomali Rotis and Pulao was a mouth watering butter chicken curry, whose gravy albeit a bit thin tasted just about right. The Dal got a 6 on 10 from me but that was compensated by the presence of the quintessential Bengali dish - some excellernt fried fish. Overall the dinner got an 8 on 10 from me but by then I was more interested in the antics of the great white monster up ahead. I opened the door to find that the beast was back where it belonged, 130kmph!! It had accelerated rapidly out of Tundla to 130 and stayed put. I was amazed at track condition on this section. There was virtually no body roll, neither any vertical movement from the track!! From what the drivers of the Sealdah Rajdhani told me two days later, there is absolutely no permanent speed restriction between Aligarh & Rura (near Kanpur) except for the Tundla yard and at Shikohabad. And with nearly 45 minutes of clear track ahead of us, the chief simply let it rip. The 300km distance from Daud Khan to Kanpur was accomplished in 2 hr 55 minutes flat!! And that was because we did 20-30 odd kmph from Bhaupur to Kanpur, which is nearly 15 kms.
I got off, still dizzy from the vicious treatment meted out by the big white. But then, I am no ordinary person am I? I am a railfan and I was simply 'lovin it'!!