Saturday, May 15, 2010

The new and the departing

On 12th May 2010, Hon. Minister of State for Railways, E. Ahmed, inaugurated the gauge-converted 44-km section between Kollam Jn (QLN) and Punalur (PUU). The historic meter-gauge section from PUU to Sengottai (SCT) is rumored to be closed for conversion any day now. Here is a trip report of a journey from QLN to PUU to SCT on 15 May, spanning the brand new BG section and the soon-to-be-phased-out MG section.
Caution: I know very little about Indian Railways, but am trying to learn. Those who know better may please point out mistakes in this report.

Pictures available here

I was in Hyderabad on 12 May when I read about the inauguration of the QLN-PUU section. I'd been longing to try the QLN-SCT section before the closure of its first half, but never got around doing it. In fact, I had assumed that the entire QLN-SCT section was closed for conversion. It was therefore good news that I could travel from QLN to SCT, albeit in two trains and in two gauges. The fact that the latter section--an important part of the rail and development history of Travancore--was open was itself reason for cheer.

I set out in the morning (of 15 May 2010) from Trivandrum (where I am based), and was dropped at the QLN station at 10:00 am for the 10:35 am passenger to PUU. Took a ticket to SCT (the ticket clerk was first unsure if she could issue a direct ticket to SCT, but after a few seconds was able to issue one).

I assumed that PF 3 was across the foot overbridge (FOB), next to PF2, I went over the FOB to PF 2...Surprise surprise, PF 3 was not next to PF was on the 'other' side of PF 1 (see my rather clumsy sketch of QLN station to understand this unusual layout). As I climbed up the FOB, 6320 MAS-TVC mail came in, headed by a WAP4.

The 327 QLN-PUU passenger, at the new PF 3, was headed by a WDM 3A from ERS (14052), long hood front. The loco had "ACD Fitted. AIR" stenciled across below the cabin window...not sure what it means...airconditioned cabin?

The rakes were brand new (mine was GS-SR 10407, seating 90, and the shell was GS 4412 dated 28-4-2010). There were in all 13 General sitting coaches, labeled G1 through G13, very clean and smelling new.

The signal turned green sharp at the departure time of 10:35 am, but we left only at 10:55 (perhaps because a lone WAG7 of Lallaguda (LCW) was coming in on the track?)

The times and stations on the QLN-PUU stretch are given below:

10:55 QLN departure
11:03 Kilikollur
11:08 Chandanathope
11:21 Kundara
11:28 Kundara East
11:32 Ezhukone
11:41 Kottarakkara
12:03 Avaneeswaram
12:16 Punalur arrival

At Kottarakkara, we crossed a rather strange passenger train: the board said "TVC-QLN-Nagercoil-Kottayam". Difficult to figure out this route, considering that TVC/NCJ and KTYM are on opposite sides of QLN...

Kottarakkara and PUU are the jump-off points for two proposed railway lines for the largely unserviced areas in Pathanamthitta, Kollam and Trivandrum districts. The first is Chengannur-Kottarakkara-TVC and the other Erumeli-Pathanamthitta-PUU-TVC, mainly meant for Sabari pilgrims.

We arrived at PUU at 12:16, as against the scheduled time of 12:00 pm. While my coach G1 was relatively empty, the crowd coming out from the train at PUU as well as the crowd waiting to travel to QLN, were substantial. I purchased something for lunch (available items: curd rice, lemon rice, and vadas of all kinds) from the VRS and walked over to the metre-gauge section to board the 746 PUU-SCT passenger.

The meter-gauge section was away from the main station (or rather, the new BG station was built away from the old meter-gauge station). The train was on the loop line and the little YDM4 was detaching itself and moving to the SCT side short hood first. The loco, number 6291, was from Ponmalai or Trichy's Golden Rock shed. However, since SCT-PUU MG track now stands isolated, I guess the loco's maintenance was being done at SCT itself.

The loco had to do some complicated maneuvering first: the ladies compartment, which was at the tail end of the incoming train, had to be put at the tail end of this train as well. For this, the loco detached itself from its position at the head of the incoming train (ie., the PUU side), moved on a parallel track (actually the main MG 'platform') and attached itself to the SCT side of the train next to the ladies' coach. It then detached the ladies coach, and left it all by itself on the tail of the MG platform. The loco then reattached itself to the SCT side, pulled the entire train forward, and reversed to the main BG platform where the ladies' coach was waiting, and attached it. The whole thing took about 25-30 minutes, making the train late. I wonder why the ladies' coach must always be at the rear of the train.

The train, all of 7 1991-built coaches, left at 1:20 (as against the scheduled time of 1:00). The ghat section began at PUU itself, and all the way across the ghats (until Bhagavathipuram, just before SCT) the train had to stick to the maximum speed of 30kmph (20 kmph at night). The YDM4 had no trouble hauling the 7 coaches through grades as high as 60.

The stations on the PUU-SCT sections are as follows:

1:20 PUU departure
1:30 Edamon
1:54 Tunnel #1
2:01 Ottakkal
2:11 Tunnel #2
2:14 Tenmalai (altitude: 167m above MSL)
2:23 Tunnel #3
2:24 Tunnel #4
2:27 Kazhuthurutti
2:34 Edapalayam
2:50 Aryankavu (altitude: 256.32m above MSL)
2:56 Tunnel #5 (the longest)
3:09 Bhagavathipuram
3:14 Sengottah

The tunnel right after Aryankavu is a marvel of engineering. While the ascent up the ghats took over 90 minutes, about 80% of the descent seems to be in this one tunnel. Built in 1901, the tunnel seems to be slightly over a kilometer in length.

The ghat section through Kerala has some breathtaking views of rubber, spices and other plantations and a considerable length of forests. For much of the ghat section, National Highway 208 (Kollam-Tirumangalam/Madurai) runs side-by-side with the track, and in many places, the Kallada river also follows, thus making an unusual rail-road-river trio. The SCT side also offers some beautiful and peaceful agrarian sights.

IMHO, the only eyesores in this journey were the 220 KV Kayathar-Edamon feeder lines and the wind turbines in SCT (of course, I guess both are necessities, the wind turbines being a green power source, and the feeder lines being essential for Kerala to hook up to the national power grid, and also in itself a complex engineering feat considering the nature of terrain they go through).

The nature of terrain (the railway line in numerous places is hacked out of solid rock) will make the gauge conversion challenging. In fact, the Aryankavu tunnel will be a test of SR's engineering competencies (the good news is that unlike Konkan Railway--where 19 lives and four years were lost building tunnels in soft soil--the terrain here is hard rock. Perhaps the Swedish hydraulic tunneling machines used in KR will help).

On my return trip, I got back from SCT on the 749 SCT-PUU passenger leaving at 15:40, getting off at Tenmalai (TML) where my car was waiting after driving down from Kollam on NH 208. The return from SCT to TML too was a charming ride. The loco pilot of this YDM-4 seemed to notch it up a bit more...despite starting 5 minutes late from SCT, train reached TML on time. Thereafter a 90 minute ride got me home by 19:15.

May is the hottest month in Kerala, and PUU is the hottest town in south Kerala...therefore the trip was, of course, hot. But nothing could have stopped me from making it...this was something that I was planning for a long time. That the PUU-SCT line will be closed any day now did make it doubly enjoyable. Thanks to Indian Railways for this wonderful experience!


  1. Enjoyed reading this one. Do you think AIR may be air brakes?

  2. Next trip report on Boat Mail experience? It is being started again from Aug 1.