“NIGHT AT MANMAD” – Part 1 of 3

MANMAD RAJYARANI – THE AGGRESSIVE EMPTY TRAIN

 

PRELUDE

Around the end of June, the monsoon had made its presence felt throughout India with varying degrees of bliss, benefit, disruptions, havoc and mass-scale destruction. Although wrong to generalize, we as railfans relish this opportunity to ride trains through regions adorned with picturesque beauty courtesy of monsoon showers. Adding a flavour of adventure and to satisfy our appetite for trains and locos, a trip to Manmad for overnight railfanning was chalked out spontaneously and the trip finally materialized on the weekend of 29th-30th June 2013.

Reservation is a cakewalk…

The train that chooses itself in such a situation is the 22101 Lokmanya Tilak Terminus (LTT) – Manmad (MMR) Rajyarani express. Running since the last 15 months, this train has floundered miserably in terms of patronage due to a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, it perfectly suited us in terms of its schedule both ways. After all, an evening departure, a late night arrival at MMR and the return in the wee hours was the perfect prescription for our plan. Having finalized the trip just about 36hours before departure, a status of 170 available (out of 185) gave us a further 24hrs to ponder further about any last minute inclusions or dropouts or changes in the plan. Hardly 7hrs to departure, Second Sitting (2S) tickets are booked with a status of still 148 available. Usually anyone would heave a huge sigh of relief to have claimed a confirmed seat in general quota within 7hrs of departure. But in this case, it was nothing but a “taken for granted” emotion to say the least. Myself, Rahul Sharma, Sriram and Ajitesh Dubey were now counting down minutes.

LTT modernized…

I reached LTT about an hour before scheduled departure. It may sound ridiculous but after 25yrs in Mumbai this was my first visit to LTT and I was pleasantly impressed. LTT has a huge frontend now, with a sprawling parking space and lanes/queues for public transport, although not functional yet. An imminent connection with the under-construction Santacruz-Chembur Link Road (SCLR) will further boost its connectivity and importance. Anyone who lands up at LTT can’t help notice an erstwhile steam loco perched on a mini-platform just outside the huge station building. Thoughtfully applied glass panes not only add a modern charm to the terminus but also manage to make it bright and airy. A bunch of large-font boards pointing passengers to the various facilities provided or soon-to-be-provided heavily cut down on confusion. I’m glad I came across a rather tranquil atmosphere at LTT thanks to the dearth of trains, both arriving and departing, at that moment.

The scene now shifts to pf1, adjacent to the huge building. As expected a dead-looking rake of Rajyarani Exp, devoid of any passengers, is already berthed on pf1. The platform also has a single-digit attendance to go with it. A quick stroll on the platform paints a clearer picture of the rake composition. SLR followed by 10-11 GS coaches, 1-2 coaches for MST passengers, then two 2S coaches, a CC coach and an SLR. My eyes catch blank reservation charts with barely 10% occupancy in the lone CC, 50% occupancy in D1 and 1% occupancy in D2. The GS coaches too follow suit with even lesser numbers. It instantly clicks to me that it will be a free-for-all situation all the way.

As the clock ticks 18.20, a roaring WDP4D 40102 brings in 16346 Thiruvananthapuram (TVC) – LTT Netravati Exp to pf4 right on time. Pf2 is empty, while pf3 holds the empty rake of 11056 Gorakhpur (GKP) – LTT Godan Exp that must have arrived a couple of hours ago. A few minutes tick by and Kalyan (KYN) WCAM-3 21890 takes charge of my train. A long walk back to my coach D1 rewards me with no new faces at all. It has the new kind of 2S seats with rows of 3+3 seats as compared to earlier bays of 12 seats with 3+3 facing 3+3. As quickly confirmed by Rahul, I grab one side of a bay in D2 coach and drive my D1 reservation out of my mind. A few loyal patrons pay their respect to the Rajyarani by choosing to travel with general tickets. Few of them have already turned supine and dozed off.

Four crazy railfans, one empty train and an aggressive LP…

Sharp at 19.00 the train sets into motion. As I look back through the window a few last-minute chaps enact the DDLJ scene. The guard is not ruthless like in the movie and halts the train promptly. For a moment it felt like those desperate cabs running empty that halt abruptly anywhere to take up any potential passenger. The daredevilry of two guys thus paves the way for a group of 10 to board as well, and the delay now mounts to 5min.

LTT trip shed is housing a few WCAM-3 and a couple of WCAM-2. Once on the 5th line, I come across 15018 GKP-LTT Exp on the 6th line waiting to enter LTT along with a surprise 12142 Rajendranagar Patna (RJPB) – CSTM Superfast Exp detained at Ghatkopar loop. The first exhibition of WCAM-3’s might excites me like anything as we achieve 90km/h within no time. Vikhroli and Bhandup are treated with exhilarating blasts. Thane soon arrives without much delay.

As the three others join me at Thane, they are equally flummoxed by the “empty” train. A few new characters enter the scene but barely contribute to the occupancy levels. Parag Dhabe enjoys his two minutes of reunion and sees us off. The train has not been detained at Thane for EMU traffic and smoothly joins the fast line. Thane creek, Parsik tunnel, Mumbra creek, Diva mangroves all fly past as darkness sets in. A rocking blast through a crowded Dombivli station at MPS deserves appreciation for the LP in charge.

A quick 2-min halt at KYN does not add any delay and soon the SE line veers away. Within a few minutes we are again flying at MPS with the distant suburban stations bowing down with respect. As we share and appreciate each other’s experiences, suddenly our train enters the loop line at Asangaon. A terminating EMU is seen occupying the through line and hence the detour. However we don’t miss out on relishing another exposition of the brilliant acceleration by the LP and the might of WCAM-3. An further MPS run brings us to the foothills of the Western Ghats.

The breathtaking Thull ghats in darkness…

Twin KYN WAG-7 bankers quickly attach to the rear of our train at Kasara and the ascent starts. We are warmly welcomed by cool breezes and a misty atmosphere. As the adjacent line plays hide and seek, we run through century old tunnels with a slight drizzle. On occasions melodious downpour of waterfalls rings our ears but the stream is nowhere to be seen. As we ascend higher, the temperature drop is significant and the cloud cover thickens. Visibility takes a severe hit. A few blurred lights in the distance just confirm we are amidst dense clouds. Equipped with a 10,000hp pushing force, we tear through the clouds over not one but two stunning viaducts. On both occasions, we hear the clanks, but the clouds below don’t let us estimate the height of the viaducts. It feels like an airplane ascending the skies with clouds covering the void beneath it. Obviously such an experience can be a million times better in daylight. The fact, that we are surrounded by clouds and still achieving a higher altitude by the minute, quietly builds up the suspense regarding what to expect at Igatpuri (IGP).

As IGP arrives, we are compelled to take a walk on the platform, just to experience the mist and the chill. Just two tracks across, a WDG4 sounds to be idling, but we can just faintly see it. Such is the extent of dense fog around us. The cool breeze has us shivering but our adrenaline downplays it as just pleasant temperature. Where else can someone ascend to such a hill-station in just 20-25mins? Eyes are seeing blurred lights, hands have gone numb and ears have gone quiet, all in a matter of minutes. Tea and snack vendors are enjoying their brisk business and why not? Even the aggressive LP seems to extend his halt at IGP just to spend a few more minutes in this terrific atmosphere.

A thrilling run to end the journey…

After IGP, the coaches seem even more deserted. Once clear of the points, the train literally shoots to MPS. Ghoti and subsequent stations face the demeaning rage of a slightly delayed Rajyarani. In high spirits after IGP, we munch on some packed food but not without appreciating the awesome run. It seems we are having dinner, but the WCAM-3 is happily digesting kilometres. The feat of aggressive acceleration to MPS after halt at Devlali with just 6km to the next halt is unanimously appreciated by all four of us. Both Devlali and Nasik Road are touched more or less on time.

A lot of passengers expectedly alight at Nasik Road (NK). There are hardly any passengers still onboard across whatever coaches we could see through the vestibules. Even the likes of “RGV Ki Aag” gather more viewers than the passengers on our entire train. Post NK, the LP seems to be in a hurry to retire for the day and is madly accelerating to MPS. After a caution order, the continuous tug felt from 30 to 105km/h is comparable to a WAP-5. The rhythmic track sounds have their tempo tuned to maximum and show no relent at all. Even a caution order as above is unable to keep us from reaching MMR outer by 23.00, thus covering 72km from NK in a mere 45min with an MPS of 105km/h. The MMR-DD line is visualized and a train from that line crawls ahead of us, possibly towards pf1. Once it clears, the Rajyarani is allowed into MMR pf6 around 23.10, very much before time.

The experience onboard this so-called product of public demand asks too many questions about its existence. It evidently looks to be a loss-making endeavour and unnecessary wastage of resources. The smart food vendors blissfully ditch this train as they don’t wish to echo their shouts through empty coaches. A few ones do manage to run through the vestibuled coaches at halts, but without much sale. However this is the best train to have peace of mind and body while travelling as you can sit and sleep practically on any of the seats in any of the coaches. A hell of a run by the monster WCAM-3 and the brilliance of the ever-aggressive LP cannot be ignored. Finally, here we are, a bunch of maniacs, looking forward to an action-packed night at Manmad…

Continued in part 2…

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