Reminiscing train travel before the pandemic

The pandemic, ever since its formation at the end of 2019 in Wuhan, China; has claimed a gazillion lives globally. It has caused many more people to lose their jobs (and thus their livelihood, for the poor and the underprivileged). If you are not among either of these two categories; consider yourself extremely privileged, especially in a third-world country like India – which is one of the nations worst hit by COVID19. Yes, as far as the corporate world is concerned; things are slowly limping back to normal. Work from Home, also known as Remote Work; has become a way of life; but that doesn’t stop offices from functioning at at least 50% capacity in all metros. The famous Mumbai local trains are running for all essential services staff and the buses are running with only seated passengers. The progress of vaccination in India as a whole is slowly improving. However, it will take a long, long time for things to return to what they were before the pandemic struck. Which brings me to the point of this blog post – I deeply miss travelling by train; whether it be the long-distance trains or even the Mumbai locals.

My last train journey was on March 13, 2020; in a local from Dadar to Vikhroli – as a part of my (till-then) regular office commute. If you recall, I used to travel from my home in Hiranandani, Powai to Lower Parel on a daily basis. For this, I had to take two trains; a CR (Central Railway) local from Vikhroli to Dadar, followed by a WR (Western Railway) local to Lower Parel. It was a tiring commute and one that often left me irritated, angry, frustrated, upset and what not! This, along with the stress induced by the vagaries of Recruitment (that too in a startup company!), was enough to make my work life a recurring nightmare. As a result, I frequently looked for an escape route; and of these routes was a trip by long-distance trains. These days the work stress is somewhat less; thanks mainly to a supportive family atmosphere at home – apart from the absence of the fatigue and stress of the local train commute. Of course; WFH can be a double-edged sword; your boss may expect you to work an extra hour and two and at a faster pace, due to the time saved by the absence of travel. On such occasions, online entertainment events (poetry, comedy, music and even magic!), reading Agatha Christie mysteries, watching sports and even playing the mobile roleplay/simulation game “Choices” help to a great extent – such that train travel is not missed too much.

However, I can’t help missing travelling by trains; since I am an active member of quite a few Railfan Whatsapp groups and thus get to see a lot of train photos and videos every week. Besides, I sometimes get jealous when I see or hear of railfans travelling by long-distance trains; of course on most occasions it may be necessary travel and not travel for the sake of enjoyment. But still, the feeling of not having travelled by this amazing mode of transport for close to 1.5 years rankles. Particularly when I used to undertake a train trip once a month on an average (sometimes even twice a month!) before COVID19. My last long-distance train journey was on 15th February 2020 – from Pune to Mumbai, by 11028 Chennai Mumbai Mail. Of course, that was a purely overnight (not to mention, sleep killing! 😛 ) journey. If you consider only daytime journeys, my last journey was on the same day earlier – from Mumbai to Pune, by 11301 Mumbai Bangalore Udyan express.

Now, of course; y’all are going to ask me: where is the blog of that journey? The answer is – unfortunately, I have not written a blog about that journey; because I treated it just like one of the umpteen number of Mumbai-Pune trips I’ve undertaken – not knowing that it was going to be the last train trip for a long, long time! Also, more than the train journey; the trip was mainly to spend time with my friend (the railfan Omkar, whom you will recall) in Pune and visit his family; in the course of delivering an invitation for my upcoming marriage at the end of March (which, by the way, eventually happened in August and ultimately did not work out; but more on that later!). The train trip before that was memorable – going to Hyderabad in the 2nd week of January (with a stopover at Pune; where Omkar joined me) and shooting videos of trains at MPS at Ghatkesar (in the outskirts) as well as devouring the famous Biryani at Paradise!! But no, unfortunately I don’t have a blog of that trip either; though I do have a Microsoft Word document on it – just couldn’t devote the time to convert it into a WordPress blog; what with me being busy with a lot of work (the beginning of the New Year always brings a lot of work!) as well as regular and long calls with my fiancee; since the marriage was drawing closer.

So, the last train journey was in March 2020 (last long-distance train journey in Feb 2020); but the last train journey covered in a WordPress blog was the journey from Mumbai to Pune on 21st December 2019; by 11041 Mumbai Chennai express. You can revisit it here: https://ashwinkumar1989.online/2020/01/05/finishing-off-2019-in-style-part-1/ and https://ashwinkumar1989.online/2020/01/08/finishing-off-2019-in-style-part-2/ . So, what do I miss about travelling in trains? Well, a lot of things! It starts with the excitement of planning a trip; with checking out various places and hitting upon a particular place; whether it be a proper city like Pune or an unexplored route like Kurduvadi-Miraj. This is followed, of course, logging onto IRCTC and checking out the various train options – with respect to timing, seat availability etc. Once upon a time, I was a very frequent visitor of IRCTC; now, I rarely visit the site. See how times have changed! This, of course, because travelling for pleasure is almost a taboo these days. Even while booking a ticket, you have to provide the address of the place where you are staying (with pin code and all!) – so this effectively rules out pleasure trips, particularly one-day trips!

I deeply miss those days when we railfans used to meet up, not simply for lunch, tea, dinner or chit-chat; but for actual railfanning – shooting photos and videos of trains at a particular spot; often at high speed. For example, the railfanning at Ghatkesar near Hyderabad in Jan 2020: here is a video of that session (please keep subtitles on for a detailed description!) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGo1Yt9wPBk&t=1s . Shooting photos and videos involves a lot of anticipation and of course patience. Each of us would take our place near the tracks and wait patiently. The sight of the signal turning green from red often brought out a lot of excitement; and the horn of an upcoming train – more so. The feeling when a train rattles past you at full speed, raising a lot of dust in the process, is simply indescribable; especially when it is successfully captured on camera or phone. And the track sounds – music to the ears! Sadly, these days it is very difficult to do railfanning. It is a hobby that even otherwise is looked upon with suspicion by railway officials and RPF; hence we are forced to take photos and videos at a remote spot in a covert manner. Now, in these times of uncertainty, RFs are bound to face a much higher level of scrutiny; even if we take all the required precautions like wearing masks, carrying sanitisers and maintaining physical distancing.

I deeply miss those days when we RFs used to go on trips together. Yes, as I mentioned, in Jan 2020 there was a memorable trip to Hyderabad with RF Omkar. But that was just the two of us; except for the RF session at Ghatkesar. Moreover, on the return journey we took two different trains to reach our destinations. I mean those days earlier when I was in Chennai, pre-2016. With my two RF friends there (Sivakumar and Parsuwanath) we undertook a lot of trips together; the most memorable being the one in October 2015 when we came to Mumbai by 12164 Chennai Dadar ‘Super’ express – my favourite train ❤ . There was also a rather offbeat trip to the south coast of Tamilnadu in December 2014; involving circuitous routes. The path goes like this: Chennai Egmore – Karaikal – Velankanni – Nagapattinam – Thanjavur – Karur – Chennai Central; entirely by train! And the chief highlight was that majority of the route was in diesel territory – hope you remember that I am a big fan of diesels, especially ALCOs – more on that later! Ah, those days…but anyway, the pandemic has nothing to do with my shifting from Chennai to Mumbai; so I have nothing to complain about…I just miss those days; because we RFs had a lot of fun together. Sadly there is no blog on these trips with my Chennai friends, because I started blogging only in December 2016; that too only because my therapist suggested it!

I deeply miss the trips with railfans, but that doesn’t at all mean that I don’t miss the solo trips. As an introvert, I do enjoy solo trips a lot; they help immensely in releasing work-related stress and also I get some “me time” 😀 . As mentioned before, I used to undertake a train trip once a month; sometimes even twice a month! Most of these trips involved short distances (for instance, places like Pune or Manmad; especially in 2019!). But there were also big ones; for instance, the Mumbai-Chennai trips and the Konkan trips. Of course, the Mumbai-Chennai route is a tried and tested route; I seriously can’t count the number of times I’ve travelled in this major (but sadly neglected) trunk route, starting from as early as 1994; when I was not even five years old!! But the Konkan route is a different ballgame altogether. Bridges, viaducts, rivers, lakes, mountains, greenery – you name it, you have it!! And the best part is it is entirely single line diesel traction….or at least was! Sadly electrification is progressing at a rapid pace and it looks like the entire section may well get electrified by the time COVID19 finally leaves the country for good! 😦

In fact, the best train trip in my whole life involves – no prizes for guessing – Konkan Railway! It was November 2015, I was returning from Chennai to Mumbai by 11028 Chennai Mumbai Mail and we were going through a prelude of the infamous Chennai floods that eventually rocked the city in December. At the start of the journey, everything seemed to be in order. The train departed on time and I soon fell asleep. However, all hell soon broke loose. We were stranded for about 12 hours at Puttur on the AJJ (Arakkonam) – RU (Renigunta) route!! I learned from railfans that this was due to the derailment of a special at Ontimitta on the RU-Kadapa route. Luckily, since the train had a Pantry Car; we kept getting food at regular intervals. Even so, the situation looked bleak since the floods had gathered momentum at various places and trains were getting cancelled. Just when I was close to panicking, I learned through my railfans that we were going to be diverted through KR! I was at first totally flabbergasted, but eventually it turned out to be true! We crawled upto Pudi, the last station before RU and then our locomotive (a major offlink, by the way – a Ludhiana WAG7!) reversed and we backtracked till Tiruttani – where many people got down (desperate to get back to their homes in Chennai and perhaps stay put till the floods eased!!), but I, being the crazy RF that I am, chose to stay!!

As we left Tiruttani, we bypassed AJJ and joined the Katpadi – JTJ (Jolarpettai) line!! I then confirmed with a pantry staff that we were indeed diverted through KR and boy did we have a blast!! Later there was a long halt at Erode; then came another surprise! Our electric loco came off and was replaced by twin GY (Gooty) WDG3As!! Imagine – Konkan route and twin ALCOs – a combination to die for!! The best part was that I was getting to see not only KR, but also the beautiful north Kerala route (with its backwaters, greenery and coastal scenery) in broad daylight!! The ALCO twins put up a terrific performance, accelerating with the small 18-coach load in almost no time and ripping through north Kerala and KR. The icing on the cake was a crossing with the 12432 Trivandrum Rajdhani at Ankola in north Karnataka; headed by a thundering GOC (Golden Rock) WDP3A “toaster”!! The only regret I had in this gargantuan journey was that the Maharashtra side of KR was largely covered after the dark – but I got to see the Karnataka coast; which was a first for me! Since I was travelling in SL (Sleeper Class) and had a Lower Berth to boot; I could get an uninterrupted view of all the scenery AND hear the ferocious chugging and honking of our diesel beasts clearly – our coach was also towards the front due to the reversal at Pudi!!

Eventually I reached Mumbai after 50 hours (almost double the time it should have taken in the normal course of things!!) of train travel in non AC and was so tired and lazy that I didn’t take a bath even at home (on the day I reached) – but it was totally worth it!! Such a trip cannot be bettered IMHO, pandemic or not!! But yes, I miss travelling by KR more than ever thanks to COVID19. By the time things 100% return to normal, KR will be 100% electrified (as mentioned earlier) and the route of course will still remain beautiful; but without the charm of diesel chugging (in case of ALCOs) and humming (in case of EMDs). Of course, that brings me to the ALCOs and EMDs themselves (btw, sorry for all the technical jargon; but you can, as always, refer the legend at the bottom of this blog post!) ! I am a diesel fan overall, but an ALCO fan in particular. The chugging of any ALCO (but particularly a WDM3D) gives me goosebumps, and the horn adds further to the charm. I also love EMDs, especially their jet engine like startup sound and the motorcycle-like humming at full speed. The EMDs also come with a variety of horns that would not have been heard in the previous millennium. Sadly, the ALCOs have started to imitate them; especially the rebuilt ones. Anyway, the bigger concern is the rapid pace of electrification, not just in KR, but in Indian Railways as a whole.

By the time COVID19 leaves India 100% (will that day ever come?!), I am sure 90% of IR would have been electrified. Time is running out for us diesel fans!! The last journey I’ve undertaken by a diesel-hauled train (also the last journey by an EMD-hauled train) was in Feb 2020 – Mumbai to Pune by 11301 Mumbai Bangalore Udyan express. But, as mentioned earlier, I unfortunately don’t have a blog of that; though the last blog of a train trip was the one from Mumbai to Pune by 11041 Mumbai Chennai express in Dec 2019 – this incidentally was headed by an EMD (Pune WDP4D 40153) and I have already shared the blog links here. The last time I’ve travelled by an ALCO-led train was in June 2019 – from Miraj to Mumbai by 17317 Hubli-LTT express; hauled by KYN (Kalyan) WDM3D 11362. But that was a purely overnight journey; so it doesn’t count. So I am left with the journey from Mumbai to Pune by 17031 Mumbai Hyderabad express on 20th April 2019; headed by KYN WDG3A ‘Shakti’ 13571 – here’s the blog link for this trip: https://ashwinkumar1989.online/2019/04/28/chugging-along-to-pune-on-a-midsummer-afternoon/ . Imagine – 2.5 years have passed since!!

As regards to KR, the last trip was on 2nd February 2019 – from Mumbai to Ratnagiri by 10103 Mumbai Madgaon Mandovi express and back by 12052 Madgaon Dadar Jan Shatabdi express. And what an enjoyable outing that was! Here are the blog links – https://ashwinkumar1989.online/2019/02/17/a-sudden-trip-through-konkan-railway-part-1/ , https://ashwinkumar1989.online/2019/02/18/a-sudden-trip-through-konkan-railway-part-2/ and https://ashwinkumar1989.online/2019/02/22/a-sudden-trip-through-konkan-railway-part-3/ . With reference to long journeys (involving at least a day or more); the last such journey I’ve had was on 10th March 2019 – from Chennai to Mumbai by 12164 ‘Super’ express; as mentioned before, my favourite train! ❤ What a memorable journey that was! Here’s the blog link – https://ashwinkumar1989.online/2019/04/15/a-racy-trip-down-south-part-2/ . Apologies for the total absence of photos or videos in this blog – this was due to the memory card (in which I generally store all media) accidentally falling out (from my previous phone) just before I got down from the train – something that I didn’t notice until I reached home!

Anyway, let’s return to what all I miss about travelling by trains. When you have been allotted a Lower Berth, a Side Berth (whether Lower or Upper) or simply a window seat (i.e. in daytime trains); the view from the window is all yours during the day; except in case of SUBs where the SLB passenger requests you to move up so that s/he can sleep! Watching all the countryside scenery fly past you – the villages, the small towns, the cattle, sheep, goats, lambs etc., the fields, the huts, cottages, the trees, bushes and shrubs, the ponds, lakes and rivers – is truly a sight for sore eyes! That too when it’s accompanied by the rhythmic clickety clack track sounds (“dhak-dhak” when the train goes over a bridge!) and the horn of the engine; you get an audio-visual treat! Of course you may not be able to hear the horn if you are in an AC coach that is far away from the loco. If the engine is a diesel, then the enjoyment doubles; as you can hear it chugging (if it’s an ALCO) or humming (if it’s an EMD) – again depending on the position of the coach and whether it’s AC or non-AC. I deeply miss all this!

Odd as it may seem, I also deeply miss sleeping in trains. In fact, I find that sleep comes easier to me on any moving vehicle than at home; especially if it’s a vehicle with such a smooth and rhythmic movement as a train! 😉 The gentle two and fro motion of the train is a perfect lullaby for me; especially if I am travelling in non AC; as I can hear the track sounds and horn clearly – AND the chugging or humming of the loco if it’s a diesel. Of course, it is easier to sleep in AC; since the mere AC effect, combined with the muted sounds, makes sleeping a child’s play! 🙂 I also deeply miss getting down whenever a train stops at a station, taking a walk on the platform, checking out our engine and having some coffee or tea! If it’s a major junction, then I also have the option of having lunch or dinner! Of course, I don’t miss the train food that much unless the train is a Rajdhani/Shatabdi/Duronto/Tejas etc. Two notable exceptions are 10103/04 Mumbai Madgaon Mandovi express “The Food King” and of course the pride of CR – 12123/24 Mumbai Pune Deccan Queen! More than the food or drinks, I simply miss the atmosphere of the stations – people moving to and fro; whether boarding or de-boarding, the movement of trolleys, the chants of food and tea/coffee vendors etc.

I deeply miss travelling in single line sections. The excitement of a crossing in such a section is something else entirely, especially when it happens during the night. As the minutes pass by, you wait for the signal on the mainline to turn green. When it does, the excitement reaches a fever pitch. This is followed by the horn of the passing train and then the headlamp of its loco; before the train itself burns the tracks, raising a lot of dust in the process! Such night crossings are usually the perfect end to the day and you then lie down on your berth with a satisfied state of mind. When these crossings happen during the day though, you are charged up and more alert for further action. Ah, I guess enough reminiscing – I have already written 16 paragraphs; if there is anything further to write, I can always leave it for another day! If you have read till here, I am much indebted to you; for there’s no better feeling for a blogger than when people read his/her posts; especially posts as massive as this!! Before we sign off, I would love you to read these 2 poems I’ve written about missing train travel: https://hellopoetry.com/poem/4371889/i-deeply-miss-those-days/ and https://ashwinkumar1989.online/2021/01/16/it-has-been-a-long-wait/ . And this final thought of mine: COVID19 may have taken me out of the train, but it certainly can’t take me out of the train!

TECHNICAL ABBREVIATIONS

EMD – Electro-motive Diesel (and a modern class of diesel locos)

ALCO – American Locomotive Company (and a class of diesel engines of the 1960s)

2 thoughts on “Reminiscing train travel before the pandemic

  1. Wonderful Ashwin. Can see the yearning throughout. The fascination for train travel is there in each one of us – but for many it is more related to childhood memories. Your blog brings back the memories – of our trips together when you were young – the packed food from home ,packing books and comics , reading out stories during the journey etc. As you say , trains are never out of us – next trip is surely not far away. Enjoyed reading

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks a lot! yes, I too remember the journeys we undertook when I was a child – including eating home-cooked food, reading Tinkle and playing magnetic chess. I especially remember the trip from Madras to Bombay in September 1997 by Chennai Dadar express – when the train was rescheduled to start at 2 pm instead of 7 am; we put our luggage in the cloakroom and I was quite upset but you cheered me up by telling me that we will get to see the tunnels in the Pune-Bombay route. We ultimately started at 2 30 pm and reached the next day at 5 30 pm; 10.5 hours late!! That too (to our disappointment but to my joy) we were downgraded from AC 3 Tier to Sleeper Class!!

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