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Kollam - Sencottai Trip Report

Kollam - Sengottai in its last days

By Jimmy Jose

The Kollam Station

The metre gauge line from Kollam to Punalur became extinct, yet a partof vinrant history as the last train from Kollam left for Sengottai yesterday (30 April 2007) at 19.35 hours. The train had some distingushed guests on it, including the Education Minister of Kerala, Mr. M.A Baby. After a saga of 103 years, the metre gauge line finally bowed down for development in the name of gauge conversion to broad gauge. These trains were so special to the people who loved them and these people were so special to the trains who loved them…..

The Kollam-Sengottai Metre gauge line was conceived and implemented by Great Maharajah Balarama Varma I (Uthradam Tirunal) of Travancore. The inaugural run which was a state function, and was accorded a 21 gun salute. Inaugural run was on 1 July 1904. Station Master Ramiah waved the green flag as multitudes of frightened inquisitive crowd gathered around the demon in front of them, to have a close look. What kind of state function did the railway get when it finally closed down? What kind of respect did Shihabuddin, the present day station manager of Kollam get when he gave the final proceed signal? Gauge conversion of just Kollam-Punalur is on the cards. Punalur-Sengottai would remain an isolated metre gauge island is even trying for a world heritage status. Is the world heritage status an excuse for not converting the metre gauge in the difficult terrain to broad gauge

Kollam - Sengottai Metre Gauge route was always on the itinerary of any railfan visiting the south of India. More than the sheer joy of traveling on the metre gauge, this age old railway line is a treat for the eyes with it's enchanting beauty. We have been planning for the trip for quite a long time, in fact, for a few years. Finally we attained nirvana on 20 April when I joined with Dr. Venugopal, Vibin Andrews, Antony Damacious and Sri Ram Balachander ganged together to
ride the exotic train.

Antony and Vibin reached out from Bangalore to do the trip, Sriram from Thiruvananthapuram, Prof. Venugopal from Kollam and myself from Ernakulam. Antony, Vibin and myself chose to take the Bangalore-Thiruvananthapuram Express to reach Kollam. We had an interesting journey from Ernakulam to Kollam filled with all the excitement of Broad gauge diesel travel, the train being hauled by
Erode's loco no. 17570. We met Prof. Venu and Sriram at Kollam station.

Kollam station has so much virgin railway forest, left unexplored by railfans. We headed straight to the old station. Sadly, most of it's grandeur has been stripped clean by modern day pirates. It's grand fittings, elaborate carvings, Italian tiles and burma teak has all but disappeared. A new expansion scheme running to the tune of Rs. 2 crore has been sanctioned to the station and using this fund, railways are rewriting history by demolishing parts of the old heritage and
replacing it with new square buildings.

Then we came across an even tragic sight, the king's official rest room, which is now gang staff rest room. One gang man told us that it once had so many shining brass artifacts which reflected sunlight in all four directions so that there was no need of electric bulbs. These artifacts have been sold as scrap. Yet the building retains some of it's old carvings, it's old time charm and even has the official symbol of Travancore Maharajah affixed on it.

We were surprised to find the good old steam crane "Vikrant" being steamed up. Maybe to show it's respect to railfans! There were two Vijayawada based WAG 5 freight locomotives waiting there. We booed at them, we were not there to see drab broad gauge freighters - We were there to see bright metre gauge rockers! But later they took revenge
on us…. Read on…..

We then move on to what we were here for… to attain nirvana by traveling in the Metre Gauge line in it's final few days. There was just 10 more days for these line left before it closed down. Every
one seem to understand that this was one of the last days of Metre gauge in Kollam. Yet the Metre Gauge area was unusually busy. There were so many parcels lying around. A stray YDM 4, no. 6211 was getting detached from a lone coach after shunting. RPF were undoubtedly on the prowl. Our train to Sengottai, No. 6383 Kollam-Tirunelveli express was waiting behind YDM 4 6321. The turn table was very much well kept, as if it were still in service. The ladder that once fed steam engine's it's daily bread in form of coal was still there... The canopy of the old steam shed was missing at some places. This was India's best steam shed in 1975! Though the steam shed had disappeared long ago, the temple set up by the erstwhile employees was very much there, symbolizing god's eternity and man's mortality. There were some old wheels inside the shed.

We immediately approached the friendly loco pilot of 6383 express. Professor smelled a chance for a footplate and enquired. The loco pilot said his hands are tied since the Chef Mechanical Engineer of
Southern Railway was traveling in the train. We became good friends anyway. The rake had coaches from so many zones, Southern, South Western, South Central. How did the coaches from these distant zones manage to come here? The Express usually has first class, sleeper and ordinary class of accommodation. But on the day, the first class had gone for servicing. We didn't want to get into it even if there was one. We selected to travel in the first coach, but it was reserved for the railway official. We finally decided to travel in the lone sleeper coach. The train had a 10 coach load.

Our train left bang on time. The golden rocker rocked us smoothly with it's loud beats and showed us natural cinema with it's black smoke. Immediately after we started, the Vijayawada freighters that we booed at earlier came roaring at our heels through the adjacent Broad gauge track. Within a split second, the overtook us with immense power.

Signs of metre gauge death bell were everywhere. Broad gauge conversion was in full steam. Almost all bridges are complete. Broad gauge follows an entirely different alignment to metre gauge. In several places, it cuts across the metre gauge alignment. In others, they are separated by hills. Wonder what railways will do with the land the metre gauge alignment used once broad gauge is in full force?

I was born in a town called Kundara, which is a station enroute this line. And as a surprise gift for me, a rare Metre gauge freight train was waiting for us to cross. I thought there were no more freight trains in Metre Gauge now. This one was not a regular freight, it was carrying some scrap railway sleepers. It was a complete train and had a caboose as well, with a LV plate on it. The loco at it's head was YDM 4 6291.

As we coasted along, we were spellbound with the beauty that was surrounding us. It was much different from the other lines in Kerala. And we crossed many small stations whose buildings will be pulled down shortly as newer bigger stations were built to welcome broad gauge. But none of them have the charm of the existing ones.

We pulled into Kottarakkara, famous for the infamous transport minister Balakrishna pillai. YDM 4 6349 was waiting for us to cross. There were many people waiting to board the train here.

We were running from door to door to get better views. Each of the six door had one of us watching out for the scenery, shouting to each other when one of us saw something striking. Antony befriended a friendly food supplier Manian from Punalur who desperately wanted to take a picture with him. Manian's vadas were mouth watering! What lies ahead for these people whose lives were sustained by the small revenue earned from selling meager food in these trains once the line is closed down? Vibin draped himself with a wet towel to cool off from the terrible heat. Professor was busy explaining the salient features of each area while Sriram and myself were hanging out with our cameras.

Auvaneeswaram was our next stop, followed by Punalur. Punalur is a very important town in Kerala and was once an important station since banker locomotives that were used to tackle the ghat section ahead were attached at the rear of each and every single steam hauled train here. Steam gave way to diesel, and length of the trains were reduced and so the bankers too disappeared. An old water tank with SIR inscription remain a monument from the old days. Part of a sort of trip shed can also be seen. The old station has been pulled down and the newer broad gauge type station has taken it's place. The station will regain it's importance soon as gauge conversion is only between Kollam and Punalur and Punalur-Schencottah will remain metre gauge for the time being. Just after Punalur we met the board stating "Ghat section begins after 15 miles". Also the speed is reduced to just 15 kmph from here. The old hanging road bridge can be seen across the Kallada river. This bridge has been renovated and is motorable now.

We then stopped at Edamann. This is not a regular stop for this train but is a sort of brake testing stop. Edamann is famous for it's jack fruits. We bargained and bargained with stubborn sellers who would not sell one less than Rs. 50. Finally we settled for a small piece of Rs. 5!

While all this commotion was going on, we forgot that we were waiting for too long. Upon enquiry, we were informed that we are waiting for our pairing train, No. 6384 Tirunelveli-Kollam Express to cross. Soon an army of railway employees were on the loop line. One was with the ever important token. Our par arrived at the distance, huffing and puffing after the tired run down the ghats with YDM 4 6229 at it's head. The train squeezed between us and the rock cutting, with so
many people getting in and out, even though the train did not stop. The token exchange ceremony was conducted with clock work precision. May these unsung ceremonies remain for our children to watch! The token man gave us a pose to photograph too!

We continued our journey and the topography soon changed. The boiling Kerala sun gave away to cooler high range climate. So much to see, much more to enjoy. In the distance we could see the Tenmalai dam and hydel power station. The permanent caution here is 15 kmph. The sights cannot be penned down, it has to be enjoyed. After the gradient, we reach Tenmalai, and the loco cooled off it's  heels for a moment.

We reach Aryankavu, our next halt, snaking way through the tip of western ghats. After aryankavu lies the famous Aryan kavu Viaduct where road, rail and river meet to greet each other. But unlike what we had heard, this is not the only viaduct. It maybe the biggest of more than a dozen. Our coach were filled with "woooh" and "sooo gooood" by our 5 member gang as we crossed the viaduct. Yamram ran to request for a final footplate and he succeded. He was amongst our pilots from here to Sengottai Rain starts spontaneously in the high ranges and it started raining like mad. We crossed the longest of tunnels enroute, built in 1901.
It is somewhere inside this tunnel the Kerala borders itself with Tamilnadu.

We cross Bagavathipuram, the first station in Tamilnadu to reach Sengottai. Vibin and Antony bid goodbye and we detrained. Sengottai is undergoing a sea of changes as it is going to become a broad gauge terminus soon. There are four broad gauge lines being laid. The station will now have two platform for metre gauge and four terminus type platforms for broad gauge. We were lucky that our return train to Kollam was delayed by an hour, so that we could go around exploring Sengottai station.

We were surprised to see a loco shed being built here. Diesel locomotive shed – Sengottai maybe the youngest diesel shed in the country. It holds 12 YDM 4's. It has been built to accommodate WDM 2's without much change. Pit lanes are far apart. There were two locomotives there, No. 6545 and 6168. There is a large metre gauge stabling facility here. We could find many freight wagons too. Upon enquiry we were informed that freight is common here, most often taking rice and hill produce from Sengottai and Punalur to Tirunelveli
and Tenkasi for transshipment to broad gauge wagons. Most of the coaches here have been painted blue. The madurai Divisional Railway Managers saloon was in pristine condition. There are two steam cranes stabled here. One steam crane is called Mangala while the other, Anjaneya. And the greatest surprise was a composite !A / 2A coach. This coach was here to be refurbished to take tourists on the hill section. So guys, MG 1A is not dead!

We had some refreshments and our return train arrived behind YDM 4A 6186. The train was quite full. We found ourselves a free door to sit in the first coach. Though tired, we still continued to watch the scenery through the dark. At Tenmalai, the loco pilots swiftly ran out of the train. We too ran with them to find that they were going to have a cup of tea at a nearby tea stall. We had a long chat.

Once back in the coach, we had our own forms of amusement other than railfanning. There was a couple in love trying to hurdle into a lonely corner of the coach. We selected a seat near them, not because we wanted to irritate them, but we could clearly hear the loco beats from there. We had a few neighbors who were interested in discussing about trains, which turned out to be a loud one, irritating the lovers. Fed up with our irritation, the left our coach and went elsewhere at the next station. Sriram left us at Kottarakara. Now Professor had another neighbor who was opposed to his policies on gauge conversion. After the heated exchange of words, the intruder soon left waving the white flag to professor. We soon reached Kundara, and then on to Kollam.

Our train was late by one hour. Sadly, my connection back to Ernakulam, Maveli Express, pulled out from the Broad gauge platform as we entered. We waited for the Trivandrum Kannur Express to return back to Ernakulam, while professor got down at Mavelikara.

All in all, a trip full of wonderful memories and memoirs, experiences and sight seeing. Thanks to Professor Venugopal to have held up the idea of this trip and all other team mates……

May metre-gauge live forever!


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