Sunday, August 08, 2010


A room, two Windows, three Musketeers and a Saturday night. That about sums about the recipe for a wonderful fare dished out at Tiruchirapalli (TPJ) for Ranga, KK and me. We made a visit on a recent Saturday, leaving Chennai Egmore (MS) by Pallavan Exp. Arriving at TPJ about a quarter of an hour early, at 2100 against the scheduled arrival of 2115, after a run made rousing more by the fact that the train supposedly has enormous slack than anything else, we headed out for dinner and then on to the DRMs office where the Control Centre (as the name board declared) was situated.

As we disembarked from the train, I couldn’t but help feeling a bit like Montek Singh Ahluwalia – yes, that sleek-looking, glib-talking Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission. I also couldn’t help feeling that the persons walking alongside were two Kamal Naths. Should the elaborate plan to visit the control centre – yes, I had a Plan A, a Plan B and even a Plan C – fail, then I could have been an ‘armchair planner’ with nothing concrete to offer J

Before going further, a bit of a backgrounder. Bored with stuff like watching trains from a platform of station that is not the place where you live; bored with stuff like noting and publishing road numbers of locos hauling every which train; bored with stuff like discussing the minister’s foibles, it was time to do something different – yet the same – connected with trains. What better way than to spend a night at a controller’s, thought me. And, where would that be? Getting in to a control office even in MAS with contacts would be a tough, if not impossible job. But watching the section controller in whichever section in MAS seemed a bit like aiming at a bull’s eye as large a whole rhino. The challenge lay in aiming at a bull’s eye that seems more like an ant – in this case, trying to wangle a visit to a section where even the most seasoned controllers feel exactly like that, trying to hit a bull’s eye a size of an ant. So, TPJ it had to be.

Is there any other section on IR which witnesses more than 150 crossings each night – if the night can be defined as a narrow window between 2300 and 0400? Is there any other section on IR which has three controllers, with one overseeing the entire 150+ crossings each night; the other just about five or six (in his own words, a section where only 1½ trains run every night!) and the third lucky to see one or two movements (not necessarily crossings) on a badly overworked night? Show us, we will spend a night there – the only condition is that the line must be single!

Coming back to what made me think Montek – we had three plans in place. Plan A looked like coming unstuck right from the time we boarded the Pallavan at MS. Swinging into Plan B right in front of the Pallavan loco at MS, we were asked to contact at 2030 hrs – the time we would be close enough to TPJ. Plan C was also activated, only the person involved in that was just not picking up the phone! We had not completely abandoned Plan A; we kept calling, sometimes even pleading that it had taken us a lot of coaxing and cajoling at the higher places to get this far; requesting that the next lower level at TPJ not abandon us citing bureaucratic hurdles, that too this close to the day, er, night of reckoning. Plan B finally came unstuck at the stroke of 2030 – the contact at MAS had scooted home handing over to his reliever, without as much informing him of the facilitation for us at TPJ! Plan C came unstuck at 2100, the moment we arrived at TPJ – the contact there was just in from NDLS and had a train to work just past midnight and was also at a function. There was no other option it seemed, than to check into a dorm; leave our sparse bags and have dinner. Post-dinner, just walk on to PF 2 and keep a watch on trains coming in and going out, and do the normal railfanning thing like noting loco numbers, setting of speculation if we ever happened to spot something offbeat – that was highly unlikely given the way the evening and the night had panned out that far – and finally, I was also thinking of an alibi or three to explain to Ranga and KK why plans did not work the way they were supposed to. Murphy’s law? That was one I considered.

In about twenty minutes after arrival at TPJ, the dorm beds were taken – two A/c beds were available, the third was a non A/c. The dorms were very good – in fact, much better than the A/c dorm in MAS. They offered almost complete privacy – and unless you were a person indulging in noisy sex, there was not an inch of what your neighbor could see! The non A/c dorm was also a very clean affair. Will get to post some pics on Open Line sooner than later!

We than made our way to a wonderful place suggested by KK – a Hotel Sangeetha, part of Hotel Anand, a good lodge just a stone’s throw away from TPJ railway station. We devoured some idlis, rava dosas and washed them down with strong filter coffee and made our way out in search of the control centre. We arrived at the control centre after looking around for a fair bit of time, wandering off in the opposite direction and then retracing our way. As we walked into the fully air-conditioned building, we really did not know what was to come. We asked for the Dy Chief Controller (we will call him Chief) for the night and were shown a small cabin with two people sitting behind computer. As it always happens, you always ask the wrong person – in spite of the high probability of being correct – and are wrong. It was not different that night; the person we asked showed his index finger at the other person. We introduced ourselves, the purpose of our visit and the official at TPJ we had talked to. After the routine ‘why are you interested in this when you have so many other things to’ kind of questions, we were lucky that the Chief was on the line with the very same official who was our Plan A hope. We would not know what transpired on the phone line, but the moment the phone was disconnected, the Chief would call a Group D to place three chairs in the ‘Chord Line Control’ as the most action-packed arena every night is known as.

There are quite a few cabins and cubicles in the Control Centre. As you walk in from the main door, on the right is the Commercial Control and on the left is the Security. Amble past another door, on the left is the Signal and Telecom control. On the right you enter into a series of cabins placed both on your left and right. The first cabin to the left is where the action takes place every night – the Chord Line Control; on the right is a vacant control cabin that once housed the VridhachalamCuddalore (VRI-CUPJ) section. The second on the left is the Main Line Control – the line that runs from Villupuram (VM) to TPJ via Chidambaram (CDM), Mayiladuthurai (MV), Kumbakonam (KMU) and Thanjavur (TJ). This was the section described as the ‘one-and-a-half-train section!’ On the right lay the Katpadi Control, taking care of whatever there was between VM and Katpadi (KPD). The Chief and his sparse staff for the night took the cabin next to the KPD control cabin.

As we entered the Chord Line Control, the person manning the post just looked at us and welcomed us in. He was about his task of issuing instruction to the stations and taking timings of trains that were passing each station. There was this goods train that had to be somehow moved to a specific location that night, to fulfill the loading quota, at least on paper! There was this rather small issue for us of trains being handed over at VM – the first three or four trains from MS that night – late, the delay ranging from 40 minutes to 10 minutes (Ranga is doing an analysis based on the charts that we managed to procure for ourselves the next morning). The controller explained how this delay would turn out to be the spoilsport that night; he used a master chart on a large cardboard and explained the planned crossings and how they were spread out – if that is the word you could use to term close to 170 crossings over 175 kms at an average of a crossing for just above one km!

The only equipment he had was a Windows system hooked on to two monitors; one to enter the timings and the other showing a graphic illustration of the actual timings of the trains upto the last station and the projection thereafter. There was no AI assistance to the controller – he had to keep it all in his mind. There was a microphone into which he could speak to the SMs directly – to all the SMs of the stations on the section, TPJ RRI cabin and TPJ platform SM. There was a board with short codes for stations to be called – the controller could just press ‘26’ and a ring would go out to VM. There were a few phones as well – all railway phones.

The controller work on a six-hour shift. A reliever came in at 2340, probably signed in and settled down. He was then briefed on the exact status – trains that were handed over late at VM, the specials and the weeklies, one unexpected freighter, additional movement for a light engine, occupation of loops at various stations, etc. As the new man made a mental picture of this, we got ourselves introduced quickly and the controller went about his job. The most famous phrase of the night – in fact, the flavour of the evening was ‘Start Both’ – the term used to detain a train for a crossing, and once crossed, start the detained train too.

As the night wore on, ready to melt into the morning, KK was extremely sympathetic to a light engine that was held up at Ichangadu waiting for a path to Kallakudi Palanganatham. In fact, if the entire night were to be a melodrama, the light engine would be the tear-jerker and KK would have been the one shedding tears. As the night wore on, ready to melt into the morning, ‘Start both’ became a rather monotonous order from the controller to the SMs in the section; just an hour or so earlier, many trains were held over for two crossings – probably the most unlucky of them could have been the 6107/08 MS–MAQ–MS Expresses, 1063/64 MS–SA–MS Expresses and 1044 MDULTT Express. As night started to give way to morning, close to 0300, station after station started asking a question of the controller – line clear for up trains? The controller, with a quick glance at the graph monitor (the other one was used to click the timings at stations) cleared this. This meant that all down trains (towards TPJ) were clear of, for example, Ulundurpet station; Ulundurpet now just had to run through all trains towards MS – anything to the contrary would be specifically brought to the notice by the controller.

It was close to 0345 when the burden of staying awake all night was telling on us – the doorplating earlier on the Pallavan was adding to the strain on the eyes – that we decided to call it a day. As the second, then the third, then the fourth station was given all clear for UP trains, we decided to take leave of the Control Centre.

At the end of the night, rather end of the day at a rather surprising time of 0400 at the control, the only overwhelming thought for all of us there – Ranga, KK and the staff included – was the sheer lack of forethought of doubling the line; unfortunately and more foolishly, the electric lobby had won another battle – making the network lose in the bargain.

At the end of the night, rather end of the day, if ever there was one person relieved that it all went off wonderfully well, it was the Montek of the group – the Kamal Naths would be proved wrong. After all, this Montek had three plans ready; the last two failed, but Plan A had clicked. As we sauntered our way and crashed into our beds, the only refrain that was constantly ringing in our ears was ‘Start Both’.


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