Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Bitragunta is located between Vijayawada and Chennai on the east coast trunk line of Indian Railwys. The town is in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. Nearest major stations is Nellore to the south and Ongole to the north. A few express trains do halt at Bitragunta today.

Bitragunta’s significance lies in the history of the Steam Era. The abundance of suitable water and availability of plain land enabled the construction of a unique Mechanical Loco Shed. The loco shed was first constructed in the year 1885. A roundhouse with turn-table facility was added in 1934. The roundhouse was known for its architectural value and joined the Mysore roundhouse as one of two spectacular loco sheds in the country. At that time, the loco shed handled 45 steam locomotives and later went on to become one of the biggest in the Indian Railways. Bitragunta was also provided with a major yard and also inter-changing depots for the drivers and guards.

The steam shed was logistically important to medium and long distance trains originating from Madras and the ones passing through Vijaywada down south. In those days, experiments were being made with the Pacific locomotives (WP) of the Grand Trunk Express to provide it more mileage in terms of water and coal consumption. The objective was to provide the GT with a non-stop run between Madras and Vijaywada. The WPs were fitted with water scoops, to enable them to take on water while on the run. A water trough was constructed at Bitragunta just for the purpose. The water scoops on the WPs worked well enough. Unfortunately, due to a deteriorated level of the quality of coal, the engine had to be changed at Bitragunta. The coal carried in the locomotive's tender could not sustain the 420 km long journey, due to the high ash content. Bitragunta had 22 WP locos in its shed then. Later, the shed, under South Central railways held 59 WG and 5 XD locomotives.

Along with the growth of Indian Railways, the marshalling activities at Bitragunta increased manifold. In 1968, a full-fledged marshalling yard with hump facility was established and a wagon-repair depot was added later. The marshalling activities included segregation of wagons and long-distance marshalling orders. The activities continued until 1998.

Bitragunta was also a known “railway cantonment”. Predominantly occupied by Anglo Indians, it had 1000 spacious railway quarters built in European style. It also hosted a Western Culture Institute that is standing till today as the legend of those glorious days.

The evolution in the mode of traction power from steam to diesel and diesel to electric caused the reduction of shed-activities and finally the steam shed at Bitragunta was closed. The closure of the marshalling yard brought a complete closure to the glory of the railway town. Consequent upon the closure of the steam loco shed in Bitragunta, the infrastructure, other equipment and land have not yet been utilized for any purpose.

But Bitragunta still continues as a changing point for all up & down freight trains. Most of the express trains continue to halt here. An ART and MRV are still stationed at Bitragunta. The station still retains vestiges of the glorious past in form of its long platform and old buildings. The remains of the steam shed and the roundhouse can still be seen today.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Two days in Kerala

One of the first things that strikes you in Kerala is the abundance of vegetation. What struck me immediately (and literally) were the teak trees when I took the train from Palghat to Nilambur Rd. I had seen teak in AP, Karnataka, Orissa, Chatthisgarh and even Tamil Nadu. I had seen them in abundance on the Nagpur - Chindwara narrow gauge route too. But none as abundant as on the Shoranur-Nilambur Road branch line.

The trees grew right next to the tracks and their leaves literally slapped anyone daring a footboard travel; so close were they. There are plantations of jackfruit, banana, coconut palm, areca, cashew, pepper and of course, rubber.

I was amazed by the green coverage but worried about forced plantation. Nature does not grow in patterns. Nor does it favour one species over the other. Despite the Darwin theory of survival of the fittest, nature is a great equalizer when it comes to vegetation. In any case, it is not the rubber or jackfruit I am worried about. The worrisome ones are eucalyptus and areca which require least maintenance and generate enough cash. The trouble with these is under their roots. Eucalyptus drains the water table. Areca with its shallow roots loosens the soil and causes erosion. Areca nuts were called Green Gold in Taiwan for their commercial value. But the roots of areca are shallow and grow laterally, preventing water to seep deeper and replenish the ground water table. In cyclone or heavy winds, areca cannot protect the soil from being washed away. This problem is specifically acute in hilly areas or slopes where the soil erosion is even more acute.

The line from Ernakulam Jn to Kayamkulam Jn via Allappuzha was equally exciting as i travelled on it early in the morning. The abundance of water was evident with the greenery, the ponds and bckwaters. Thankfully, the villages dotted with little bunglows were not as predictable with their greenery. It was a pleasure to see a good variety of trees within the kitchen gardens of the houses. It was difficult to tell a town from a village thanks to the thick green cover and vast spaces between houses. Elsehwere, we would have been travelling through a concrete jungle bereft of any vegetation.

Kollam to Tenkasi was another round through plantations, the same rubber, teak, jackfruit and banana types. This route however has steep gradients that enlivened the journey. The route passes through a break in the Western Ghats (specifically the cardomon hills) and captures a wonderful scenery within itself. The little stations are thickly lined with teak and jackfruit and resemble neighbourhood parks rather than drab stations!