On the right track
The Egmore-Beach gauge conversion may inconvenience commuters temporarily, but in the long run, it will be highly beneficial to both the railways and its patrons, as GOUTAM GHOSH finds out.
THE COMMUTERS had gathered thick and fast at the Chennai Beach station. It was 5.25 p.m. The last broad gauge (BG) train had pulled out at 5.12 p.m., two minutes behind schedule on its one-hour run to Tambaram. Each compartment of that eight-coach rake looked as packed and as bulging as a sack of potatoes ready to be ferried across from the truck to a vegetable kiosk at the Koyambedu wholesale market. If the coaches were this full at the originating station, Chennai Beach, one wondered how commuters would manage to hop on at any of the 16 stations in between before the electric multiple unit (EMU) service pulled into one of the platforms at Tambaram.
The next train was at 5.45 p.m. and by the time the Beach-bound BG train pulled in at platform 4, the crowd had swelled. As usual, the youth and the brave barged in, much to the annoyance of those waiting to get off, long before the train came to a halt. "The change to BG will make a difference. Even now, a larger number of passengers can travel in each compartment than in a metre-gauge compartment, which used to be shorter in length and narrower. If you watch closely, you will notice that most of these passengers will get off at Egmore to catch the metre-gauge (MG) train to Tambaram,'' said some passengers who had boarded the vendor's compartment and were lucky to get some space on the bench running along the length of the coach.
True to their observation, most passengers in the coach got off at Egmore where a much larger group got in, and the coach was fairly packed. By the time the train reached Chromepet, the coach was almost empty.
The return BG service scheduled at 6.55 p.m. was delayed for reasons best known to the railways, with the passengers waiting patiently for the train to roll out. It did finally at 7.17 p.m. much to the relief of the passengers either seated tightly inside next to prime window seats or standing quietly on the platform, waiting for the signal to turn green. Instead, the stationmaster came and waived his green lantern to set the massive wheels rolling.
The stretch of track about 50 metres off the Egmore station suburban service platform had been barricaded with a steel mast, which was carrying high voltage traction wires earlier. A group of workers was busy dismantling the MG tracks. A tough job because the bolts nailing the tracks on the wooden sleepers had to be broken. N. Kathivannan, Chandran and Kumar, from Dharmapuri district, had come a few days ago. They were not sure how long their masters would require their services. The gauge conversion work had been given on contract and was scheduled to stick to the deadline. While one group dismantled the tracks, another removed the heavy wooden sleepers and dumped them at a distance to be carted away later, while yet another was busy digging out the steel masts. Every bit of work was hard, and there was no sign of people lazing around. Not far away, an earthmoving machine was levelling the ground for an additional track.
The stretch from Egmore to Beach had two MG tracks and one BG track. The target is not only to replace the existing two MG tracks but also to have an additional BG track, so that there are four BG tracks all the way from Beach to Egmore and beyond.
There is little doubt that commuters find the transition difficult, especially the transitory bus service provided at Egmore to connect Egmore and Chennai Central stations. A half hour observation showed that the bus services were not as frequent as press releases or published news items stated them to be.
Before the track conversion work began, there were 231 MG services and 44 BG between Chennai Beach and Tambaram. After the track conversion began, there were 172 MG services between Tambaram and Egmore stations and 78 BG services running all the way between Tambaram and Beach stations. So the aggregate number of services has actually come down in addition to problems associated with movement of passengers between the different gauges.
But as a senior official associated directly with the gauge conversion work, averred, "The pain is temporary. Our preparatory work began six months ago and we have done everything according to plans to minimise the pain of transition. We have got the concrete sleepers in place, masts in place, we have earthmoving machinery in place. We have been working on the bridges and conversion of level crossings to overhead bridges or subways steadily. The target of sticking to the schedule of completing the conversion work will be adhered to and by the end of January 2003, the work up to Beach will be completed.''
"The benefits of the conversion are many. The MG suburban service between Tambaram and Beach is the only one of its kind in India and is the oldest, running since 1931. But getting spares has become more and more difficult. It makes a lot of sense to switch over to BG, because we can get spares and rolling stock readily, and considering the overall services, we can connect the MRTS to services to Arakkonam, Gummidipoondi and Chingleput; we can also have mail and express services connecting the north and the south without passengers suffering the problems of moving from Central to Egmore.''
There is hardly any doubt that uniformity of gauge will help the railways and its patrons. But many commuters find it difficult to accept a lower level of services now, even if it is temporary. Habit is hard to change which probably explains why people get off at Egmore and switch over to their familiar MG coaches even though the BG rakes run all the way to Tambaram. Habit would probably explain the confrontation of commuters with officialdom at St. Thomas Mount recently, after a traditional service was withdrawn.
Modernisation and progress sweep out the old just as they did the steam locomotives. There was something inexplicably magical in the whoosh of the steam as it struggled hard to get the piston moving to get the loco rolling along with the rake attached to it; there was something magical in the layers of coal dust one found sticking to the clothes and hair after a night's sleep on berths with the windows open. More than that there was something magical in the steady chug-chug as the steam did the work and resonated at times with the clicking of rail joints below. The magic now remains largely (but fortunately, not exclusively) on the logo of the Indian Railways.
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