Everyone else on the 6.55am Mandovi Express from Mumbai had somewhere to go. Some families were headed home to one of the towns along the 570km journey to Goa. Others were off to a holiday on the beaches, parents trying not to look as excited as their teenaged children.
Scenic ride: (top) The Mandovi Express. Karan Desaai / IRFCA; the train journeys across several viaducts. Apurva Bahadur /IRFCA
For every group of blasé commuters setting up card games, there was an equal number of long-distance travellers, lured by the promise of breathtaking vistas that the Konkan Railway opens up. Like the family from Kolkata, asking anxiously if the route was as scenic as they had heard—“that’s why we didn’t take a flight”.
I was the only one who was along just for the ride. I spent some of the 3 hours it takes to cover the 140km to Roha (Maharashtra), where the Konkan Railway officially begins, trying to solve the Mandovi Express’ existential crisis. Not an overnight train for easy travel, not a hop-into-next-towner, not a long-distance carrier, not even a day-trip aid that allows you half a day in the destination city. It’s slower than most buses, and still so popular that the last time I tried booking a fortnight before a trip, I was wait listed No. 393.
The demand for tickets on the 760km stretch from Roha to Mangalore in Karnataka is understandable. Imagine a train journey through thick forests, immense valleys, between, around and through hills, and over and along rivers. Every stunning vista is succeeded by one more stupendous, every bend in the tracks offers new surprises.
Initially, though, reality seemed to belie expectations. At Roha, only a decrepit warehouse signalled the start of this spectacular stretch. Another 40km later, past Veer—where the station is an evocative tree-lined avenue—there were still only hillocks to be seen. The big moment was yet to come.
I saw National Highway 17 snake off to twist and turn around a hill. Abruptly, everything turned dark. The train had plunged into a tunnel. A murmur coursed through the compartment—this was the first of the 91 tunnels on the route.
We emerged into sunlight and Karanjadi, its picturesqueness overwritten in memory as the location of a horrific train crash in 2004, when the Matsyagandha Express rammed into the debris from a landslide. But the profusion of green in the valley made that nightmare seem distant.
The changes came in minutes, even seconds. One moment, the train clattered through a narrow gorge, the rock faces on either side close enough to touch; the next, we were chugging through space, the ground beneath the tracks giving way to a slim, almost ethereal, viaduct, an overflowing river beneath snaking its way through uneven terrain, now covered with the blessed green brought on by the rains.
Then the roar deepened and the train hurtled into the side of the hill, which magically opened up into a tunnel. The light turned from rain-soaked grey to fluorescent orange-punctured black—and back again to daylight a few seconds later. Now the water was an equal—ponds, streams, submerged fields, all locking eyes flirtatiously with the rail tracks.
The Konkan Railway has had a far rougher ride than any of its trains do. Although now a poster-child of project completion in India—and E. “Delhi Metro” Sreedharan’s first major project accomplishment—it faced significant opposition on environmental issues between 1991 and 1993; protesters even demanded a different route.
Eventually, it started operations two years late, in 1998, and at $920 million (around Rs4,416 crore now), cost $646 million more than the budgeted $274 million.
All that seemed just so much water under one of the 200 bridges en route as the Mandovi Express squeaked to a halt at Anjani, some 100km from Roha. And finally, the sheer vastness of the Sahyadris hit me. Soon, as if in a build up for the afternoon, there was an unscheduled halt at Ukshi station, right at the mouth of a tunnel.
Hours spent on footboards do make one hungry, and I was called back to my seat by the lunch being served. I had a choice of dosa, biryani, dal-subzi-roti or Chinese. Also, unexpectedly, sliced watermelon and gulab jamun.
Meal over, we chugged into Ratnagiri, a station no different from others on the line, despite the fact that it serves a relatively large town. One reason that the stations are sleepy is that Konkan Railway tracks never pass very close to towns.
Soon, the afternoon light began to mellow, bathing the series of small stations in a grey-gold glow. Haunting in their loveliness, perhaps because they looked so lonely, the only human presence they offered was the uniformed station master, all alone, holding an unfluttering green flag, almost as a mark of defiance.
Each station came with its own nature-contributed landscape attached. The ones at Nivsar and Vilawade—situated between two tunnels—overlook enormous drops and vast valleys. Rajapur Road is a narrow strip between two rock faces: If it weren’t for the white boards, you wouldn’t know it was a station. Flowers lined the tracks, making them look like they were on fire, with bougainvillea the reigning queen.
And, always, the water. There were the small, placid, serene streams that came and went. The rivers—some swift, bright and tumbling, such as the Kundalika, some dusky and still like the Savitri—flowing along the tracks for miles together. And alongside, stubbornly dry brown trees and grey rocks amid lush green plants.
The skies darkened as the train headed towards the languid Zuari river, the 1km-long bridge over it bringing the journey to a gentle end. I didn’t expect a finale, and I didn’t get one either as the Mandovi Express rolled quietly into Madgaon station. How could one journey have offered so many different kinds of riches?
Trip planner/The Konkoan route
Besides the Mandovi Express (6.55am, Mumbai CST), a number of trains ply on the Mumbai-Goa route by day. Some good choices are Mangala Express (departs 8.50am, Kalyan), Jan Shatabdi Express (departs 5.10am, Mumbai CST) and Thiruvananthapuram Rajdhani (departs 5.10am, Panvel, thrice a week). Fares range from Rs163 in second-class seating to Rs1,799 in first-class AC. All trains require prior reservation. The Mandovi and Jan Shatabdi expresses allow travel with a current booking, but seating may not be assured in such cases. Trains are scheduled to run slower during the monsoons. The monsoon timetable is in effect from 10 June.
While there isn’t much to do in Madgaon itself, Panjim is 35km away, the gateway to all pleasures Goan: the beaches at Anjuna, Calangute, Miramar; the Old Goa churches; seafood of all kinds; and accommodation to suit all budgets.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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