Trip Report: The Falaknuma

It has been a while since I blogged about trains. But then I have not really blogged as much recently. So here is a distinct genre of the same. A train trip report. Nothing exceptional really, considering I have not done much train backpacking recently. But here it goes all the same.

My personal favourite is the 12703/12704 Falaknuma Express. People who travel to East India from Hyderabad sure know all about this. It was started in the late 80s to complement the super-slow East Coast Express which at last count stopped at no less than 70 odd stations. The Falaknuma on the other hand is a super-fast (Indian Railways speak for trains that stop at relatively few stations and which maintain an average of atleast 55 km/h). The Falaknuma (named after the famous palace in Hyderabad, it literally translates to ‘like the Sky’) starts its journey from Platform No. 20 at Howrah Junction at around 7 30 in the morning. These are the South Eastern Railway platforms that cater to trains towards Jharkhand and Orissa. Heavily patronised, it has the full complement of 24-26 coaches and the general compartments see a crowd to rival any of the Delhi-Bihar trains.

The Falaknuma starts off slowly as it negotiates the points and early morning local train rush. Soon, it picks up speed as it cruises through the suburban Howrah stations like Santragachi, Uluberia, Bagnan and the likes. Halfway to Kharagpur, it crosses the rather wide Rupnarayan River, some distance from its mouth. One can see the towering spires of the Kolaghat Thermal Power Plant towards the right here. Mecheda and Panskura pass in quick succession and soon the train slows down again as it approaches Kharagpur, of the longest platform in the world fame. Kharagpur is a long-ish halt and primarily caters to the railway-wallahs and the IITians. The passengers however are mostly sound asleep, tired from the early morning jaunt from Calcutta.

The train takes the southbound track here and one can see the Bombay and Purulia lines diverge just after the station. Crossing Hijli, it again picks up speed as it whizzes through the South Bengal countryside. The vegetation and landscape change dramatically from the lush green of the Bengal countryside to the yellow-green mottled Orissa coast vegetation. Balasore and Bhadrak follow an hour or two apart as the Falaknuma rumbles over the many fingers of the Mahanadi river system that vivisect this part of Orissa. These include rivers like Baitarni and the Brahmani. The line executes a series of tight twisted curves as it skirts through the Eastern Ghats and hugs National Highway-5. The Birupa, a distributary of the Mahanadi is crossed around 1 PM and the line takes a left hand curve before straightening out to cross the Mahanadi. At around 2 km, the bridge is one among the longest in India. After trundling on for close to 5 minutes, the train finally rolls into Cuttack. There is a rather slow jaunt of 30 odd km before Bhubaneswar is reached. The two cities are separated by two other distributaries of the Mahanadi-the Kathjori and  the Kuakhai. Immediately after the latter bridge is one of the tightest curves on Indian Railways. Bhubaneswar, just like Cuttack, is a rather small station for a State capital. Another 30 km brings the train to Khurda Road Junction, a great railway hub since its earliest days in this part of the world.

The vegetation changes again after Khurda Road as the soil too takes on a reddish hue. The sea is not too far away and as the trains pulls away from Balugaon in the early evening, the Chilika Lake makes a dramatic appearance to the left. The line is squeezed in between the Lake and the Ghats as it treads gingerly through the narrow corridor separating the two. Some of my most memorable rail-fanning moments are at this stretch during the Monsoon as the lush green hills and the brilliant blue waters combine with the strong breeze to create an ethereal atmosphere. It is almost dark by the time the train pulls into Andhra Pradesh at Ichchapuram and chugs into Palasa, of cashew-nut fame. The last station before people turn in for the night is Vishakhapatnam where the train reverses directions and people step out for a late night cup of tea and snacks. Insomniacs like me can only hear the Falaknuma rumble over the mighty Godavari bridge late at night and barely discern the blur of the many towns that dot Coastal Andhra as they whiz past.

Early morning sees the train, with a diesel locomotive now, thundering over the Krishna just after Nadikudi. Its almost a different world here. Isolated hillocks, the green-brown vegetation of the Deccan and the many rocky outcrops that dot the countryside. Villages are few and far in between and the Falaknuma ignores all of them till it reaches Nalgonda. The Musi is crossed some distance later, a barely-there nullah of pitch black industrial waste, a reminder of the fact that Hyderabad is not too far away. The train joins the mainline to Kazipet at Pagidipalli and makes a brief stop at Bibinagar while waiting for the all clear. It is a pretty steep gradient after Bibinagar as the line climbs close to a hundred metres in 30 km. All in all the Falaknuma moves from sea level near Guntur to 520 m above MSL at Secunderabad. A few unscheduled halts at Hyderabad’s suburban stations follow as it finally enters Secunderabad Junction, usually at Platform no 4 or 5.

The Falaknuma has none of the glorious history of the Deccan Queen or the Punjab Mail. There is none of the Rajdhani speeds too. Yet in its own way over the 1500 odd km that it traverses, it is the unchallenged King. While the snooty Madras bound trains thunder down the mainline, it takes on the little used Guntur route and emerges trumps every single time.


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