Mannargudi, its mafia and its railway connections

Today we hear a lot about this nondescript town in Tamil Nadu:

mannargudi

It is not even in the top 20 cities of Tamil Nadu when ranked by population. However, the term “Mannargudi Mafia” has come to mean a group of people connected with the CM-aspirant Ms VK Sasikala. Google for “Mannargudi Mafia” if you are not familiar with this aspect of TN politics. For instance, see: http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/slideshows/nation-world/all-you-wanted-to-know-about-sasikala-and-mannargudi-mafia/what-is-mannargudi-mafia-/slideshow/57021899.cms

Even Wikipedia cannot find anything out of the ordinary here except for the presence of some moderately important temples: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mannargudi

Ms Sasikala was not born here, but at a more tongue-twisting place called:

ttp-jn

Mercifully we can use the station code for TTP here. It is maybe a little bit larger than Mannargudi. While Mannargudi has enjoyed a railway revival of a sort in the last few years, TTP has not seen trains running for the last few years due to gauge conversion. It also used to have a branch line running to the quaintly named Point Calimere (later Kodikkarai) but that line may or may not be reopened.

Of course, the phrase Mannargudi Mafia sounds catchy, just like the Maharashtra Mafia and Malayali Mafia we may have heard about elsewhere. How about a Mathura Mafia or a Moradabad Mafia? In other countries there may be a Manchester Mafia or a Massachusetts Mafia, but probably not one from Maine as it is not important enough in US politics.

We now move back to the strange history of the railways in and around Mannargudi and its feeder junction Nidamangalam:

nidamangalam

(Note the new trend of mentioning the PIN code on station signboards).

In the early 1860s, the predecessors of the South Indian Railway built a broad gauge line all the way from Erode to Trichnopoly, Tanjore and Negapatnam (those being the spellings used at the time). A wayside station now called Sikkal was then listed as Sickle.

By the mid-1870s, the South Indian Railway Company (with HQ at what is now Tiruchchirapalli) had decided that MG would be used through most of its territory. By the end of the 1870s the above mentioned line from Erode to Negapatnam was converted to MG. An MG extension to Nagore was opened in 1899, and a branch from Nidamangalam to Mannargudi still later in 1915.

Erode to TPJ was converted back to BG in 1929. The rest of the route to Nagore became BG only in around 2000. Extensions were made to Velankanni in the south and to Karaikal in the north.

However, the branch from Nidamangalam to Mannargudi had a few trains running on the 14-km route. There were two intermediate stations -Rajapayyam Chavadi and Haridranadhi (which have now vanished from the railway map, apart from the Great Indian Railway Atlas). I remember seeing this route in timetables of the 1960s and early 1970s. But it is absent from the 1975 timetable. This 1975 timetable does have the Mayuram-Tranquebar and Peralam-Karaikal lines which were closed soon afterwards. The Mannargudi branch was also thought to have gone the way of the dodo until a few years ago.

Though not considered to be from the Mannargudi Mafia, the DMK leader TR Baalu set his sights on improving things in the region around Thanjavur. His somewhat complicated political career can be seen at more length here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/T._R._Baalu

Essentially he served as a minister in both NDA and UPA governments up to 2009. Although he was not in the railway ministry, he appears to have been instrumental in getting the branch to Mannargudi reopened in BG in the mid-2000s. It now has a variety of express trains to different parts of Tamil Nadu and even to faraway Bhagat-ki-Kothi near Jodhpur, better known for its large diesel shed and for being the terminus of the Thar Link Express to Munabao.

Here you can see the station’s list of trains:

http://indiarailinfo.com/departures/mannargudi-mq/9633

The 4 daily trains include a DEMU passenger to Tiruchi, another passenger to Mayiladuturai and expresses to Chennai Egmore and Coimbatore. Then there are a tri-weekly express to Tirupati and a weekly express to Bhagat-ki-Kothi. Not bad for a place which used to have only shuttles to Nidamangalam.

Presumably the local population is happy with its new-found connectivity to different corners of the country.

In contrast, the broad gauge line from Salem to Mettur Dam had no passenger services for several years (although goods services continued). These passenger services were also revived in recent years but still has rather limited services:

http://indiarailinfo.com/departures/mettur-dam-mtdm/6593

Life on the border-Munabao (2)

Hope you have read the first part:

https://abn397.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/life-on-the-border-munabao/

A bit of ancient history first, courtesy of a nice little book “Jodhpur Railway” by R.R. Bhandari, published by Northern Railway in 1982. Copies might still be available at the bookshop at the NRM in Delhi.

The start of this desert route came about by public demand in Sind province (which, unlike Jodhpur state, was ruled by the British). Thus a BG line was built from Hyderabad (Sind) to Shadipalli, a little east of Jamrao and Mirpur Khas. It was opened in 1892 and did not run at a profit.

Ultimately the British did some arm-twisting and persuaded the ruler of Jodhpur to extend the MG line from the then railhead at Balotra to Shadipalli. The line from Shadipalli to Hyderabad was then converted to MG, and the through MG connection was opened in 1901. The last section was transferred to the Jodhpur Railway. It was generally considered to be one of the best run mid-sized railways in India, and it was not surprising that they could run it at a profit.

An interesting sidelight from this book relates to the station now known as Marwar Jn. Marwar is the name of a region but not a town. This station came into being when the first connection from Pali (then an important town in Jodhpur state) was to be connected to the Ahmedabad-Delhi line. As it often happens, the optimum connection happened to be at a place with little local population. But it was chosen as the water supply there was more abundant than the other possible points. This station went through various names such as Kharchi, Jaswantganj, Jodhpur (which was OK until the line to the real Jodhpur was opened), Bitoora, Marwar Railway Jn and finally Marwar Jn. It is still essentially a railway town with few other activities.

By the 2000s, the MG system in Pakistan was on its last legs. Hyderabad to Mirpur Khas had been converted back to BG in the mid-1960s and the latter town had two expresses from Karachi. The pathetic state of the MG network can be seen from these extracts from a PR timetable of 2001:

PR-47

The BG connection up to Hyderabad is shown above.

PR-48

Here you can see the pair of trains which ran once a week between Mirpur Khas and Khokhrophar. They ran with ancient steam locos, as did the other MG lines.

PR-49

The line from Mirpur Khas to Nawabshah appeared to have only two trains a month, and only two intermediate stations functioning on the 129-km route.

PR-50

And this loop line from Mirpur Khas to Pithoro had one train a week, which ran only in the anti-clockwise direction and returned via the “main line” as you can see from page 48 above.

There were a few BG routes such as Quetta – Zahidan which had a similar pattern of service.

A recent picture of Hyderabad Sind station, which is a junction unlike its larger Indian counterpart:

Hyderabad Sind

By 2006 the Indian BG conversion had reached up to Munabao and was then extended up to the border. Similarly Pakistan converted the line up to the border. As Khokhropar was a few km away from the border, they decided to build a new station “Zero Point” just inside the border. There is a general understanding between the two countries that no new structures will be erected within a few hundred metres of the border, but India seems to have let this pass.

The geography of the border stations can be seen here:

https://www.google.co.in/maps/@25.7274878,70.2551959,14z

Also Gadra Road station, which saw some action in 1965:

https://www.google.co.in/maps/place/Gadra+Road,+Rajasthan+344501/@25.7417899,70.607637,13z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x3945e4a2e3cae09f:0xa906cf73f5ba9fd!8m2!3d25.742726!4d70.6424989

The service began in 2006 with the Indian train running from Jodhpur to Munabao, the trans-border train running between Munabao and Zero Point, and the Pakistani train running from there to Karachi Cantt with commercial halts at Mirpur Khas and Hyderabad. The Indian train apparently runs non-stop. After a couple of years the terminus was shifted from Jodhpur to the suburb of Bhagat-ki-Kothi (BGKT) Apparently it was easier to handle security from the smaller station, which is more known for its diesel locomotive shed.

Bhagat ki Kothi

There are full immigration and customs checks at both border stations. The trans-border train is the true Thar Express, while the train from BGKT is correctly called the Thar Link Express. The trans-border train is supposed to be run by India and Pakistan alternately for 6 months. When it is the Indian train, everyone gets on to the same train they came by once the border formalities are over. It takes them to Zero Point, where everyone gets down and the passengers from Pakistan board for their trip across the border. Similarly, the Pakistani train from Karachi takes their passengers across their border up to Munabao and returns to Zero Point. Everyone gets down for the formalities before they board again for Karachi.

The formalities may take several hours on each side and frequent seizures of smuggled goods and counterfeit currency are made. Expired visas and other irregularities are also commonly found, although visas are supposed to be checked before boarding at BGKT.

These are the timings of the Thar Link Express:TharLink

And on the Pakistani side:

Thar Pak TT

Note that this website can be seen only in some countries, so you may have to make some adjustments.

The timetables are more of a work of fiction as delays for checking often take longer than expected.

When the new service started, India already had a daily passenger train between Barmer and Munabao. But on the Pakistani side there was only the 405/406 running between Mirpur Khas and Zero Point with no intermediate stops. Khokhropar, the only place of some importance in that remote area, found itself totally cut off as roads were in a poor condition. More recently a daily passenger train has been introduced on this route:

Pak Pass TT

The current timetable does not show any services on the MG lines on the Pithoro loop or the Nawabshah branch, so we presume they are now closed. Thus Pakistan is now an unigauge country like Sri Lanka, but unlike India and Bangladesh where the metre gauge and narrow gauge will be around for a long time to come.

Pictures of Munabao station:

Presumably the sign on the left is a new one set up when the trans-border services started.

Pictures of Zero Point:

This station was newly constructed when the trans-border route was opened in 2006. Note the Sindhi inscription.

The old border station of Khokhrophar:

Khokrophar

Here are a few videos of this train:

Arrival from Pakistan at Munabao:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OvOiF6iGO0U

Leaving Zero Point for India:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5dRtTjsqxI4

And passing through Chanesar, a suburb of Karachi:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SimkBa8ScQY 

Note the curious spelling of Mona Bahu.

It needs to be mentioned that it is a long and uncomfortable journey and not particularly worthwhile for Indian railfans. This is in contrast to the Samjhauta route where Lahore and Amritsar are both within an hour of the border.

They could, of course, travel from Barmer to Munabao by the local train. With luck, you might see some action between 12 noon and 2 pm on Saturday though the cross-border train is more likely to arrive late. Even if one could find a place to stay there, there is supposed to be a curfew between 7 pm and 6 am.