If you are one of those gazillion Malayalees who head to/from the hallowed city of Bangalore (Bangloor in Malluspeak), or if you have spent considerable time commuting in the southern half of Kerala, you surely will not need an introduction to the 16525/16526 Kanniyakumari – Bangalore – Kanniyakumari Express, more (un)popularly known by its old name: the Island Express and called “Bangalore Passenger” or “Island Passenger” etc by many for its passenger train-like redeeming qualities.
For the uninitiated, this is not just a train. It is an establishment. An experience. Stuff that legends are made of. The 42 and the Ultimate Question when it comes to trains as far as Malayalis are concerned, but different from the Ultimate Mallu Answer. Like The Matrix, No one can be told, what the Island Express really is. You have to experience it for yourself! If you are one of those unfortunate mortals who are yet to experience the untold bliss of an epic voyage in this train, let me tell you: Your entire life will change. You will rediscover your life, you will see angels on your shoulders, you will learn how to control anger be in total control of yourself, you will be absolved of all your sins and you will finally know why that girl left you! Hallelujah!
Picture this: The scorching sun or torrential rain. 200 people crammed into the space for 72 in an iron framed space filled with grime, dust, oppressive heat, 80% humidity, sweat and filth. The place is filled with the smell of all the above and that of iron, rust, urea/ammonia and stale coconut oil. Yes, you are in a train, one which never picks up speed but just crawls along the tracks. As you hope against hope it would pick up speed, the clatter of the rails slowly starts subsiding and with a metallic screech the train grinds to a miserable halt. A frustrated silence ensues with the whirrs of the overhead fans suddenly being the only sound you hear. The train has stopped again, barely 10 minutes after it started from its previous stop. It can be a station, an outer of a station, or just the middle of nowhere. It may sit there for 1 minute, 10 minutes or for half an hour. More humanity may cram in, one or more trains may pass you, or nothing might happen as you sit there helplessly praying for the train to move… Rinse, repeat this for the entirety of the journey, one which many make with an alarming frequency, not out of choice but out of compulsion because there is no other way.
You might feel that I have just described what it is to travel in some local trains and some expresses like the horrors that are the Janata Expresses, The Amritsar – Dadar Express and the Alappuzha – Dhanbad/TataNagar Express and other insanity-inducing shuttle-like monstrosities the Indian Railways run under the tag ‘express’. The Island is a notch above the others with the consistency with which it fails and shadows a miserable local train every. Single. Day. And of course, this is an overnight train unlike the others, and the only daily train catering to around a million people. The Island and such trains as given above are called “Super Crawlers” in Rail fan terminology.
The Island Express is a daily overnight train (the only one) connecting the southern part of Kerala and Kanyakumari district of TN to Bangalore, paving the way for Mallu migration to the garden city where there are more than a million (10 lakh) of them at last count. Also to be taken into account are the equal number of casual/examination/business/visitor travelers, the huge ‘tourist’ crowd, Sabarimala pilgrims, transit passengers etc. Only 1 train for half of them, too many people and too less train. (There are two daily expresses to North Kerala). Now, some quick facts:
- This is the ONLY daily overnight train from Bangalore to South Kerala.
- Covers 944 kilometers 21 hours, at an average speed of 48 km/hr and has 42 stops (A stop every 22 kilometers! – Express.)
- 22 stops in the 294 kilometers between Trissur and Trivandrum (A stop every 13 Kilometers! Express.)
- 2nd slowest train from Trivandrum to Trissur, with the 2nd most number of stops.
- The train given least preference by Railways in Kerala, it is stopped at waysides for all other trains to pass even while on double tracks
- Overbooked year round, sometimes months in advance, for all classes.
- Perpetually late, sometimes by hours, and stays late. Not just slow, but painfully slow.
- Takes 18 hours to reach Bangalore from Trivandrum, while a Volvo bus takes 14 hours.
The train has 21 coaches with 1088 reserved seats in AC 2-tier, AC 3-tier and Sleeper Class. The reserved seats will be filled months before, usually within days after reservation opens. The train also has 368 unreserved General Second class seats, which will easily accommodate 1000 people. Add to this another 3000+ get on/get off passengers en route. Too many people and too less train. The woes of the long-distance travelers of the Island are compounded when it passes through Kerala, as its schedule makes it also an ideal day time commuter train for this overpopulated, transportation-starved state. It leaves Bangalore in late in the evening, makes its way across Tamil Nadu in the night, enters Kerala at day break and meanders across the state during day time. From the other end, it leaves CAPE in the morning, and again spends the entire day crawling across Kerala, exiting it by nightfall. It stops at almost all non-halt stations and rarely reaches and maintains speed above 55 km/h for more than 5 minutes. Whenever it halts, wave after wave of humanity will break into all compartments, no matter they are reserved or not. Mallus believe in Socialism, remember?
To put case in point, let us take an illustration about the journey of the train on a random day, April 25, 2011 in both directions. 16526, SBC – CAPE, started off being late by 10 minutes from Bangalore, and by the time it reached Angamaly it was impressively only 4 min late! It was all downhill from there and it ended up falling more and more behind schedule. It was 37 min late when it reached Kottayam, and 1 hr 20 min late by the time it reached Kollam! From the other end, 16525 CAPE – SBC left bang on time but ‘lateness’ crept in as it slowly meandered across central Kerala late by 40 min on an average. Then by the time it reached Aluva, it was 1 hour hour late (mostly because it was held up at Ernakulam outer for some reason and at Kalamasserry for the Jan Shadabdi to pass) and it stayed 1 hour late, all the way to Bangalore. It is called the “Super Crawler” for nothing.
So much so. The train has been neglected an d then some, and is something of an #EpicFail on many wheels nowadays. But it was not always like this. The train has a glorious past though not much is known about it. That awesome that it was supposedly the second express train ever to roll out of South Kerala, and like all old timers, is today just a shadow of its’ former self. All this aside, why is everyone complaining so much? It is not like there aren’t any other traveling options, for heaven’s sake! What about the swanky Volvos? All the cool kids take them, yo! Who wants you stupid rust bucket of a train? Right. Good question. But that is not the answer.
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