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India

Western Ghats as Never Seen Before

31 Jul 2021 By Rahuldev Rajguru

It has been 16 years and I have hardly missed a visit to Western Ghats during each rainy season. Am I satisfied, considering my love for the Western Ghats? NOT quite yet. Rain and Western Ghats is a match made in heaven. You won’t be able to relate to the tranquility cocooned in the mountain ranges until you spend a few days in the middle of Western Ghats during the downpour. Rain brings with it the stunning views of evergreen shola grasslands that blend with the verdant valleys. The gentle waterfalls nestled in the folds of the hills come alive with the rain. Gushing streams, breathtaking bridges, endless dark tunnels and misty mountain peaks call out to nature lovers to come and soak in this stunning extravagance of Western Ghats.

Pandemic has put my travel into depression mode. But along came an opportunity that a hardcore Western Ghats lover like me would never miss. Indian Railways recently introduced Vistadome coaches on the train between Bangalore and Mangalore that passes through the dense rainforest of Western Ghats. I have done train journeys on this route numerous times before, but always passed through the ghats during the nighttime. My favorite place was to sit at the doorstep of the coach and soak in the sound of waterfalls in the calmness of night. Many times I had wished for the train coach to be transparent so I could have a 180-degree panoramic view of this natural wonder.


Vistadome coach of Indian Railways in the backdrop of mist-covered Western Ghats


It seems Indian Railways heard me and Voila, my wish came true. Here comes Vistadome coach with ultra-wide windowpanes and glass rooftop. The coach is equipped with wide seats, pushback chairs, long foot space, foldable snack table AND most importantly 360-degree rotatable seats. They have designed 2x2 seating arrangement with only 11 rows (44 seats) per coach to accommodate all the luxury a passenger can avail. Each coach is monitored through CCTV cameras and is equipped with a fire safety system. The mini pantry has an OTG, microwave and a refrigerator for passengers to use. Resplendent upholstery, artificial grass carpets, motion sensor enabled sliding doors and elegant lightings provide a luxurious feel to the coach. It felt like I'm flying first class on one of the most luxurious airlines in the world. All these at one-way fare of just Rs. 1,395 ($20) for a 10+ hours journey. A steal, don't you think?


"First Class" experience of traveling in Vistadome Coach, the innovation of Indian Railways


It was my dream to travel this route by train during the daytime. I could not wait to board the Vistadome coach the moment I discovered this new introduction along this Green Route, as it is popularly known. With some persuasion, I managed to convince my wife to join me over the weekend and here we go. We hit the first roadblock, the tickets were waitlisted. We had 4 days to go, so it was worth taking the risk, which eventually paid off, our tickets got confirmed a day in advance.

We boarded the train at 7 am from Yesvantpur Railway Station. It went through the green corridor surrounded by lush-green paddy fields, Areca-nut plantations and tiny villages until Sakleshpur, about a 4-hour journey. We boarded with less than half occupancy with more passengers boarding from stations on the way and both the Vistadome coaches were full by the time we reached Sakleshpur, the real experience begins now.


The perfect weekend trip with my wife in Vistadome Coach


Sakleshpur is situated at an elevation of 906 meters (3,000 feet) from where the Western Ghat section begins and ends at Subramanya Road at an elevation of 120 meters (400 feet). The downhill journey in the middle of the rainforest and shola grasslands of Western Ghats covers a distance of 55.26 kilometers (34 miles) with a rolling gradient of 1 in 50. This entire section passes through 109 curves & bridges and 57 tunnels. The longest tunnel measures 0.75 kilometers. Incredible stats, right? There are countless waterfalls (100+), few river crossings and cloud-covered valleys on this 3-hour breathtaking journey through the dense forest of Western Ghats.

Scenic journey through Western Ghats offers picture postcard view through Vistadome Coach's wide windowpanes


Each Vistadome coach has a small lounge in the far end, which can accommodate about 8-10 people. The lounge has a large viewing window offering you a 180-degree panoramic view. The coaches are placed at the fag end of the train for the Bangalore-Mangalore route. Lounge of the last Vistadome coach (eventually the last coach of the train) is the place I spent most of my time during this 3-hour journey through the ghats. This view is not available during the return journey to Bangalore as the train has to go uphill and requires two engines to pull the load, one in the front and one at the rear, blocking this breathtaking view from the lounge. So in essence, the Bangalore-Mangalore route offers a more complete view of the Western Ghats as compared to the Mangalore-Bangalore route.


Breathtaking view of misty Western Ghats as seen from the lounge window


What can I say about the view of this spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site? You have to see it to believe it! Older than the Himalaya Mountains, the Western Ghats is a biodiversity hotspot and makes for one of the most picturesque views. As we meander through this rich rainforest, awakened by the monsoon, it displays its splendor in a million hues of green. The montane forest is decorated with numerous waterfalls, big and small that add to the beauty and excitement of the journey. The gushing water below the bridges is truly a sight to behold. The Vistadome coach literally brings the Western Ghats into the bogie.

This entire route is an engineering masterpiece. This section of the ghat receives about 6,000 mm of rain each year. This causes frequent landslides, sometimes blocking or uprooting the rail tracks. Frequent monitoring of the tracks poses an uphill challenge for the authorities. The other challenges Railways face are moving specialized and skilled manpower with almost non-existent road connectivity. It was a herculean task even to bring heavy machinery including earthmovers and DG sets through rocky topography and lengthy tunnels.


One of the longest rail bridges built in this corridor over the river flowing through the Western Ghats


Amid all the odds stacked against them, Indian Railways commissioned meter-gauge railway tracks on this route in 1979. Trains, at lesser frequency, operated until 1996 when the authorities decided to convert them to broad-gauge to increase the train frequency and also allow freight trains. All the trains were discontinued until 2007 for the track conversion work to be completed in this tough terrain amid natural challenges. The trains restarted plying between Bangalore and Mangalore from 2007 onwards but it hit another bottleneck in adding more trains along the route due to some of the safety protocols due to the ruling gradient of 1 in 50 in the g hat section. Indian Railways implemented cutting-edge Multi-Section Digital Axle Counter (MSDAC) technology for safe and seamless operations in ghat sections in 2020. This opened the door for plying a large number of trains and eventually introduction of Vistadome coaches in July 2021. A commendable job done by the Indian Railways.


Building and maintaining safety standards of a railway line passing through tough terrain and rainforest itself is an engineering marvel of Indian Railways


Maintaining and providing a safe passage to trains through "Green Corridor" is a continuous process and has its own challenges during the rainy season. It also requires huge manpower on the mountains for frequent physical inspection of the tracks, bridges and tunnels. A staff of more than 100 people have dedicated themselves to ensure the safety of passengers. They have set up an inspection post every 5 kilometers where a few of the staff members are stationed to continuously monitor and report the status of rail tracks to the authorities. I salute all those work heroes due to whom nature lovers like me can enjoy this scenic route when it blossoms the best, when it rains.


Hacks to have the best experience:

  1. While choosing your seat, you would want to sit on the right side of the moving train while traveling from Bangalore to Mangalore because that is where the view is. If traveling from Mangalore to Bangalore then your preferred seat will be on the left side of the moving train.
  2. A window seat is definitely a better bet to get maximum view of the ghat section.
  3. The best view is from the lounge of the coach, which is at the last coach of the train. So a seat in the last coach is the perfect spot for the best experience.
  4. The lounge view is available only from Bangalore to Mangalore. On the Mangalore to Bangalore journey the engine blocks the lounge view, so only the side window view is available.
  5. The Vistadome coaches are the last two coaches situated at the fag end of the train while going from Bangalore-Mangalore. The last coach has the lounge view that offers a panoramic view, which is the best view in the house. So, make sure you find a spot there in Sakleshpur before the train leaves that station, as it gets crowded after that.

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