Before the Konkan Railway came into being, connecting Mumbai with Goa along the Konkan coast, I would travel to Mumbai and back by bus, along roads winding through villages and hamlets hidden among trees and interspersed among rice fields. To watch a villager walk by in the backdrop of mountains would be watch tranquility nudge time along.
Sometimes the bus would pass close enough for me to make out the farmer’s features as he ploughed his rice field in ankle deep slush, goading his oxen on with short guttural commands. In the next square would be another farmer with his bullocks, the scene repeating for many miles along the Konkan stretch.
The sameness never jarred, instead it sought to connect me with a tradition, even if fleetingly, that’s barely changed since the time humans first began to work the land, rooting them to the earth just as surely as wings root birds to the skies, and as irresistibly as a bend in the road draws a wanderer’s feet to it.
If the skies were blue and an occasional cloud were to be making its way across, the water in the rice fields would reflect it just as clearly as if I were craning my neck out the window to sight it in the skies. And in the water I could see the breeze I felt on my face pressed to the window.
The pastoral scenes along the Konkan stretch filled in the hours well. Soon enough the rumble of the bus became a steady hum, receding to the back of my mind like an insistent fly buzzing about in a room stilled by the noon silence. I might’ve been in a theatre watching a slide show of picture postcards play out and not know the difference.
The Goa - Bombay journey was a long one, and the only time I was brought up to a thudding break in the middle of the scenic slide show was when the driver would occasionally swerve wildly to sway out of the path of an oncoming truck joyously muscling his way past a terrified bus-load of staid passengers. I’ve had my share of these untimely thrills over the years to an extent that I began to keep a wary eye out the window for an oncoming truck if only to give me a momentary head-start for a bracing impact, helped no doubt by the occasional wreck left to rust along the Bombay - Goa route, macabre installations that might yet be turned into art someday if only to remind a traveller of the perils that his Karma might’ve in store for him.
I needn’t have worried much, for I’ve lived to tell the proverbial tale. It’s just that having shifted to traveling by the Konkan Railway, and my encounters with trucks on the highway having reduced to seeing them waiting alongside bullock carts at railway crossings, watching my train thunder past, I was nevertheless reminded of my highway journeys when, three years ago, the Mandovi Express I was traveling by pulled up alongside Konkan Railway’s RO RO service for trucks, shortened from Roll On - Roll Off.
The Roll On - Roll Off flatbed rail car was headed the opposite direction with its cargo of thirty trucks transporting goods when we passed it shortly after leaving Khed.
Doors open, the drivers and cleaners were probably twiddling their thumbs, or maybe playing cards awaiting Kolad, their Roll Off point 145 kms. short of Mumbai. In all likelihood they’d Rolled On at Verna in Goa, or maybe at Suratkal, 20 kms. off Mangalore.
The Konkan Railway operates the Roll On – Roll Off (RO RO) service for truck transportation between (1) Verna – Kolad, (2) Suratkal – Kolad, and (3) Verna – Suratkal. The Verna – Kolad stretch is 421 kms., while the Suratkal – Kolad route spans 721 kms.
A little over a year ago reports had suggested that Konkan Railway had made profits to the tune of 120 crores from their RO RO service over ten years, the service having commenced in 1999 before recommencing after a minor suspension of service in between.
The trucks have to obtain height clearance before they’re permitted to Roll On the rail car at the loading point to ensure a safe clearance through the slew of tunnels along the Konkan Railway route.
It must be a welcome change for drivers to sit back and take in the picturesque Konkan stretch from the safety of their cabins as the rail car proceeds to their destination along the coast instead of keeping up through the day, and the night hunched over the wheel.
Needless to say it saves drivers long hours of driving, cuts down on transportation time between the destinations serviced, saves trucks from the wear and tear of the road, and the owners of fuel costs, bypasses check posts and the inevitable greasing of sundry palms along the way, primes the business for quick turnarounds on account of reduced travelling time, and most importantly reduces the probability of accidents resulting from reckless, drunk, or fatigued truck drivers. The opposite is also true, saving truck drivers from accidents resulting from reckless, drunk, or fatigued drivers behind the wheels of sundry motor vehicles.
Watching the trucks idling in silence, I couldn’t help wonder if my own journeys by bus might not have benefited by fewer ‘thrills’ on the highway if this service was up and running back then. It’s another matter really that if Konkan Railway was around ‘back then’ I might never have traveled between Mumbai and Goa by bus to start with, though I’d continued with traveling by bus to elsewhere.
While 30 trucks ‘removed from plying on the highway’ might seem too few a number to make a significant difference to the health of other motorists on the highway, and which might indeed be the case more so now than when I used to travel infrequently to Bombay and back by bus as a school boy, it’ll nevertheless make highways safer considering the service runs each way and is set to be increased with rising demand for the same besides the likelihood of being adopted across the country.