Sunday, November 19, 2006

The ship I posted below, was no oceanographic vessel. It was being used by the Reliance-owned Flag Telecom Ltd. to lay a branch of their FALCON undersea optic fibre cable system from Trivandrum to the Maldives. The FALCON cable network is one of the most extensive data networks in the world, linking four continents with over 65,000 Km of undersea links. Reliance is setting up a Rs 200 Crore landing station in Trivandrum which will put us on the world map of data superhighways. Much has been made of a similar landing station in another city in Kerala, I hope the media creates as much hue and cry over this one. Whatever that be, the international cable link will be a great boost to the IT/ITES industry in Trivandrum.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Ship ahoy!

On the way to the Airport in the morning, I was surprised to see a huge ship anchored right off Shankumugham Beach! At first, I thought its captain had taken a week bit too much of tipple, inspired perhaps by his colleague who drove the Exxon Valdez on to the rocks, and run the ship aground. One would have thought a ship this big couldn't be safely anchored this close in, but then I remembered that Trivandrum has very deep coastal waters. Just a mile offshore, the sea bed falls away steeply to about 20 m and upto 25 m in places. This is the reason why India's deepest port is being proposed right here.

To put things in perspective, the average natural depth at Vizhinjam is 18 m, which is 6 m more than the peak depth which can be achieved with massive dredging at a port like Kochi (of course, when CPT's dredgers are not colliding with each other or with any convenient bridge, in the vicinity, lol!) With a peak depth of upto 25 m, Vizhinjam can accomodate the world's largest ship, the 550,000 ton Jahre Viking which is so enormous that it can't enter any current port in the world, when fully loaded. If a big ship, like the one off Shankumugham, approached so close anywhere else, say at Cherai beach near Cochin, the only way it would leave is if a bunch of tugs ripped it off the sand or it was cut to pieces (Rust in Pieces...I guess. Oops, bad one!).

Hope all those morons - some of them can be found spouting garbage online and in the media - who still doubt the urgent need to have a deep water port at Vizhinjam will take a morning walk along the Beach and see the proof. Mr. Baalu & Co., are you reading this?

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Friday, November 10, 2006

75 years of Trainspotting....

An integral and quite iconic part of Ananthapuri turned 75 this week....a classic beauty...seen and admired by millions. No, I am not talking of some yesteryear matinee heartthrob, but of Trivandrum Central.

The Southern Railway's second busiest station, after Chennai Central, it has always been and continues to be the hub of railway operations in Kerala. It operates about 70 trains daily on an average and handles two of India's longest trains - to Jammu Tawi and Guwahati.

Trivandrum Central has a lot of memories for me. Trains have always been fascinating for me and I never missed a chance to land up at the Station and gawk at those iron monsters. As life progressed, memories too began to build up around the sprawling station. Its many platforms formed venues for many a fond and tearful farewell, happy homecomings and the springboard for many an excursion.

Notably, I remember the "CAT Train", which set off sometime in November 2002 bearing helluva lot of CAT aspirants to Kozhikode where Kerala takes the much vaunted Common Admission Test. I was more fortunate than most of the rest of the people on that train and hence got a full-scale send off from friends and family. It was like I was off to do battle at some distant battlefield (Joka, better known as IIM Calcutta, was far off, yeah!) and that didn't make me a happy man, coz' most such departees seem to return in wooden boxes, lol! But, that group of receding faces on a platform is hard to forget.

Those days are long gone and that station and its trains are also on the way out. Once upon a time, a train ride was considered a treat - a chance to travel wide and far and in comfort. My travels began in Second Sleeper, which was considered elite compared to Third Class or today's Unreserved. AC was a mysterious, tinted glass world which one aspired. In a day, when aeroplanes were only glimpsed as they left contrails on a blue sky, upgrading to A/C, when it eventually happened, gave me a sense of accomplishment.

The days have changed. Now, I make more flights in a month than I have taken trains in my entire life! Everyone's flying these days....taking a cue from Laxman's Common Man who was famously recruited by a budget...oops...Low Cost Airline.

Is it the end of the passenger railroad? The United States is perhaps the only country which has a railway system as big as India. While passenger trains are most famous in Europe and Japan, the US had its share - once upon a time, with streamlined trains the mode of transport of choice. The passenger traffic in the railroads declined and then almost vanished with the development of the Highway network (part of the Govt.'s efforts to counter the Great Depression) and the airlines, which happened after WW II.

Coincidentally, both of these developments are happening in India at the same time with the launch of the $ 12 billion National High Development Programme and the explosive growth seen in the civil aviation sector from 2004 onwards. However, given the sheer size of the Indian population and the still laggard state of development of the economy and society, such a dire prediction seems premature. It is true that the Railways will lose a lot of passengers in its upper classes, especially on long distance routes, say over 300-400 Km. However, by rationalising fares, the Railways can capture more and more the economy segment. By a judicious use of fare upgrades, new fare classes and other value maximising strategies, this is precisely what the Indian Railways, with a certain IIM Guest lecturer at its helm is setting out to do. Additionally, the booming economy will boost freight earnings. So the death knell of this most Indian of institutions is far from being sounded.

But, fundamental changes are happening in Trivandrum. The first one is electrification. With the long delayed arrival of electric locomotives set to happen by end-November, there will be a lot of changes. True that locos will get more powerful and less polluting, but the delightful roar of the WDM diesel engine will be replaced by the high-voltage humming and hissing of the electric loco.

I have had the occasion to travel only once on a steam train, the toy train to Ooty, but I can tell you it is the most fun to hear. With its chugging, clanking, hissing and whistling, a steam loco almost seemed alive.There is a certain personality about it. Sadly, these metal horses were withdrawn from Trivandrum by the time I was around. The diesels had their charm too, with their throbbing power and powerful airhorns. I don't think the new electrics will be as fun, they are about as masculine as a hair dryer, lol!

Other changes too are brewing at Central. Food courts, shops, plasma screens and many more "touch-and-feel" facilities are operational at Kerala's premier station. The Railways have decided to upgrade Trivandrum Central to a "world-class" station, one of 16 major stations nationwide and the only in Kerala to be chosen. A budget of over a 100 Crores is to be spent in the next two years. Likely additions will be:

- A multi-floor shopping-cum-parking plaza
- Escalators linking the various platforms
- More platforms
- Enclosing and Airconditioning of existing platform areas
- Passenger amenities like a budget hotel close to the Station.

Most of the capacity expansion in terms of platforms and new trains will be taken up at the Kochuveli Satellite Terminus, where 40 Crores is being invested in the next 2-3 years. Central is located right in the heart of the City and hence has little new
land for expansion.

A few years down the line, our Central may look closer to Grand Central than it does now, but I am sure it will continue to be a special place for many, and most assuredly for me. I look forward to more trainspotting!

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Wide roads everywhere

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The new M.G.Road at Palayam is a prototype of how the roads under the Capital Road Development Project (CRDP).Hope the rest of the work gets completed soon. The dilly-dallying by the babus of the State Govt. has hampered progress to the extent that the work which was supposed to be complete by this December is expected to be finished by November 2007. There was some confusion with respect to the payment of the annuity to the Punj Lloyd - CTNL consortium executing the project. Hopefully, it will be resolved soon. Surprising how little focus the Govt. seems to have on Kerala's premier city. With the change of guard and the LDF taking over, things seem to have changed...for the better (?)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

And here is Technopark...

An aerial view of the sprawling Technopark Phase I campus, Kerala's IT hub.

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In addition to the existing buildings, including the TCS Peepul Park (extreme left) and Thejaswini (centre), a number of construction sites are also seen:

1) TCS Development Centre
2) IBS Campus
3) Leela Infopark
4) NEST Campus
5) TATA Elxsi building

The Old and the New....

Trivandrum is a city changing, day-by-day. Those of us who have been out for atleast a year will have difficulty making out some parts of the city. The usual reaction will be "Whoa, what's this??!!"

With the Road Development project, dozens of new highrises and massive development along the IT Corridor, can't blame people for wondering if they took the right flight home.

Here is an example. The BATA building at Pulimoodu was one of the first multi-storied structures in Trivandrum, hailing back to a time decades ago, when only Trivandrum was a city to speak of in the State. But,like everything else, it's time too has come to pass. The building is being demolished for widening M.G.Road and the wreckers' hammers have already started to fall.

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Meanwhile, a lil' further down the road, the Varkey Tower, a high-rise shopping/office tower is nearing completion. Like any great ecosystem, as one element dies, an even grander one takes its place.

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