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Thundering through India
A writer who spent four months travelling on 80 trains talks about the good, bad and ugly side of the Indian Railways.
Since 16 April, 1853, when the first passenger train left Boree Bunder and made the 34-km journey to Thane, India's rail network has rippled out across the country, embroidering the edges of its landmass and earning the nickname the Lifeline of the Nation. The birth of the railways not only changed the lives of Indians, opening up commerce and commuter travel on an unprecedented scale, it was also a keystone in global travel. In Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days, the trigger for Phileas Fogg's journey is the new section of the Great Indian Peninsula Railway between Rothal and Allahabad, which reduces the time taken to circle the globe. For decades, the railways have been the backbone of the country, but as the boom of domestic airlines has dented their importance to the middle classes who prefer the efficiency and cleanliness of flying, their charm has kept them alive. From Ruskin Bond to Paul Theroux, Wes Anderson to Danny Boyle, the railways have inspired authors and filmmakers, drawing back the nostalgic and enticing the curious. It was into this latter category that I fell when I began my four-month journey around India in 80 trains in January 2010. With more than 25 million daily passengers, 1. 5 million employees and 17, 000 trains on 65, 000 km of track, I knew there would be stories to tell.
Air travel, to me, has always been a cramped, clinical affair conducted in recycled air, causing bad tempers and bad breath, whereas train travel invited me to participate. I could sit in the doorway, thundering across rivers instead of pressing a forehead to a grimy oval window, watching them snake silently below. I soon discovered that an Indian train ticket was a permit to intrude into other people's lives and certain improprieties became permissible: lying in bed watching dishevelled strangers mutter and twitch in their sleep;eavesdropping on boyfriend troubles and mother-inlaw disputes;or joining a wedding party, clapping and singing along as their gifts of glass bangles slid down my wrists. Finally, my destination would tap at the window, rudely interrupting and heralding a curtain call on the show.
However, I soon became aware that while I was free to travel the railways with reckless abandon, hopping from one train to the next, whiling away hours with a bent paperback, this was not the most efficient, comfortable or clean way to travel. But it was certainly cheap. I paid Rs 28, 000 for a 90-day Indrail pass which allowed me unlimited travel in AC2-tier, and was cheered to see that the railway ministry had adjusted the train fares accordingly from 1AC down to general class, thereby ensuring that everyone could afford to travel. Compared with airline travel, train travel is always a bargain. The most expensive train ticket in 1AC between Delhi and Chennai costs Rs 5, 615 compared with a flight at around Rs 8, 000 on SpiceJet.
But upkeep of the trains was poor. One afternoon, two hours after a cup of tea was spilt across a table a boy came past in a smart IRCTC uniform and used a travel brochure to mop it up. That brochure was then scrunched into a bag and thrown from the train along with all the other rubbish collected. The lack of bins encouraged vermin and passengers showed little consideration for cleanliness. As long as the immediate area around them was clean they were content, but showed the utmost disregard for communal areas. I began to wonder - where was the money to fix these problems?
Last year when he was unceremoniously fired, I spoke to the ex-railway minister Dinesh Trivedi who, at the very mention of increasing fares, felt the guillotine drop sharply. He explained that without budgetary support the railways had been operating at a loss ever since fares stopped going up and his primary concern was safety. Passengers, unions and the general public had told him to increase the fares and he declared that without finances the railway coaches would "turn into coffins". Open toilets led to premature corrosion of the railway tracks and increased the development of cracks, and signaling needed to be modernised. Without addressing safety, the speed of trains could not be increased to bring them up on a par with the bullet trains of China and Japan - though he insisted that this was entirely possible.
Despite suggestions that the railways are losing out to airlines, from my own experience, it doesn't seem to be the case. Earlier this week The Times of India reported that Jet Airways had begun a six-day sale of 20 lakh seats over 450 flights across 57 domestic destinations in an attempt to lure in customers and fill empty seats, with Go Air, IndiGo and Spice Jet following suit. Air India was the latest carrier to join in, offering a discount of up to 40 per cent on one-way regular fares on its domestic flights. Vikram Malhi, country head of travel portal Expedia, was reported as saying that the drop in fares would help airlines fill up 20-25 per cent vacant seats on each flight and increase their load factors, bolstering traffic on weaker routes. Empty seats are never a problem on the trains. Rail forums, travel websites and stations themselves are filled with passengers complaining that trains are booked up months in advance and that it is nigh on impossible to reserve seats at short notice.
By and large the real issue seems to be an attempt to try and reconcile the old-time romance of the railways with a modernised system that provides an efficient service. And the two can't go hand in hand - at least not without budgetary support. Indian Railways was named the lifeline of the nation for a reason, and with a little love and preservation from its passengers and Parliament it can stay that way.
The writer is the author of 'Around India in 80 Trains'
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