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Rail hostesses

Trolley-dollies on the train

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LONELY TRACK It hasn't been easy to find women for the job, especially since it entails staying away from family during long journeys.

The Delhi-Amritsar Swarna Shatabdi is the only train that has rail hostesses in its executive class. TOI-Crest finds out if the service meets sky-high expectations.

It's an unusual moment for many of the travellers snugly ensconced in their upholstered seats in the executive compartment of a premier Indian train. A liveried, smiling woman with a cane basket full of candy strolls down the aisle, halting briefly at each seat to greet passengers with a warm namaste and a toffee. The passengers' amazement at this unexpected air-travel-like hospitality is a sight to behold.

"I didn't know there was a train in India with female attendants. I've seen them only in hotels and on planes, " says Vikram Ahuja, a jeweller on board the Swarna Shatabdi, the popular train service that connects the national capital with Amritsar through a sixhour long journey. But ask the frequent first-class travellers on this train, and they will tell you how the hospitality of the rail hostesses has weaned them away from the comforts of air travel. There are some who even know the hostesses by their first names.

Introduced some years ago, Swarna Shatabdi is the only rail service in India with stewardesses in the service of the train's occupants. Attired mostly in tightly draped traditional silk sarees, these women are the USP and badge of honour of the train. At present, there are two hostesses working in the first-class compartments;assisting them is an assembly of men in black sherwanis who usher in travellers at every station.

The passengers on this particular journey have by now started settling into their seats, opening their laptops and fishing out their iPods. Their kids bring out their little game machines and begin playing even as the hostesses ply them with candy and ice-cream. As the train traverses the agricultural scapes of Haryana, bowls of cereal, milk and fresh juice appear. Next, the aroma of paranthas and omelettes fills the compartment as the two hostesses arrive, pushing a trolley with food trays.

The child with the playstation does not want to eat and pushes back his cereal bowl, spilling it, as the harried mother looks to the stewardess for help. Another traveller hollers for bread, refusing to eat the paranthas. A few more such demands are raised, but they fail to ruffle the two women, who handle every situation with poise and a smile. "It's a regular affair. You will always have someone disappointed with the food. But we are here to show them this bright side of the railways, " says petite Lakshmi, the hostess. Her companion, Babita, smiles.

But life on the tracks can be more difficult than this. "It isn't just the food - passengers complain about the air-conditioning, even lame things like a speck of dust they spot near their shoes, " says Lakshmi as the train halts at Ludhiana, the first leg of the Punjab region. The girls are also taught how to deal with uncouth travellers, including those who try to make sexual advances, although such instances are few and far between, say both Lakshmi and Babita.

Why has the idea of female hostesses remained confined to only this one train route over the last 13 years? Babita says it's because of the almost 15-hour workdays (she reaches home at midnight and is picked up as early as 5 am). "Also, putting up with nasty travellers requires a brave face. Maybe that's why the service hasn't been replicated in other trains, " she says. P K Goyal, chief commercial manager, Northern Railways, who was executive director (passenger marketing) when the service was launched, says it's never been easy to find women for the job, especially since it entails staying away from their families during long journeys.

That perhaps explains why only 20 women in the past have served on the train. They earn an average salary of Rs 12, 000 per month, which is a far cry from what air-hostesses get. Some of the hostesses quit, as regular travelling became a concern for their family members, and others get married. However, a few of them have gone on to join airlines and one even went to Australia to do her post-graduation in train hospitality.

Despite their failure to extend this feature to other trains, the architects of the scheme believe that having stewardesses is still a leading USP of Indian Railways' hospitality. Memories of the days when the service was to be inaugurated are still fresh in their minds. "I remember how we had trained the women first chosen to work in this train, " says Goyal. "We coached them for months at an institute, as the service was the first of its kind. We introduced a new dress code for even the train superintendents, which remains the same even today. "

As the train reaches its final halt at Amritsar, the hostesses stand at the door with their palms joined together in a farewell greeting. A long day has come to an end, but they'll be back on the evening train returning to Delhi. Bearing food-laden trays and a smile that never wanes.

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