It is that time of the year when we take a pause to talk about the nation’s lifeline. India may be the only country in the world to have an exclusive Railway Budget, which indicates the importance we give to it. The best way to get to know a vast country like India is to traverse it by Indian Railways. This enormous network runs 1,300 trains and move approximately 30 million people every day, over a route length of 67,000 kms. That is like moving the entire population of Australia and New Zealand each day!
Railways is the most common form of national transport and certainly the most affordable. All state capitals are connected to the national capital, by India’s premier trains, the ‘Rajdhani Express’. They are the fastest on the network and consequently, always booked well in advance. The addition of other fleets of trains such as ‘Garib Rath Express’, ‘Duronto Superfast Express’ and the occasional special trains during peak seasons makes the railways backbone of our country.
Travelling on Indian Railways is like going on a trip with unknowns having the same aim of reaching the same destination. I’ve always enjoyed travelling on trains and have got addicted to it. One of my recent journeys was the long travel from Darbhanga in Bihar to Bengaluru in Karnataka on the Darbhanga-Mysore Bagmati Express! Trains with evocative and romantic names such as ‘Grand Trunk Express’, ‘Flying Rani’, ‘Deccan Queen’ to the new Hindi names such as ‘Bagmati Express’, ‘Udyaan Abha Toofan Express’ have always thrilled me!
As the time to departure approached, the crowds soared at the station, making it chaotic. Passengers running after coolies, who are trying to locate particular carriages; ticket examiners, pantry car workers finalising their trip schedule; vendors trotting up and down the platform selling their wares. Adding to this melee are the inevitable food vendors – bhajiawallas and pooribhaajiwallas. Observing the cameo develop during the arrival and departure of a train provides a free and spontaneous entertainment.
The departure is an interesting ritual that involves the driver, the guard and the stationmaster. First the stationmaster blows a whistle and waves his green flag. Latecomers race up and down the platform, trying to get in wherever they can. Then the driver waves his green flag and blares the train horn. The activity on the platform moves up one gear, from frantic to manic. Finally the train pulls out of the station and the 55-hour long journey begins. I finally took recluse on the side upper berth of the AC 3-Tier coach. The night passed inside the state of Bihar.
The next morning was chilling with dense fog. The water was freezing cold and as I aligned myself to the seat facing the tinted window and sipping hot tea, I noticed little children in the train, defying parental commands, would peer out of the windows at the engine at some bend, and with a broad grin wave bye-byes to other fast moving coaches. Inevitably, your role changes from that of a spectator to that of a participant.
We Indians are not content to mutter a comment about the delayed train and then immerse ourselves in a newspaper crossword or in our mobile phones. We are far too social for that. As the train gathers speed, so does the banter. If you are travelling on an Indian train for the first time, it is difficult to believe that your fellow passengers are meeting each other for the first time. Not only is gossip exchanged, but also food and life stories. As everyone is expected to join in, you might as well do the same. These are usually followed by the small tea breaks and the three-time meals.
IRCTC, the official caterer of the Indian Railways has different attendants to cook and carry the piping hot food from the pantry car across different coaches. The menu may not be an elaborate one, but the hot samosas, aloo bondas in winter months are too tasty to let go. Some trains which doesn’t has a pantry attached to them load in the food at various big stations along their routes. Now, there is an option to order private caterers who deliver your favourite food on trains. The entire journey passes with these gossips ranging from each other’s whereabouts to cricket to politics. Railways leads you into the trains as individuals and sees you off as families.
Despite this jolly ride, I do think of a few major turn-offs during train journeys. Local passengers clambering into reserved coaches to trouble long-distance passengers are the biggest irritants. Many of these ticketless passengers cause further chaos with verbal spat with the TTEs (Train Ticket Examiners). They add to other problems faced by the railways such as footboard travel and chain-pulling cases done by mofussil passengers, the delays due to increasing rail traffic and level-crossing times.
After travelling about 55 hours + 6 hours delay time and 3,000 km of memories from traversing across Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh & Tamil Nadu, I finally reached Bangalore at 2am. This time the delay was caused due to unavoidable fog in northern part of the country. The new people who I met on this long journey always make a sweet part of my memories.
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