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Romance brought up the nine-fifteen

February 28, 2013

Time was when I would wistfully watch the chugging steam engines on the metre gauge railway haul their seven or eight coaches along the track that lay below the first-floor verandah from where I watched them as a child. It was quite some time, several years, before I could board a train to travel to a far-off place.

“Sleeper” accommodation, third class, in days gone by had a conductor who travelled in the coach and had clean toilets that were cleaned once every four to six hours. Water would be topped up in the tanks at equal frequency. And in the first class compartments, there would be the attendant to run errands. The attendant in the AC coach could be seen polishing the chromium plated or stainless steel handles and hand rails and glass windows of the coach at each station. There were real beds, not bunks, in there.

The colonial comfort went away with the lumpenisation (oh, is that a politically incorrect term?) of the polity, of the railways. The “entitled” class no longer travelled on the railways but in aeroplanes or helicopters, and where they would not go, in air conditioned limousines and SUVs. It became less necessary to clean or maintain the coaches.

Rajdhani: rusted coach welded to keep in one piece; the door coming to pieces; the window about to fall off to pieces

Rajdhani: rusted coach welded to keep it in one piece; the door flaking and coming to pieces; the window about to fall off

Travelling by the Rajdhani was once a dream. A dream that was shattered by the actual journey, when we did undertake it a couple of years ago. See the photographs here as a collage of the disrepair of the coach. (Click on it to see bigger image). The food was the same at every mealtime, reheated from earlier stock. We shared it with the cockroaches on board.

The British, with all their experimentation with keeping the “commanding heights” of the economy in the public sector (Clement Attlee’s idea, mis-attributed often to Jawaharlal Nehru in India; as is the quote about customer service by some crass American salesman attributed to the Mahatma and “edified” – possibly he “re-tweeted” it) had change of government and then decided that motorways, more fuel-inefficient, were the future. They were the leaders in railways and had trains chugging all over the islands, but the tracks were literally ripped off so that the commercial interests of motorway-builders were not threatened by their re-use. Germany, who was the first to introduce the Autobahn did not destroy her railways. The British are now so backward in their railways.

Collage of the tourist train in Yorkshire

Collage of the tourist train in Yorkshire. Click the pictures to see bigger image

But there are rail enthusiasts still left there and retired elderly people (see the ticket checker in the picture) run the restored special steam engine powered trains like the one in Yorkshire that we travelled on. And yes, we in India do have our heritage mountain railways that still operate and rail museums, and palaces on wheels. I do not have ready electronic images to paste here.


Waiting for the train at Dolni Pocernice, Praha. A double decker commuter train approaches

Railways have done well on the European continent. It would be more practical to ride a train between city-centres there rather than fly through out-of-town airports, and their inter-city trains travel at speeds of several hundred kilometres an hour. The Japanese led the speed-trend and now the Chinese top in speed if not sophistication. Our railways are proud if their trains touch a 130, and jittery that they should not derail at that speed. Good, perhaps, what with all those cattle and people wandering over the tracks.

The commuter trains as also long distance trains we travelled on in Europe (even in the UK) werePlatform at Orianenberg. There is a double decker on the next platform

Platform at Orianenberg. There is a double decker on the next platform

clean and organised and had toilets that did not stink nor soil the countryside. See these pictures of trains in the Czech Republic and Germany.

And now comes the announcement about the Anubhuti trains. I do not mind the pedestrian trains we have now, if only they could be maintained with basic cleanliness. I agree that the users are to blame for more than half the filth and discomfort on the trains (and typically in buses). The use of water or basic sanitation is foreign to many, and they spit all over and spread the remains of food. The AC coaches are unbearable with the smell of spicy food, onions and garlic pervading all through, suffocating one, inviting more rats inside. I have experienced little of vermin in railway coaches so long as they disinfested them “departmentally”. Now modern management practices must dictate concentrating on “core competencies” and outsourcing such tasks to the venal small contractor, colluding with the venal employee who should certify his bills. I now see a chart stuck on near the toilets showing coaches have been disinfested not more than a couple of days earlier when they are swarming with roaches and rats. I see linen being re-used without an intervening visit to the laundry, from passenger to passenger – never mind that they bill for it. All told, it has become well near one whole pig-sty-class and clever clogs can literally claim they are travelling cattle class. Or can they – pigs are not cattle?

The Railways had several hundred trades in-house. They were perhaps the first to go for integration (backward, forward, sideways, in all directions). British rail companies in the 19th century, I think, stopped just short of owning steel mills. Let us fear the new “lean, mean” railways created by expert business-process-re-engineers that will outsource everything.

I could do with the lowly double deckers that ran between Surat and Bombay Central, and not necessarily take the new AC Bengaluru-Chennai contraptions. They were honest, and did not confine the ill-odours inside. Or the two tier and three tier third class sleepers. First Class coaches used to be maintained first class, and had not become the cattle transport they are today; I mean it, I should know, having fought the cockroaches and cleaned the dirt from the upholstery before I could sit down. The First Class AC coaches are meant for upper echelons of cattle.

And yet I find trains impossibly attractive. Maybe it was a coach of the Bhubaneswar – Puri passenger that let in the rain with a gaping hole in the roof. Local roughnecks returning from a festival used to pull the chain and stop it every half a kilometre or so, so that they could get down near their villages. Or the metre gauge train with a gaping hole in the floor of the first-class cabin that carried us from Guwahati to Dimapur. An army officer had covered most of it with his outsize wooden box and the only worry was that we had to sit cross legged in padmasana on the seat as there was no place left on the floor to put our feet down on. There have also been the sweet trains like the super-smooth one that carried us at the breathtaking speed of a hundred kilometres an hour on metre gauge from Trichy to Chennai, the mountain train from Neral to Matheran or from Mettupalayam to Ootacamund, or Siliguri to Darjeeling. Travel was still fun when one had to change coaches from the metre gauge to the broad gauge on technically the same train that ran from Dibrugarh to Delhi. I have enjoyed it when the then Meenakshi Express to Jaipur from Kachiguda laboured hard to climb the Malwa plateau with an additional engine at the back and it still sometimes rolled back and moved in fits and starts. And I have sat up watching the arid landscape with fascination as we moved into the desert at Jaisalmer from Jodhpur in the overnight passenger.

The old railways with its clanging steel and hissing of the super heated steam was a romance to me. The track that stretched into the distance was romance. And no, it has not diminished even if the hiss of steam has been replaced with the hum or howl of the electric motor, or the chugging of the huge diesel. And in our land of continental proportions, the train tells me tales about far off valleys and hills and plains, of rivers and lakes and deserts. Yes, getting there is half the fun. I want to ride the train from Pathankot to Joginder Nagar, up the Araku Valley on the highest broad gauge track, and when they finally do it, to Leh. If I am still alive.

I am again the small boy sitting in the first floor verandah, wistfully watching the train chug away to unknown lands. Romance still brings up the nine-fifteen as it did in Kipling’s days, and surely will do in times to come.

Tailpiece: Usually I want the tailpiece to be light. But no, today’s is bad: there is this couple who with their kids crawl under a goods train in the railway yard and come up on the other side. The children walk onto the next track and are run over by a passing goods train. Local people attack the railway station, the deputy station master and a colleague run into a room for fear of their lives and bolt the door. The crowd locks them from the outside and set fire to the room, and they burn alive.

What senseless terror, what senseless horror, after the irresponsible behaviour of negligently letting young children cross the tracks, and unsighted, from below a goods train. But then, why should not people watch for the train that cannot stop for them, when they can very well see the solid track at level crossings that should warn them to watch out?


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  1. Induchoodan permalink

    If one wants to understand the culture of a country one has to travel by train in the “cattle class” in that country. If one can strike a conversation with the fellow passengers, it will give a deep insight into the mindset of the common people.

  2. What they do gives an even better understanding of their mindset than what they say. Here in India they mess up the journey for their fellow passengers with loud talking, land-grabbing of the coach, messing up the toilet, smoking etc etc.

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