Rail 795: Indian railways: an experience not to be missed

Having just spent a couple of weeks touring India by rail for my forthcoming book on Indian railways, I can’t resist getting away from my normal musings about franchising and the failings of Network Rail to try to get across the experience of rail travel in India. It could not be a more different experience from the sanitized, often rather dull, journeys on rail in the UK but paradoxically it does make one grateful for the comfort, luxury even, and lack of hassle.

By contrast, almost everything is a hassle in India, but one just has to get used to it. To take one example. To find out the location of your reserved seat or berth, you have to either go online – given the vagaries of data roaming and the paucity of wifi – or check at the ticket office. When I did so at Kolkata after pushing my way to the front – there is no other way to get there – the woman behind the counter simply refused to enter my PNR number (the 10 digit number that is unique to your journey) into her computer, saying it was not a PNR number and I had to go to another desk ‘over there’. Nevertheless, I insisted for a good three or four minutes, despite the hordes around me, and finally she gave in, and lo and behold, there was my seat reservation.

This sort of experience was repeated endless times. One thing that really surprised me was the lack of people to ask for information and, moreover, the absence of uniforms or even badges, so it was unclear who exactly worked for the railways. The main stations do have electronic displays, which are usually shown in English as well as Hindi, but they do not always work and sometimes, as in Mumbai and Kolkata, only display trains in the part of the station you are in.

However, there are more than enough compensations for all the hassle. The best thing about travelling on Indian railways is standing or even sitting in the doorway and watching the world go by. This transcends just about every health and safety rule since the railways were invented but it is fun. Indian trains, on the whole, do not go very fast – the maximum is generally 120kph, and generally they cruise at around 100 kph, and the doors invariably are easily opened, with just a catch holding them shut. It is almost expected that they are opened at will, at whatever speed the train is running, and the rush of fresh air, even if one is in the fairly basic AC (Air Conditioned) class, is an immediate pleasure, not least because it dissipates the smell of the not always salubrious toilets next to the gangway.

The trick, then, is to sit down, legs dangling over the steps, and hold on tight to the handles provided to help people clamber up and down between coach and platform. The scenery then unfolds rather like an endless reality TV show. One minute there is the herdsman, dressed only in a dhoti, coaxing his cows to a new pasture or a woman walking with a pot on her head, the next a group of colourfully dressed schoolchildren waving furiously at the sight of a grey haired westerner sitting precariously in the doorway above the carriage steps.

There is so much more, too. The countryside is varied, of course, as it must be in a country described as a sub continent and there are vistas of stunning beauty as well as many areas where man has wreaked havoc, but that is not the real point of interest.  Rather, it is the people who are most fascinating and it is rare to sit for long without seeing a few, or most likely, a few hundred.

The people are an endless source of wonder about their lives and how they cope with what to Western eyes seems like almost impossible conditions. The little houses – huts sometimes – that border the railway may look impoverished but they are sufficient to accommodate a family since most of their time is spent outside thanks to the benign weather conditions. Their very visibility enables the passing traveller to speculate on who they are and what they are doing.

There are so many questions, but few answers. Where is that old man on a rickety bicycle going? How can that fellow still ride his motorcycle when his wife is pillion, clutching on to a bald baby and two children of around five and seven are sitting in front of him? Where does that red path – the dust always seems tinged with red in India – between the paddy fields lead?  Indeed, who owns the vast paddy field that seems to go into the distance? Then, as we go through one of those villages that so obviously has built up because of the presence of the line, how does that pack of mangy dogs hanging around a dusty bit of wasteland survive? And back in the countryside, what is growing in that field where twenty women, all with scarves to protect their heads from the sun, are pulling out weeds? Then there is the real unanswerable: are the cows sufficiently grateful  to the elegant egrets that invariably sit on their backs to gorge on the parasites that their hosts have tried to swat ineffectively away with their tails? India makes one philosophic!

From the steps of the train, there are things to admire, too. This is, in many respects, a very well built system. There are lengthy sections of straight line, built on solid embankments, along which the trains speed along powered by overhead electrification.  It is a solid, if unspectacular railway. The stations, often with mysterious offices for the ‘chief electrician’ or the ‘assistant stationmaster’ (without, apparently one, for the stationmaster) hark back to a time when those titles were in use in the UK. So do the platforms which are cluttered with large quantities of mysterious goods, wrapped in jute or white cloth, which litter the platforms in a way that British platforms once were. . Inevitably, the stations are a hive of trading, with innumerable sellers offering anything from soft drinks and sweet lassis (yoghurt drinks) sealed in plastic to fresh bananas and cold Spanish style omelettes.

The traders are attracted by the massive numbers travelling on the trains, some 25 million passengers per day. There is, consequently, much to speculate about one’s fellow travellers. For them, the conditions do appear intolerable. Forget those pictures of people travelling on top and hanging out of carriages as they are not at all typical and are overused by news editors who clearly have never ventured to the sub continent. No, the normal long distance Indian train is rather different. It consists of up to 25 coaches, which is made possible by the extremely long platforms at the major Indian stations, which are divided into innumerable classes – though officially there is only first and second but they have numerous variants, stretching from First AC to unreserved with mysterious ones in between such as Three Tier sleeper A/C and ‘For disabled’ which looks anything but since it can only be reached by three difficult steps.

Most carriages, though, are for ordinary third class customers and they have no windows, only grilles to prevent people sticking their heads out too far. They have hard benches and are invariably crammed, sometimes bearably so that people can move about in them but on occasion, such as on the train on which I went from Chennai to Kolkata, were overflowing with people on to the platform half an hour before departure. That’s because travel is amazingly cheap, as low as 13 paisa – that is, 0.13p – per kilometre.

As it left, they somehow all crammed into their carriages but for many it would be standing room only all the way to Kolkata, some 27 hours later. No wonder they piled out at every half, even when the train just stopped for a signal, and made use of the time to relieve themselves, with, unsurprisingly impressively powerful  streams given that sometimes there are several hours between stops. The women must learn to hold themselves or struggle through the crowds to the unprepossessing facilities as they would not be so indecorous to squat in full view of their fellow passengers.

Here the questions abound, too, apart from the obvious one of how do they cope with these conditions? Most fundamentally, who are all these people, and where are they travelling to and why?  It is their fortitude that is so impressive. They do not have much, but seem not to expect much either. What is the need driving them to endure these conditions, spend a considerable amount of money – the trains may be very cheap but incomes are extremely low – to move across large swathes of the country? The trains are always full or near full, and there is a desperate need for more capacity to accommodate them but the low fares and the bureaucracy of Indian Railways prevent the easy introduction of new services.

Despite all these hassles and the sheer unpredictability of the experience, for the most part the trains deliver you on time – and certainly, given their cheapness, on budget – and in one piece as their safety record has improved immeasurably in recent years, at least for passengers but deaths on the track are astonishingly high since people use them as thoroughfares.

I’ll end with three contrasting images chosen from so many. After a fitful night’s sleep, jumping down to the platform at the first early morning stop and enjoying a cup of spicy chai for 8p while chatting to fellow passengers and watching the early morning throngs is one to savour. Another exciting experience was having to get on a train at a Lakhimpur Road station in Odisha from the ballast – since this well used station only had one platform and yet was the passing place for trains on this single stretch of track.

This, according to a former director of Indian Railways I met later in Delhi, is because there was not a local politician with sufficient clout to ensure the construction of the second platform. Indeed, so much about Indian Railways, which is entirely state run, is about politics, including the vast number of new trains – there are now 10,000 daily long distance trains, up from 7,000 twenty years ago – which have been introduced as a result of political pressure.

The worst memory was the rather banal looking poster in Mumbai of a collection of what looked like a series of mugshots of wanted criminals stuck, oddly, at waist level on a side wall. That’s because on closer examination these were not live criminals but dead victims not of crime but of railway accidents. They were indeed wanted by the police but not for their criminal deeds but rather so that they could be identified and claimed by relatives to free up space in the overcrowded morgue. The death pictures spared no detail. No undertaker’s cosmetic skill had been employed before the harsh light of the police photographer’s flash had been allowed to capture the awful details of what a train, even one trundling at the slow pace that is the norm on Mumbai’s busy suburban network, does when it hits a person’s body. Apparently the toll is 10 people per day in Mumbai area alone – 3,500 per year.

The key to travelling on Indian railways is, as those overused slogans suggest, to keep calm and enjoy the experience even if things go wrong.  So open that door, sit on the step and watch the world unfold.

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