This is something different from what I usually write about. It’s not about any journey in particular but the ancient Indian institution that makes a lot of those trips possible. It is a part of my earliest memories of travel and is a major part of my childhood. It was how I went to and came back from my native in Kerala when I was a kid, it was the facilitator of many a misadventure in college and it is still an integral part of all my travels. In case the title of this blog didn’t give it away, I am, of course, talking about the Indian Railways.
My love for trains began from a young age. My grandfather had worked his way up in the Bangalore division of Indian Railways, from shovelling coal when he was around my age so that he’d have a square meal to eat to retiring as a station master from Bangalore East Railway Station, he was a railwayman through and through. From the age of steam, where a 7 coach train was considered long and an entire day’s delay was considered acceptable, to the age of diesel and electric locomotives, of 26 coach express trains and a delay of 4 hours is unfortunately considered acceptable and a day’s delay considered newspaper worthy, he’d seen it all.
It was listening to his stories as well as my dad’s tales that I grew up. Stories of stations haunted by the people who were run over by trains, of the difficulties of long-distance travel during the steam engine era, where the timetable was more of an over-optimistic guide than an actual timetable. Stories about how the Indian Tobacco Company’s (ITC) factory near my house in central Bangalore actually used to make tobacco products that were then transported by train, instead of the IT company it is now.
When I was little, I used to go from the Bangalore east railways station that’s near my house to Bangalore city Junction and back in one of the local passenger trains every Sunday. It was a little bonding time between me and my equally train crazy dad. While it was fun for us most of the family considered it weird and I can’t really blame them. Hell, they still think I’m weird to be honest, in this respect at least, but then again, I do get to travel a lot more than the rest of them so I never really cared. But it was here that I actually got to “drive” a shunting engine as well as one of the electric locomotives that were on its way to the trip shed parking. It was mainly me pushing levers and buttons on a control panel I could barely see over, but hey, I technically drove it. So I still brag about till people are tired of me after which I brag some more. It was even a childhood dream of mine to become a loco pilot someday.
Ever since the first journeys I’ve always been slightly obsessed with having the window seat. I’ll ensure I get it while booking and can get quite emotional if I don’t. Give me a window to stare out of, some good music to listen to and some snacks and I’ll be stuck there the entire day. A tradition I’ve carried over to bus and flight travel, much to the annoyance of friends and family. But out the window of a train is the best way to get an uncensored view of the beautiful, chaotic and in some places rather untamed country I call home. Flights just give you an overview, quite literally, and buses just aren’t as comfortable as trains, especially on longer journeys. And you can’t be as talkative or have as much fun in them either since you don’t have seats that face each other. Finally, the costs of train travel are dirt cheap, so it’s the obvious choice of travel, assuming I have the time of course. Having friends and family along for the ride is an added bonus.
My experience with the railways is usually mundane, with no delays or incidents, which is thankfully the majority of my journeys. The misadventures, though few and far between are always interesting. The incidents range from the simple like having a creaky fan or a coach with a flat wheel that kept clattering the whole night to fights with passengers occupying our seat or fights with the TTE over RAC seats, all the way to the train running in the wrong direction because the engine could only move backwards due to a technical issue. From waiting for hours for a delayed train in the middle of the night to running behind a punctual departing train with me carrying the luggage and my uncle following me carrying my grandmother, in bright broad daylight, cause we were late. I’ve seen and done it all.
While a majority of my journeys has been in the sleeper class, that has started to change with 3-tier AC taking preference, especially for longer journeys. While we didn’t have much of an issue in the short hops we did in the south, for long journeys up north we quickly learnt it wasn’t a particularly comfortable idea. While there are multiple trains to Kerala and the like per day there really aren’t close to enough heading north and especially to the north-east of India from the south, causing the few trains there are to be crowded with people sleeping on the floors even in the reserved sleeper coaches, thus causing our shift to the AC coaches. While the crowding situation has improved a little nowadays the issue won’t completely go away until the mismatch of supply and demand for the number of trains goes away.
You really do get what you pay for with the railways in that sense. You buy the cheapest unreserved ticket to travel cattle class, you really shouldn’t whine about being stuffed in like cattle. The people who do travel in these coaches are either too poor to book their tickets or were unable to get tickets in a sleeper, they’re there more out of no option than by choice. There are also local travellers shuttling to work and back. These coaches don’t come recommended unless you have no other option. As you go up the various travel coaches your experience will be vastly different though. A Rajdhani or Shatabdi express train isn’t on the same planet as the humble passenger train, both in price and experience. That said if you’re looking to experience the way a lot of Indians, including me at a point in my life, travelled and still do travel, go ahead and board an unreserved coach, it’s an experience you’ll never forget, good or bad.
While my travels have included more and more flights now, more out of necessity than anything else, trains will always be my preferred mode of transport. It’s a place to relax and a bit of an adventure in itself, from the odd and interesting people you meet to the occasionally amazing and cheap food you get. It’s a way to explore some of the most beautiful terrains in the country from the comfort of a sleeper berth. From the flat deserts of Rajasthan to the rainy green slopes of the western ghats or the dense forests of the Dooars, from the Pamban bridge across the sea connecting the island of Rameshwaram to the bridges across vast Himalayan valleys in Kashmir or the North-East, from the dirty urban brown and gray of the cities to the tiny multicoloured villages in the middle of nowhere, there’s a lot to be experienced on the vast network. And though there quite a few quality, cleanliness and punctuality issues to overcome there are improvements on all fronts from both the railways and the people who use it. Baby steps but steps in the right direction.
Now, while I would like to continue rambling on about my love affair with the railways, if you’ll excuse me I have a train to catch.