The Great Indian Railways

Ajay Goel
10 min readSep 20, 2023

“Bhaisahib, this is mine”, the amiable gentleman sitting on my seat was polite but firm, and to seal the argument, he produced a ticket backing his claim. Since possession is 9/10th of the law, I had no choice but to stand in the aisle and wait for the Ticket Checker (TC) to arrive and restore my faith in justice. You see, I had just boarded an early morning coach from Jaipur to Delhi, and this was my first train journey in India after decades.

Soon the TC arrived, had one look at my booking, and pointed the ways of my error. Amongst the alpha-numeric puzzles on my ticket, I had misread the coach number as C1 instead of C13. He nudged me on and I walked through a dozen inter-connected coaches to claim my rightful place.

I pushed my trolley bag overhead and settled next to the window, stretch-legged. It was a frosty December morning in North India, but the inside of the train was a comfortable 22 C. We were moving smoothly at 115 km/h according to the app. Most people had their fleeces or jackets on — either dozing or busy looking at mobile screens. The compartment was swathed in LCD white light. It was not yet 7 AM.

Outside the tinted window, a thick mist hung suspended in the fading twilight. Ghostly silhouettes of scrawny trees or electrical poles whizzed by… the landscape was monochrome, with a hint of dawn at the horizon. Minutes later, Sun yawned, wrapped in an orange muffler, and made a half-hearted attempt to broom away the fog. The foreground started to show color- unending fields of bright yellow–mustard had bloomed.

Inside the compartment, vendors in blue uniforms walked past noiselessly; aromas of coffee, tea, samosa, and omelets following in their wake. I ordered some snacks and watched the TC swaying in the aisle, as if a little drunk. He carried an I-pad to check Traveler details and was ‌polite.

The train rolls onto Alwar and halts next to ‘Udaipur — Khajuraho Express’. I wondered when the Mewaris developed this fetish for sensuality. A quick Google search advised that over 20,000 trains ply in India every day, joining the disparate with desperate.

The faint drone of the speeding train, the monotonic landscape, and my co-passengers buried into their respective screens was leading to boredom and lassitude…a kind of lethargy was taking over, when I fell through the rabbit hole of childhood memories, of a different time and age…

My earliest recollections of railway stations were of commotion, commerce, and coolies in red shirts. Men bathing bare-chested under the hose pipes, stacks of boxes to be loaded for onward transport. Unruly passengers lined up against the compartment doors, gyrating, paunches to haunches.

But the fun used to start much earlier, at home. Planning the train journey dates meticulously, we considered the school/college holidays and, many times, the auspicious weekdays. Bookings were months in advance, lest one get wait-listed. On the day of travel, there were tikas on the forehead, an envelope with currency notes, a nod to the presiding deities, and often a few moist eyes. And an appeal–“Just a two-line postcard telling us you have reached safely, that’s all”. An entire army of relatives would then go to ‘see you off’, waving goodbyes till the train had crossed into the next city.

We would then push, heave, and slide large metal trunks, and fat hold-alls under the berths, failing which they will be kept in the gap between two berths. Luggage was counted and secured with long metal chains with a padlock. We were warned not to fiddle with that dangling mysterious red chain that could bring the entire train to a halt, and that mischief carried a penalty of Rs 500! Only then will mother buy Indrajaal comics for us, and Sarita, or Kadambani for herself.

Second-class travel was the default middle-class choice; the first class was for government officials, politicians, or such privileged who did not pay their own fare. AC coaches were a rarity, and air travel was unreliable and expensive. The trains were more reliable beasts, a string of maroon coaches led by smoke-spewing steam engines (on occasions, delayed by days (!) during foggy winters in North India).

Sitting next to the open window was a privilege to be fought for with siblings, and it left one covered in coal soot.

Trains moved at a leisurely pace, and we all relished the journey as much as the destination. Familiar and not-so-familiar platforms rolled past at intervals — bookended by yellow plaques, announcing the city and altitude, in black letters. At some point, we would need a refill of drinking water, for which Papaji would go out at an unknown station and the rest of us would spend moments in ashen agony …lest the train moves before he comes back. Bisleri was not born then, and the word ‘RO’ wasn’t invented — and just for the record, no one fell sick drinking that salty platform tap water.

On arrival at the destination, one negotiated past a scrum of auto drivers and touts at the gate, offering to take you to a ‘deluxe’ hotel, at no fare! Alas, now the passengers pre-book their transport through Ola or an Uber!

Stations too appear tamed now, sporting escalators, lifts, and airport-type luggage scanners. Coolies are long gone, and licensed hawkers serve quietly in moving trains. You can even order an outside meal or a pizza delivered at the approaching station! A lot has changed since those old days…

Now the middle class prefers air travel, and trains are used less often. Farewells are at the gate of the host’s house before an Uber or Ola whisks the passengers off to the railway station. Large chunky metal boxes have transformed into sleek Samsung, Echolac, and VIP wheelers, eliminating the need for coolies. Those colorful baadlas or suraahis have made their way to RO bottles or Bisleri. Nowadays, hardly anyone buys magazines and other reading material — everything is on the palm-held ubiquitous screen of a mobile. Those roly-poly hold-alls are long gone — AC coaches provide bed sheets with pillows and blankets. Steam engines now stand in museums. Tinted windows insulate travelers from the rolling scenery with a grey patina that could be the beautiful evening light, or nasty smog of an approaching city, or simply the unwashed grime on the windowpane.

Experiences of those joyous journeys are giving way to the efficiency of sterile trips.

Perhaps it’s the sepia tint of bygone memories, but I believe previous outings had more character. Co-passengers brought a livelier atmosphere to the journey by exchanging newspapers, homemade food, and personal experiences. We now have better service and faster times, but the ‘atmosphere’ is gone. Co-passengers prefer their own bubbles, coupes have drawn curtains, and family conversations are quieter. The journey today is efficient and antiseptic.

Memories come flooding, of train travels and travails, from profound to profane…

Long back, I witnessed a lady’s gold chain being snatched as the train left the platform (was too young to be a savior), and my mom was tricked out of her money by a stranger who promised to buy her sandila ke laddu (She forgot that ‘it’s not safe to trust strangers on train journeys’). Chasing an adventure in college days, I have traveled on rooftops and ticketless and bribed my way to freedom when once caught (blame it on adolescent hormones). I once sat on my suitcase for 7 hours near the restroom because political party workers had commandeered the train and I couldn’t get to my reserved spot (moral outrage) And I have paid coolies to get me a berth in unreserved compartments (no moral compunctions here).

I have seen my camera bag being snitched and then recovered by the Railway Police. And I have seen a friend’s wife reenacting the DDLJ scene- much to the discomfort of her husband-as the train started speeding (there was a distinct chance that Simran would have to come by the next available train). We went on a trip with old friends and had alcohol and cannabis-infused biscuits, causing the compartment to tilt dangerously. We learned that bhang and Sir Johnnie Walker don’t mix well; the rest of the details are fuzzy. Another time, a musician friend regaled the entire compartment with KK songs on guitar, and even the TC sat with us till midnight with his farmaishi list (much recommended).

Railways have given me a distinct set of memories, different from my parents…and so the wheel of time moves.

Railways were introduced to India in the mid-19th century. The first passenger train, hauled by three steam locomotives (Sahib, Sindh, and Sultan), ran for 34 kilometers, with 400 people in 14 carriages between Bori Bunder (Mumbai) and Thane on 16 April 1853. Lord Dalhousie was there to flag it off — Britishers had brought railways to India for exploitation of its prized colony through commerce.

Dapoorie viaduct Bombay, 1855
Half a century later, the Brits introduced toilets based on the anguish of one Okhil Chandra Sen (Source — Rail Museum, Delhi)

By the time the subcontinent gained independence in 1947, this network had grown to an impressive 65,000 km. Post partition, what remained with India, was 54,000 km of rail track, and a bewildering mess.

There were 52 different railway companies in India that operated independently of and competing. Many of these were owned by the British Government, some by British companies, some by Indian companies and some by Princely states. The network that existed then was a patchwork of 5 different gauge types (Broad, Standard, Meter, Narrow, and Very Narrow). They constructed all imaginable kinds of rolling stock in all kinds of configurations, made of wood or metal or both. Then there was the mish-mash of Indian and foreign locomotives, 95% of which was old steam with some electrics and the odd diesel thrown in. Fare structures, train numbers, routes, timetables, and operations were more complicated than Nuclear Physics.

Compared to seamless modern-day experience, one can’t but marvel at how far the country has traveled (excuse the pun).

Today, the route coverage is 68,000 km with 90% electrification, where 13,000+ passenger trains operate. Every year it serves 8 billion passengers, boarding or de-boarding at 7300 stations. Ah, it also transports 1.5 billion tons of freight and provides employment to 1.2 million.

It is the fourth largest rail network in the world after the USA (293K), China (131K), and Russia (87K) kilometers.

Vande Bharat — the latest fast-speed offering.

Yet, many people have the view that the glass is half empty. And that’s important if India is to keep up with the world that’s moving ahead. Trains do 300–350 km/h routinely in Europe, but the rising stars are in Asia — Japan, and China have rewritten the rules of what a train could be.

Japan’s Bullet train (or Shinkansen) zips at 320 km/h while managing a Zen-like vibe inside. Most astonishing is the rise of China in this space — it now boasts 30,000 km of high-speed tracks where trains go at 350 km/h, and they are convenient, reliable, and affordable.

Today, the last word in speed is Shanghai Transrapid/ MagLev, with a maximum speed of 460km/h and an average speed of 251km/h. Like a bat out of hell, the train zips through 30-odd km from the city center to the airport in less than 8 minutes. Using electromagnetic force to levitate above the track, it offers a ride that’s silk smooth and airPod quiet.

Bullet Trains — Japan

In India, the track conditions do not allow top speeds to go past 110–120 km/h, and only one train Gatiman Express, briefly touches 165 km/h. Government classifies average speed of 55 km/h as ‘Super Fast’, which is ridiculous. The gap to catch up with the first world is wide, and the challenge is humbling. But as the country invests in infra, rolling stock, and technology, one can imagine someday, working in Delhi and riding a train back home to the hills of Dehradun every evening.

What India lacks in speed it makes up with the varied and stunning landscape. And it is best savored on the ground, in the comfort of a rolling train. One can spend the evening through the desert sand dunes of Rajasthan, and wake up into the verdant greenery of UP, with rivers and mango orchards for miles. I remember gasping at dozens of waterfalls in Sehyadri hills in the monsoon, and amazed at the engineering marvel of Konkan rail. Toy trains running between Kalka–Shimla and Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling are a joy.

On my bucket list is Hampi to Goa, through Dudh-sagar waterfalls…and the list can go on.

The top end of rail travel has been in place for a while. They offer those who can afford it the British Raj nostalgia by ‘Palace on Wheels’, in Rajasthan. The experiment has since been replicated through Deccan Express etc., in other parts of India.

For 7–10 days, the traveler carries his hotel along with him, eliminating the need for packing/unpacking, airport transfers, and security check-ins, while sampling the forts, temples, and elephant rides, all in pampered 5-star luxury coaches.

But for the less affluent tourists, the Indian Railways do not offer any special concession. I think this is an untapped niche, ripe for a PPP model experiment — loan a few cabins to the Taj or Marriott and let them refurbish with wood panels and flat screens, butlers, and fine cuisine. I think there is a desi & videshi crowd, ready to lap it up. Similar models already exist in Vietnam, Egypt, etc.

Seeing India by rail is an inviting prospect. Leaving India without sampling a railway journey would be like leaving Italy, without drinking its wines.

PS — would love to hear your favorite Rail story- please join me in the comments.

--

--

Ajay Goel

This is a place where I post essays and random musings.