Mar-Apr 2012: First Person - Magic of the Railway

 

Magic of the Railway

 

umesh khalikar

 

Kasto mazaa hai lelaima, ramailo o kaali odhali... (What fun there is in the railway, what ups and downs)!” This song from the enchanting Parineeta is picturised on a group of raucous little children aboard the Darjeeling hill train. Indeed, the Indian film industry has immortalised several picturisations against the backdrop of the Indian Railways, be it the romance of an Aradhana or Pakeezah, the last tragic scene of Bandini, the star-studded shenanigans on The Burning Train, or the light-hearted chase of Jab We Met.

What fun indeed, there is in the railway! Like most little boys of my generation or before, I too was enthralled by trains as a child. Except that, my interest only grew with time. Apart from enjoying rail travel immensely, I collected information like a sponge on routes and timetables, coaches and menus, fares and concessions, until it became common to “Ask Umesh!” among friends and family, for the smallest details of a train journey.
My first job was in sales, for an aromatics firm, which I enjoyed since there was a lot of wandering involved. In 1992 I travelled to Delhi for some work. There, I was misguided by a man and thereby badly inconvenienced in my journey. I think it was at that point I began to get an idea of the kind of ‘service’ I would provide in future for clients.
However, it was only a few years later, with a lot of support from my “Deccan Queen” friends Suhas Sohoni and Julian Thadathil that I launched my career in tours and travel. Another friend Shraddha Shah put together a sort of ‘platform’ for me with all relevant data organised such that I could advise my clients accurately and easily. Those days were long before booking-on-the-web!
My business grew in leaps and bounds, primarily through word of mouth. I often advised people even when they weren’t booking with me; they usually converted to clients! Apart from booking, I always tried to provide whatever ‘value add’ I could, to make journeys more pleasant and convenient for my clients; in the process, my knowledge kept growing. My friends often test it, and my patience!
To reiterate a bit of history, the Indian Railway system was introduced in India by the British. The 1832 proposal was executed in 1844 by the then Governor General, Hardinge. The first train on Indian tracks carried construction material to Rourkee. The first passenger train ran a distance of 34 kms., from Bori Bunder (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai) to Thane on 16th April 1853. Since then, over the span of 150 years the Indian Railways have grown to become the second largest network in the world, if the Eurail is considered the largest. Post independence, the Indian Railways is an essential backbone to industry, a considerable employer, and brings closer the distant corners of India.
In the early days of the railway the heavy influence of the Raj resulted in special coaches: saloons, tourist cars, dining cars that latched on for part or all of a route, and special trains for railway officials for purposes of inspection or infrastructure work. As time went by, needs of the common man and technological advances, both influenced the development of this mammoth network. Illustrious railway ministers each tried to leave their imprint on the railway system, by introducing new routes, expresses, super-fasts, luxury rakes, exhibition trains or even changes in menus! Today there is a train to almost every corner of the country, including remote villages, hilly regions and coastal areas.
While different routes in India each have their unique appeal, most travellers would agree that the little hill trains serve up the most picturesque rides. The Kalka-Shimla route, 96 kms long, passes through 107 tunnels and takes nearly 6 hours, with breathtaking views! The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is another famous hill journey. It runs on the world’s narrowest line, just two feet, between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. The Pathankot to Jogindernagar section is the route to the beautiful Kangra valley. In the south, the queen of Indian hill stations  Udhagamandalam (Ooty) is at the end of a 46km long route full of so many twists and turns it takes 4.5 hours!
The Indian Railway network criss-crosses the length and breadth of our country. The HimSagar Express (Him = snow, Sagar = sea) runs the north-south length from Jammu to Kanyakumari, covering more than 3700kms in a 72 hour journey. The Rajdhani Expresses connect Delhi to other state capitals or important cities. These are super fast, all air-conditioned trains that provide catering and linen (quaintly called ‘bedroll’). The Shatabdi (Shatabdi = century), first introduced between New Delhi and Gwalior by then Railway Minister Shri Madhavrao Scindia was based on the concept of a superfast ‘day’ train between metros, with only air-conditioned ‘chair cars’ and complimentary food. The more recent Garib Rath trains (Garib = poor, Rath = chariot), launched by Shri Laloo Prasad Yadav, became popular too; these trains were launched on the concept that the not-so-well-to-do should also have an opportunity to travel air-conditioned class. The Duronto Express, recently introduced by Smt. Mamata Banerjee, is a very speedy train, all air-conditioned, and with no stops except technical halts; passengers can only buy a ticket from start point to end point.
I have had several memorable experiences aboard trains, but the one that stands out in my memory was the journey aboard Pragati Express on the 26th of July 2005. Mumbai was severely flooded and the train stopped at Vitthalwadi near Kalyan Jn. The tracks were submerged as were auto-rickshaws near the track, there was no network, the station windows were shut. We managed a tempo to Kalyan but there was complete havoc there. One lone train from Mumbai chugged in after 12 hours, simply overflowing with passengers. The compartments were pitch dark. Two of us managed to jump in without worrying where it was going and reached Nasik the next day! From there we caught a bus back to Pune.
Nowadays, the railways provide all manner of conveniences - charging points for electronic devices in compartments, feedback forms, reservation of tickets on the web, the works! In spite of all this, don’t be too surprised to spot the occasional baby mouse tumbling playfully around your air-conditioned coach!
Today, there is an abundance of players in the skies, affording competitively priced tickets to air travellers. It is true, air travel is often warranted for various reasons, not the least of which being paucity of time.  
But if you want to undergo a journey as well as make an arrival, if you want to experience the varied vistas our country offers, if you want to meet people who will swap food and life stories with equal gusto, you must take the train!

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