There’s something special about travelling by train. While I have travelled quite a bit in India, I have not travelled by train outside of India, so this blog post will be about train travel within India.
The Indian Railways is the world’s largest railway network by size, with a route length of 95,981 km as of March 2019 and is the word’s eighth largest employer employing about 1.4 million employees as of 2015. It runs more than 20,000 passenger trains daily, on both long-distance and suburban routes, from 7,321 stations across India.
The railways, a product of British colonisation has been in India since 16 April 1853 when the first passenger train ran between Bori Bunder and Thane between downtown and the suburban Mumbai of today. Today Bori Bunder is the majestic Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus or CSMT, which locals still fondly call VT Station or Victoria Terminus in honour of the Empress of India, Queen Victoria.
As of 31 March 2019, the Indian Railways has electrified 50% of the route kilometers and 46% of the total running track. The first line to be electrified was between what is today the CSMT station and Kurla station in Mumbai’s suburban rail network way back in 1925.
The longest train route on the Indian Railways is the Dibrugarh to Kanyakumari Vivek express which covers India lengthwise from Dibrugarh in the north-east in the state of Assam to India’s mainland tip of Kanyakumari in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The train covers a distance of about 4,282 kms in approximately 80 hours or roughly three and a half days, traversing eight Indian states. It crosses the states of Assam, Bihar, Nagaland, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu & Kerala. Another long distance train which also covers a distance of 4282 km is the Dibrugarh to Okha Weekly Border Service which travels across the breadth of India, from the East from Dibrugarh in Assam to India’s western borders, ending at Okha in the western state of Gujarat. Both these trains are currently tied for the 24th longest running trains in the world. The longest running train in the world today is the train that runs from Moscow in Russia to Pyongyang in North Korea. This train travels a distance of 10,267 km and if you travel from Moscow to Pyongyang, you will take approximately 206 hours or about 8.5 days!
Another interesting train on the Indian Railways route is the Navyug Express, a weekly train which runs from Mangalore Central in the south Indian state of Karnataka to the holy city of Katra which houses the very revered Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in the northern Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir. This train takes about 68 hrs to cover a distance of 3,685 km and in this process covers about 14 states and union territories of India, viz. Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab , Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Puducherry(Mahe), Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala & Karnataka.
What I find most fascinating is that parts of India I never thought possible to connect have been connected by train and this connection is an end-to-end connection. For example the train which plies the route from Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan to Tiruchirapalli in Tamil Nadu. Both are not big metro cities and the fact that there exists a demand for a fully airconditioned train, the Humsafar Express between these two cities is a measure of how popular and engraved the Indian Railways in the psyche of the Indian traveller.
I have numerous memories of travelling by train. In my childhood, most summer holidays would be spent in Bangalore with my paternal grandparents and at some point when my maternal grandparents moved to Chennai, we would first travel to Chennai, spend a couple of weeks there and then take an overnight train to Bangalore to spend the rest of the holidays with my other set of grandparents.
I don’t have much memory of my first train travel, but have some fuzzy flashes. This was way back in the seventies and I must have been around three years old. I was travelling with my parents and my sister who must have been a toddler at that point to New Delhi. I do remember travelling in a coupe compartment. A coupe is first class compartment at a time when there was probably no air conditioning in the train. Today’s coupes are first class airconditioned compartments. My memory is very fuzzy for this trip, but if I think hard, I have flashes of memory of being in a closed compartment with my parents and sister and can see the scenary flying by.
My biggest memories, however, are of the Udyan Express which is superfast train running between Mumbai’s CSMT and Bangalore’s City stations. The name is because Bangalore is called a Garden City and is famous for all the green spaces in the city, Udyan meaning ‘garden’ in pretty much all Indian languages. The train is probably 30 odd years old and I remember travelling from the time it started. Before this train started, there was no end-to-end service between Mumbai and Bangalore and you had to take trains on the Mumbai-Chennai route and get down in a station called Guntakal and then transfer to another train which took you all the way to Bangalore. I think this route between Guntakal and Bangalore used to be meter gauge while the Mumbai-Chennai route used to be broad gauge.
Once, when we were young adults, my sister and I travelled alone to Bangalore. We took what was a fairly new train then whose name escapes me now. That train used the Konkan Railway route and took a coastal route to get to Bangalore. I have searched quite a bit for the name of this train, but maybe this train has been either discontinued or merged with another train. I remember it being a very scenic route with lots of greenery and we passed many smaller towns and cities, unlike the Udyan Express which used to pass through mostly farmland and barren parts of Maharahtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. If anyone knows what is the name of this train, please put it in the comments below, I would love to know.
I loved travelling in the second class sleeper compartment where the windows would be bitterly fought with my sister. Both would want the window seat and if we were lucky to travel nice travelling companions, we would both get a window seat, otherwise, it would be up to my mother to play referee. The second class sleeper has six seats with three across each side and then across the aisle, two more seats. Most years, we would go ahead of my father who would join us later during the holidays. Also the sleeper class berths meant that the middle berth pulled out from the back rest of the lower berth and this also used to be a point of contention between us. After a few years, I started disliking the middle berth and used to want to sleep in the lower berth and my mum used to take the middle berth with my sister ensconcing herself in the top berth where she could sleep to her heart’s content.
I can’t sleep while travelling, so I was my family’s guard at night. Everytime the train stopped, my sleep would break and I would wake up. Because there was no airconditioning in the sleeper class, we would sleep with the windows open and a steel slatted cover over it. This, because there used to be heavy thefts in this class as the door used to not be locked and anyone can enter the compartment anytime of the day or night. The camadarie that you used to find in those days travelling by the sleeper class can’t be found today. We used to make friends during the 24 hours it would take to get to our destination and there are times when those fleeting friendships used to be continued. This is a time without any smart devices, not even mobile phones, remember and the only way to pass the time during the trip was to talk to people and share stories about your lives. We also didn’t have a lot of access to books and we would purchase a few magazines to read during the journey. Then you hope that your co-passengers would also have some reading material with them which you would then exchange to read. We would also play a lot of card games as well as games like anthakshari or similar games. And then when your destination arrives, you would smile at your new friends, promise to keep in touch and more often than not, slowly glide out of their lives.
My last train trip in India was this year during my India trip where we did back-to-back two trips, both overnight. The first was from Chennai to Thanjavur and the second from Mayiladuthurai to Bengaluru. Both trips were in AC 2 tier and this trip made me realise that I am growing old, I prefer my luxuries, slight as they are. The children were absolutlely fascinated by these short train trips and have been asking me when we can do this again. One train I absolutely want to travel in and in first class no less, is the Rajdhani Express which connects Mumbai to New Delhi. Rajdhani which means capital was meant to be a series of passenger trains which connect state capitals to India’s capital of New Delhi. This series of trains gets the highest priority in the Indian Railways network and is also considered as prestigious and premium, so when this train travels, it is not allowed to stop at any signals, other lesser important trains get shunted to the nearest station to wait and to make way for the Rajdhani to fly past. We were planning a trip this December, but with COVID-19, this is not possible and given how dire things are, I really don’t know when we can travel on the Rajdhani.
Something I love doing is watching train videos on YouTube. There are many people who patiently stand on the doorstep and share with the world their train journeys and each time I watch these videos, I am reminded of how much I love train travel. I also think if I was still living in India and younger, would I also be like one of these vloggers?
Travel is such a fascinating thing and you learn so much when you are out of your comfort zone. Train travel on the other hand, is a great equaliser, you meet such a diverse group of people in your travels that like it or not, there is some learning every single trip.