A Train to India


I switched to flying because I began to dislike the Indian railways for many reasons.  The lack of cleanliness, lack of hygienically prepared food, and the teeming crowd put me off.  Was I becoming a filthy bourgeois?  I don’t think so.  I think I’m becoming old.  The spirit is young but the body is old, to paraphrase Jesus.  There was a time I tolerated the filth as part of the Indian mindset: India (with some exceptional areas) is a large spittoon, a stinking toilet and an immense garbage bin.  It was also the time I treated the unhygienic food in the Indian railways with a dose of whisky.  My young body probably thrived on the odd mix.  I loved to watch the crowd and its absolutely irrational behaviour.  It sustained my own irrationality.

Official assignments don’t entitle me to flights as I’m only a teacher – “the backbone of the nation,” as a friend of mine teases me unceasingly.  One such official assignment obliged me to travel by train all the way from Delhi to Kochi by train.  I was entitled to second class AC fare, according to my designation at my school.   “Can you travel by 3 tier AC?” was the question put to me by the economically constrained boss.  I had pre-empted the sleeper class offer by mentioning that the month of May was too hot for such a journey.  I was supposed to attend the seminar from 21 to 24 May 2012. 

There was no way I could get a reserved ticket however much I tried at the internet site of the Indian railways.  The site seemed to have some ingenious ways of blocking all attempts to reserve a ticket until the available berths were exhausted.  And the exhaustion came in the first ten minutes of the opening time.  The booking begins at 8 am and the berths are sold out by 8.10 am.  The stipulated booking period of 90 days before the journey, that is. 

I’m speaking of the Kerala-bound trains from Delhi.  In December 2011 I booked a train ticket for a colleague of mine by the Kerala Express using the Tatkal scheme.  She had to make an unplanned journey.  I booked the ticket.  It took quite a while for the site to accept my order.  Finally it condescended to give a confirmed ticket.  But once the payment was made, it took five minutes for the ticket to come.  And when it did, it was in the waiting list.  The lady travelled with that waiting list ticket by making some arrangement with another passenger whom she knew, only to be told that her ticket had been cancelled by the Railways and she had to pay a fine for making an unauthorised journey.  She called me up from the train. I said the cash had been charged to my credit card account in the name of the Indian Railways.  She paid the fine, however, and continued her journey since she had no other option before the TTE.  A day after she had completed her journey I received an SMS from the Indian Railways site on my mobile phone that my ticket was cancelled and that my money was refunded to my credit card account.  I wasn’t surprised.  Such things are part of India’s dimension as the spittoon, the toilet, and the garbage bin, all of which are most visible from the train. 

When I couldn’t get a ticket for myself however much I tried, I decided to make a study of the situation.  I went through the Railways reservation status.  I discovered that all the AC class tickets were overbooked.  It was in the waiting list every single day, whether it is Rajdhani or the lesser trains.  But there were more than hundred tickets available in the sleeper class coaches. 

The Malayalam newspapers have reported time and again about the thefts in Kerala bound trains, stating explicitly that most of them seem to be taking place in connivance with the Railway authorities.  I can now connect the links, though I may be wrong.  It has become clear to the Railway authorities that the Keralites are rich enough to travel in the AC class.  So they decided to loot them. 

I am leftist by political inclination.  Yet I began to think if the railway was privatised would such a situation arise?  Wouldn’t the private player simply increase the number of AC coaches in order to make greater profits and provide better services?  Think of how the phone call rates came down beyond our imagination when the telecom services were privatised?  [Just one example]

Well, I can still be leftist and argue that the government can itself do the same thing: increase the facilities and earn more money instead of looting the passengers.  But looting is more natural to politicians, I guess. 

Or, looting is more natural to the Indian mindset?

Visit a shop, for example. Even a Reliance outlet.


About matheikal

My more regular blog can be accessed at www.matheikal.blogspot.com
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22 Responses to A Train to India


    Cleanliness ? is an antonym for INDIAN RAILWAYS !
    They are safe they shout but damn dangerous…
    Sir ji
    plz chk it, i wont disappoint u http://deepakkarthikspeaks.blogspot.com/2012/02/prisoners.html

  2. Raghuram Ekambaram says:

    It is more than 8 months since I traveled out of Delhi, even to Gurgaon! … but, I tell you what Matheikal, I would still travel by train, even if only to reduce my carbon footprint, at least to the level of II or III AC. I accept everything you say about IR, but for me it does matter matter more how much CO2 I emit. I am crazy, I know, but such is life!


    • matheikal says:

      I do admire your convictions and the steadfastness with which you cling to them. I’m quite selfish, I must admit, and look for my own (and my wife’s) comfort as far as possible, without harming anyone (except the environment, perhaps).

  3. a thoughtful post…covering a lot of issues..my husband is entitled to economy class airfare or 1st class train travel, as per availability of destination.(he is a govt employee) and i work in an MNC and entitled to economy airfare and on 2 occasions have been upgraded to first class …so have travelled on a lot of options!!!!….what i find is that, 1st class AC travel, if affordable…is generally much much comfortable on medium to short journeys compared to flights…and i hate long check ins a airport….!!!

    and privatisation….am all for it….all those portions railways has privatised(IRCTC) is running much better!!!


  4. keerthana says:

    I’d say looting is more natural 😀

  5. Suchi says:

    I have travelled the Delhi-Kolkata route alone (a girl/woman) about say a hundred times, most times by Rajdhani, but when desperate Purba Express and Kalka Mail as well.

    Rajdhani has always been consistently clean, tried to reach on time. Never faced any security issues, even when our train was stuck for 8 hours due to some political trouble in Dhanbad. Railway employees have always been kind and helpful. The food has been fresh and satisfactory. Indian Railways food in comparison with the food served in trains in the UK (where I currently live) is far better and of superior quality. Here they serve microwaved frozen food which has neither taste nor nutrition and charge a bomb too!

    Railways if you have a little extra time on your hands, and depending on the route you take, is a far better travel option. It is cheaper and reduces your carbon footprint like Raghuram mentioned.

    Of course there are areas to improve but it is a service middle class Indians can afford and make use of. Not all of it is falling apart!

    • matheikal says:

      As you say, some routes are better than the others. There’s a lot of politics involved in the way the Railways are managed in India – like in everything else in the country!

  6. Interesting post, enjoyed your sly sense of humour: dosing unyhgienic food with whiskey!

    Haven’t travelled in a train for some time but I have to admit, I never had much fondness for train travel. Not being a good traveller – nausea, motion sickness – ‘Beam me up Scottie’ would be my favoured option 🙂

    • matheikal says:

      I used to enjoy train journeys for quite a long time and I did travel much from Guwahati to Cochin (and back) – 16 years, and then between Delhi and Cochin (quite many times), apart from other journeys in the south. Now I wouldn’t choose the train if I have an alternative.

  7. Zach says:

    I completely sympathize with you.Till a few months ago,I used to travel to and fro between Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram. At first,being a penny pincher,I decided to stick to trains. And when I realized that I could travel faster and at the same rate by plane, I immediately switched to flying. The Indian Railway is regularly reducing the fares for the lower class and the burden is borne by the passengers of the higher classes. The increase in fare might be justified if the services provided were worth it. But alas ineptitude and popularism drives our country and if one wants a ‘Shubh Yatra’ on our trains,you can find it confined only to your tickets.

    • matheikal says:

      Apart from the filth and other problems is the corruption in the entire booking system. Just stand in a queue at the booking counter and you will be accosted by touts who will sell you reservation. These touts will even predict that you won’t get any reservation without their help!

  8. risingbharat says:

    Well I tried traveling by train in first AC but just could not use the restrooms. Now and then I still convince myself to use it save on the cost of traveling by plane but somehow it is overwhelming. But that said train journeys are always fun if you have a group because that is the time you somehow tend to overlook all of the other things like cleanliness, hygiene etc. When you are alone that is the time your mind wanders and starts questioning as to what and why is this so bad?

    • matheikal says:

      First AC by Indian Railways may be costlier than airplanes! What to say about rest rooms in the Railway stations?

      Yes, camaraderie is better in the trains. But I’m certainly not into that.

      • risingbharat says:

        Station toilets never dared to venture :). First AC is still cheaper with flight costs soaring high. Around 3K for Delhi-Hyd as compared to a flight ticket of 5-6 K

  9. Excellent post. Keep it up. I gave up train travel long time ago. For short distances buses are far better and for long distances planes are preferable any day. Filthy carriages and particularly horrible toilets is the main reason

  10. Shan says:

    I agree that Indian Railways still has a long way to go in proving its credentials in the cleanliness and hygiene but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that its the best value for money mode of transport in India and moreover,if one observes the standards set by our Rajdhanis and Shatabdis ,they are offer much better services at such a fractional cost compared to airlines or buses.
    Also our railways is not a private enterprise whose sole aim is to make profit ,we see that on many branch routes railways is simply offering services to the locals as part of its social responsibility.
    And as you mentioned in your post regarding adding more AC coaches ,many a times its done especially during summer months but still there are many more technical issues which needs to be sorted before increasing the rake length. Till then lets enjoy whatever available on our super long 24 coachers .

    • matheikal says:

      Shan, are you a railway employee, by any chance? Some tick in my mind says so. Anyway, that is immaterial.

      What I really want to say to you is: today’s Malayala Manorama reports that 614 people have been arrested in the last few days from various parts of North India in connection with misdeeds related to railway bookings. The other day a relative of mine went to the Faridabad railway station to book 6 tickets for his entire family in a Kerala train. He was pushed out of the queue by thugs who demanded Rs1000 each for the tickets. He was ready to pay Rs6000 and yet he could not get the tickets! While I appreciate the railway’s act of bringing to book the thugs, I feel much more need be done and can be done if we set our mind to it.

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