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Train of thought

Having got rid of Indira Gandhi’s authoritarian government, the new railway minister of the Janata experiment told us, the people, that if trains ran on time, they would run fast and there would be more accidents.

A slow, late train was a safe train. I’ve never forgotten this and maybe many in the railways also internalised it. So decades later, we still have to contend with trains that do not run on time.

The new prime minister can try and get everyone to come to work on time — and perhaps without imposing an Emergency like Indira Gandhi did and imitate what Lalu Prasad Yadav tried in Bihar which is closing the doors to latecomers — but time is not to be contained and tabled in India.

India unveiled plans to open up its railways to foreign investment and introduce the country’s first bullet train in a budget for the network, closely watched for clues about new PM Narendra Modi’s economic priorities. Pic/AFP
India unveiled plans to open up its railways to foreign investment and introduce the country’s first bullet train in a budget for the network, closely watched for clues about new PM Narendra Modi’s economic priorities. Pic/AFP

Here in Dehradun, where I now live, for instance, everything you ask for is in a constant state of flux, either “aa rakha hain” or “jaa rakha hain”, the enigma of non-arrival. And so it is with trains. And because people are foolish, all they want from trains are that they run on time and that inside the trains, there is some comfort and cleanliness. And preferably, a safe journey as well.

After so many years of independence, it’s hard to know whether people have high or low expectations from the various modes of transportation on offer: A clean safe train that runs on time and preferably somewhere to sit? Sounds like a tall order for millions who do the daily commute on Mumbai’s suburban lines.

The nice air-conditioned Metro, some with inbuilt showers one hears, runs on a route that not many use and therefore space is usually available. Can all trains look like those Metro trains? The monorail is still used mainly for joyrides we are told.

Can anything anyone does ever be enough? A lot of what people are told is pie in the sky stuff which has to be ignored for now, like bullet trains. India’s fastest trains do not run on their highest speeds as of now and we will need new railway lines for these special trains. I for one would rather have trains without cockroaches (Dehradun to Delhi and Kozhikode to Kochi) and clean or cleaner toilets.

After years of being squished on Andheri locals and living in fear of boarding a Virar local by mistake, trudging for hours in the rain searching for an auto or bus at Andheri station, I gave up on Mumbai’s local trains completely. They are faster but they can be too painful. Of course, I now live somewhere where public transport is an abstraction and not a reality so you can never be too picky.

The problem that remains for infrastructure in India is that the basics are boring. Free Wi-Fi, mechanised laundries — maybe all these are necessary and nice — but they do not emphasise the on-time, cleaner problem. Setting aside Rs 60,000 crore for bullet trains is also fine, assuming we actually have something tangible in the foreseeable future. Looking ahead is essential, but the same old dirty trains with tiny exponential changes have made us all cynical.

The romance of railway travel remains a constant, but the past gives most things a lovely patina. And there is no way anyone could ever romanticise the toilets. Privatisation has its own problems. Years ago, post Thatcher, the man selling tickets at a railway station in England told me that he could offer no guarantees about the trains being on time since only the rails belonged to British Rail, everything else was privatised.

He was bitter and on that day, he was correct: the train was not on time. Now though London’s stations are grand, dramatic, olde worlde and sparkling contemporary and very similar to airports. The trains cost as much as air journeys in India. And online booking and seat selection makes everything easier.

The nostalgia and fiction enthusiasts have their day as a random wall in the main concourse of King’s Cross pretends to be Platform 9 and ¾ although no one takes you to Hogwarts. Ultimately, as long as we don’t address the basics, it all always sounds like so much hogwash.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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