Atanu Dey On India's Development

Postcard from Nagpur

Back in the old home town Nagpur. A nice laid-back sort of a city. Sometimes I feel that Nagpur had–and still does have–a lot of potential. Situated very close to the geographical center of India, it could have been a better capital for the country than New Delhi. As a trans-shipment hub, Nagpur will be perfect. A huge big international airport would not be a bad idea either. The idea would be to make Nagpur the hub and connect Nagpur to all the others cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, etc.

Had a bit of an adventure in Mumbai yesterday. I had a train reservation from Mumbai to Nagpur on the Bombay-Howrah Mail at 8:35 PM. Around 7 PM, I left the Netcore office with my friend and colleague Alok to grab a bite and then go to the station to catch my train. The traffic was bad but Alok dropped me off at the Bombay Central train station at 8:20 PM, well in time for me to rush in and catch the train.

Scanned the departure board and found that my train was not listed. I asked at the enquiry counter and a kindly old man there said that my train did not leave from Central but from another station called CST which was south of there and at least a half-hour away by cab. By then it was 8:25. There was no way I would get to CST without a helicopter ride to catch my 8:35 train. The enquiry counter was crowded and lots of people were clamoringh for his attention but the old man grabbed a train timetable and told me that the train halts at Dadar station at 8:50. Under ideal conditions, Dadar was 15 minutes away. Under evening hour conditions, it was anybody’s guess whether I would get there in 25 minutes or an hour.

Rushed out, grabbed a cab and asked the guy to hurry. He understood the reason but told me frankly that it was unlikely that I would make it to Dadar station. It was not like he could step on the gas because the traffic was slower than chilled molasses. I cursed my stupidity and prayed very hard to millions of gods paying special attention to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, the Remover of Obstacles. I promised at least Rs 10 worth of laddoos to him (since he is fond of sweets) if he would get me there on time. Ganesh, I have noticed, is a fair guy. Ask politely and promise him some good stuff, and the guy delivers. The traffic cleared up.

I grabbed my bags and jumped out of the cab at 8:47 outside Dadar station. As I sprinted, I asked someone which platform the Howrah Mail stops at. Before he could answer I was past him but an announcement said that the train was arriving on platform number 4. Damn, that would take at least 4 minutes even at a sprint. When I reached the platform, the train was waiting there and within a second of my boarding the train, it pulled out. It was 8:51 PM. Had I arrived even 5 seconds late, I would have been stranded in Mumbai.

OK, so I made my way up the train to my compartment, sat down and reached for my bottle of water. Thank god I made it. That reminded of the deal I made with Ganesh. OK, I keep my promises. I had with me a box of sweets which Alok’s mom had sent through him for me to eat on the train. She always sends the best stuff and I thought that Ganesh would be especially pleased. So as part of my deal, I offered the sweets to Ganesh and then ate them to replenish the energy I had expended rushing around to catch the train.

All’s well that ends well, of course. But here is the lesson. I grant you that stupidity extracts its punishment. I should have minutely scanned my ticket to decipher which of the half a dozen train stations in Mumbai it would depart from. I did not. I was busy meeting people at the office and had a quick look at the ticket and noted somewhere on the ticket in small print “BCT” and concluded Bombay Central. I was as stupid as one can get when dealing with the clever bureaucratic morons who are in charge of the Indian railways.

The ticket is a dotmatrix printout. It has all sorts of totally irrelevant information printed on it. And somewhere in that mess is the carefully coded name of the station. No siree, it does not say “Dadar” or “Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus” or “Mumbai Central” and the time in bold. Somewhere in very tiny dot-matrix print it gives the code for the station with other unknown codes thrown in. So there was “CST” there in that line of indecipherable junk, as was “BCT” which I had quickly seen and registered as Bombay Central.

Usability, ergonomics, convenience, efficiency are not words that you would associate with the baboons babus of the Indian Railways. Take a look at their website for reservations. It is so braindamaged that compared to it the parrot was definitely not deceased. Anyway, they can get away with it because it is a sellers’ market. As a train traveler, you can take it or leave it. They are a public monopoly and you better like what you get because it is the magnanimity of the government which allows you to even travel. So shut the f up and get in there. That attitude will not change of course. As long as domestic air travel was monopolized by the Indian Airlines, the same attitude prevaled in the skies as well. But now IA has been cut down to size by its competitors.

Traveling by train in India is fun. That is, if you can afford to pay for air-conditioned “comfort”. Look into the unreserved general compartments that the poor travel in, and you would know what traveling is really like for the majority of Indians. The compartments are so crowded that you cannot squeeze in a mouse into the compartment. The bars on the windows actually keep the people from falling out of the train, they are packed in so bad. When I used to be at IIT, one segment of my journey from Kanpur to Nagpur was unreserved between Kanpur and Jhansi. Often this 6-hour long (about 120 kilometers) was done standing up in a packed compartment with lights if you were lucky. The train would trudge along at a leisurely pace and at random intervals some to a squeaking halt–whenever someone wanted to get off, they would pull the emergency stop chain. It was standard operating procedure. I have seen this happen: one guy near the front of the train gets off after stopping the train close to an intersection. Then the train moves after a few minutes. Now someone near the back of the train stops the train to get off at the same intersection. Only in Bihar. Now does one really have to wonder why that state is a hell hole and that it is “governed” by Laloo Yadav and Rabri Devi?

OK, time to grab some lunch. Catch you later. Bye now.

  • Navin

    I am a bit surprised that the train pulled into the station “in time”.

    oh yeah, the delay is sucessively added. From Dadar to station 3, 10 mins.. from
    3–>4 another 10 mins.. ;-)

  • Vivek S

    The Indian train, in a way, tells the economic spilt up of Indian people. There is that unreserved class mostly used by poor, the sleeper class for middle class, the 3-tier AC for upper middle class and the 2nd/1st AC for the rich. The comforts are also accordingly.

    A person who travelled by an AC coach in the Chennai-New Delhi Express(33 hour journey) observed this: “The caterers often visited the AC coach to sell the food items. Even if they dont visit, all coaches, but for the unreserved ones, were connected to the pantry car. The train halted in stations every 6 hours. And, when it halted, the passengers from the unreserved coaches rushed into the stations like honey-bees from a bee-hive to buy food and water.”

    Thank God.. i never experienced this “whenever someone wanted to get off, they would pull the emergency stop chain.”

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  • http://http:onlyvoid.blogspot.com Shivani

    :) Every bad experience – gives you a better insight into the way things work here. Have a wonderful vacation.

  • http://ecophilo.blogspot.com neelakantan

    I agree with you on the part that the station name, time etc can be bolded, but overall, the Indian railways website is functionally pretty good (of course, it can get better). If you take a printout of the ticket you have booked, its better than the real ticket too, in terms of information. The multiple terminus thing is a big problem. I nearly missed my train once in Hyderabad because of this.

  • Saurabh

    Hi Atanu,
    Similar incident happened with me last year when I was leaving for Ahmedabad after finishing my internship with Nercore.Train was from Bandra jn, caught in heavy traffic, got down in the middle from bus, went to andheri stn. thinking the train would halt but somebody told me it wont and suggesed me to go to borivali, went to borivali and reached just before time.

  • Dilip

    Hi Atanu,
    Though I am quite sure that the quality of not only the ticket but also of the information and its presentation can be vastly improved on the ticket stubs that you get from regional railway offices, the printed tickets from the so called “computerized reservation centers” are relatively better off as they print them out on slips with all the relevant information in clear, plaintive terms. The practice of printing the station codes and not their street names is prevalent in most parts of the world and not restricted to the railways. Even airlines employ the practice of using codes for differet airports and sometimes the codes have nothing to do with their actual names. I don’t think the railways should be chastised for their usage of station codes.

    Coming to your other points of the disparity in the classes on the trains – it is indeed a trying experience to travel in unreserved compartments. Even watching all those people packed in like cattle and wallowing in the incredible amounts of filth they themselves generate can be trying. Its some sort of a vicious cycle – those compartments are always dirty and neglected because the people travelling in them dirty them so. The people travelling in these compartments after taking a look at the condition of their surroundings show scant regard to property and cleanliness which in turn contributes to its neglect. Its a sort of conundrum with shades of a chicken and egg problem – either side does not let up even when the other side does (if the railways continues to clean the compartment, most, if not all, people are still going to abuse the train and even if people abstain from throwing rubbish all over, the railway personnel are going to give it a once over). As you have suggested, the only solution might be to open the market up and watch the “bad apples” on both sides being cut to size.

  • s0ulassylum

    That was an interesting read. Unfortunately, I do not have any fancy train tales to share. Its always a pleasure to read up on them though!
    SA.