Indian Railways says, in their website, “The formal inauguration ceremony was performed on 16th April 1853, when 14 railway carriages carrying about 400 guests left Bori Bunder at 3.30 pm “amidst the loud applause of a vast multitude and to the salute of 21 guns.””
Thus Indian Railways has become a part of every Indian’s life for the last 170 years. In this, for about 150 years, before Indian Air Carriers took wings, Trains were the only way of traveling long distance in India.
The earliest Train journey I remember is traveling during vacation in the summer of 1969. My mom tells me I have done a few trips before, but I don’t remember any. Our father was working in Thiruvananthapuram. My sister Vasanthy, JK and I were studying in a village (Kaveripakkam – name of this website http://www.kaveripak.com). So we took a train from Madras Egmore to Thiruvananthapuram with our Grandma – yes the same one – The Autocratic Grandma. The train was pulled by a steam locomotive and we were thrilled every time the engine whistled and craned our necks out to see the engine whenever it went through a curve.
Well we descended in TVM covered in dust and soot. Our father who received us at the station scolded us for being so dirty. He sounded as if we travelled inside the chimney of the steam loco and it was somehow our fault. For all the steam engine enthusiasts out there, this is the reality of traveling on a steam powered train. Oh yes it can happen in movies. There is a famous song in Tamil ‘ஒளிமயமான எதிர்காலம் என் உள்ளத்தில் தெரிகிறது’ meaning ‘I see a bright future in my mind.’ The hero Sivaji pilots a steam engine and his friend Nagesh feeds the boiler with coal. Not a spec of dust forget soot on their face or dress. You can watch the wonderful spectacle here:
The Seven Year Itch.
I am not a rail romantic or a train enthusiast. Had I struck to my job in a paper mill instead of trying to become a salesman, my train journeys would have been limited to annual passage home or an occasional travel to attend a marriage function. But then fate had something in store for me. I became a salesman selling chemicals to paper mills instead of working in one of them and the journey started. For about seven years from 1989 to 1995 I travelled across the country, mostly in trains. From Amritsar, Punjab in North to Kochi in Kerala in South from Veraval, Gujarat in West to Dibrugarh, Assam in East, I travelled to paper mills to sell and service Speciality Chemicals.
But then there was no romance in this seven year itch. It was kind of forced marriage where Marilyn Manroe is replace by Diesel Locomotive. Travel was part of work and it lasted about seven years. The conversation in affair was mostly with TTEs (Train Travelling Ticket Examiner) with whom I had to plead, cajole, argue and mostly beg for a berth in the train.
The Summer of 1990.
My travel on trains peaked in the summer of 1990. Travelling by train even in an off season is difficult but the summer makes it worse. People travel to different places to get to their hometowns during vacation and getting a reservation was impossible. And in this period I travelled for 89 days without touching home base living out of a suitcase and a duffel bag. My supervisor Mr. Sudhir Das and I went to the headquarters of the company for a business meeting held in Hyderabad. As the meeting was coming to an end, we received a fax message from a customer in Orissa to visit them immediately. The owner of the Company Mr. Nawalgaria asked Mr. Das to start immediately and Mr. Das responded, “Sir I can’t get any reservation in train.” Mr. Nawalgaria replied, “Das babu, if you want to travel only with confirmed reservation, you can’t be in sales job. Any more questions.” I got the message and said, “Sir I will go.”
So for the next several weeks, I travelled and travelled. With my bag and a metering pump to feed chemicals which weighed a ton. Travelling without a confirmed reservation threw additional challenges. Without a confirmed ticket, you can’t get into a waiting hall. I just bought a ticket and entered the platform and sat crosslegged on my soft luggage.
JK has preserved the VIP suitcase and I asked him to send me couple of photos for the blog. He has sent it and Rachna has recreated the ‘waiting for train’ scene for posterity.
My modus operandi for getting into a train was simple (as it would have been for many of the travelling salesmen those days). I got a second class ticket (unreserved or current ticket as it was called then), got into the station, went to the platform, sat on my suitcase reading a paperback mostly from Ludlum (Robert) or Hailey (Arthur) or Archer (Jeffery) and waited for the train. As the train ground to a halt, I sought the TTE of the Second A/C compartment, explained to him to why my taking the train was so important for the wellbeing of the Universe, convince him, got into the compartment. The TTE would come to me eventually to collect the fare difference (between my unreserved second class ticket and the II A/c fare). I would pay the difference plus something as ‘service charges’ continue with the paperback till I fell asleep.
This method mostly worked even during summer. But then one always ran into problems. In the marathon tour of 1990 and I ended up in a paper mill in Jhargram in West Bengal. You would not believe this. Actually you can take a suburban train from Sealdah station in Kolkata to this village and it used to take about three hours. Imagine sitting in a commuter train for three hours on a narrow seat. You can’t go even a rest room as there won’t be any in a suburban train. Well I reached the mill and the customer told me the material we have sent about a month back has not arrived. I took a train back to Kolkata called my boss (well the owner Mr. Nawalgaria). A man of few words, he said, “Ramesh you need to go to Ichapuram in Andhra Pradesh (border between Andhra and Orissa) visit the transporter and clear the goods.” He told me as if the border town was a short distance from Kolkata. It was 700 odd Kilo Meters. I took a train to the nearest station to the border town hitchhiked a ride in a lorry to the border, visited the transporter and gave him the letter authorising the dispatch. The guy told me the material would reach in a week at the customer site.
I hitchhiked a ride back to Srikakulam from where I thought I would take a train home. It was already six weeks since I started. I reached the station late in the evening and called my boss, briefed him about the great job I did and told him I am going home. He said why do I need to go home. I should rather go behind the material which is on it’s way to Kolkata. I told him the material would take a week to reach so there is enough time for me to go home, take a break and start again. He shot back immediately, “Ramesh you go back to Kolkata. You can visit two more customers in the nearby districts and reach the customer in Jhargram in one week time.” I told him I was left with no money and he replied, “You go to Kolkata and I will arrange some cash for you.” This was before the Credit Card days.
So from the midpoint between Chennai and Kolkata, I was forced to take a train on the other direction. Well to make the matter worse the train to Kolkata was overcrowded and the TTE was in no mood to oblige me. I told him I am drained with no energy left and I need some sleep. I was indeed tired and searching for the warehouse by travelling by truck on a hot summer afternoon did not do any good. The TTE just said I should have carried more energy and trains are not meant for recuperating sales people. After about an hour he relented and gave me a berth in a second class compartment.
Chasing material for Work and Chasing TTE for Berth at Srikakulam.
The Long Waits:
Thus my travails and travels continued during the summer of 1990. The trains ran, at best, erratically those days. I arrived at the station hoping the train would come in half an hour and it used to be anywhere between half an hour and seven hours. There are lot of stories on the punctuality of trains those days. My favourite one is this. One of the worst offender in terms delay was the Bokaro Steel City express which never ran on time. It was supposed to reach Chennai in the evening around 5 PM and it never reached before mid night and the record, I am told was 53 hours late. One fine day it entered the platform in Chennai at 5 PM and there was a genuine surprise. When someone went to congratulate the train guard on this ‘on time’ performance, he just said, “It should have arrived at 5 PM yesterday.”
I have my own waiting stories. Once I waited at Jhansi station for ten hours and at Kalyan station for eight hours. I arrived at Kalyan station to catch an overnight train to Jalgaon. I arrived at the station at 10 PM to catch a train at 10.40 PM and the train came at 6.40 AM the next day. Kalyan Station Platform No 4 is still one of the busiest in India and I waited sitting on the suitcase till dawn broke. If anyone has spent time waiting in Ahmed Nagar Bus Stand and Kalyan Station PF -4, surviving the stench for couple of hours, he or she can jump into any city sewer and do a freestyle swimming across the city. Yes Indian Railways taught you patience and tolerance for hunger for stench for heat, dust and crowd.
Newman’s India Bradshaw:
Business travellers in India, in those days could not have survived without this treasure of a book. I was transferred from a town in South of India to Vapi, town in Gujarat. I reached Mumbai and tried to figure out how to go to Vapi from there. The Train Guide I had only had Mumbai and then Valsad and Vapi was not to be seen in the timetable. I made some enquiries and figured out a way to reach Vapi. The Trains at a Glance only listed major towns and cities and Vapi did not qualify to figure in the table. Mr. Sudhir Das, my supervisor told me that what I needed was India Bradshaw without which I can’t go to any paper mill in India as most of them were placed in obscure places. He showed how to go Balasore or Champa or Saharanpur or any other dozen places where we had to develop the business.
Bradshaw listed every station a train stopped in India, that’s probably thousands of stations in India. It even had suburban time tables. I ended up travelling in some of the less travelled trains in India, from Meter Gauge trains in South to Narrow Gauge Trains in the West where the erstwhile rulers Gaikwads started some most scenic narrow gauge railway lines in India. Just sample this:
It had also listed waiting rooms and air conditioned cloak rooms and I had the good fortune to spend some time in many of them. I searched to buy a Bradshaw for the blog and found out it had stopped publication after many decades of service.
Omlace and Cutlace – At last the title:
Vapi was just 170 KMs from Mumbai and I told Mr. Das I would operate from Mumbai and travel everyday to Vapi when I am not travelling outside for work. He agreed magnanimously and my aunts were happy to host me. So I had this routine. Wake up at 4.00 AM get ready, take a local from Dombivli station at 4.40 AM, reach Dadar at 5.40 AM and take the Gujarat Express from Dadar which deposited me at Vapi at 8.45 AM. I used to work till 3.30 PM and travelled back to Dombivli and reached late at night. By the time I got into Gujarat Express I would be starving and 20 minutes in to the journey, I used to hear the sweet voice from the vendor, “Omalce Cutlace, Cutlace Omlace.” Initially I did not understand what was he saying but once I saw the large aluminium plate, I understood. They were Omelettes and Cutlets served with two slices of bread.
So Omelettes and Cutlets rather Omlace and cutlace became kind of staple diet to me in trains in the Mumbai Vapi trains, never mind the cutlers were made from overnight vegetables and the bread was mostly stale. They were hot and when served with hot tea they just made a wholesome breakfast at 7 in the morning. Long after I stopped taking the trains, Omelettes and Cutlets cries reverberated in my ears.
Late I shifted my base to Pune and still travelled to Vapi. I had a season ticket or monthly pass from Pune to Mumbai VT and Mumbai Churchgate to Valsad a distance of 400 KMs. Yes. It was some travel I did in those seven years.
Romancing The Railway:
So train travel was more of a necessity than romance. I love travel books and I read The Great Railway Bazar by Paul Theroux many times as one would read The Bible. There are two books on Indian Railway written by Bill Aitken, ‘Travel by Lesser Rail’ and ‘Branch Line to Eternity.’ I would recommend Bill Aitken books to every rail lover in India. He took the meter gauge trains across the country just before the gauge unification drive began in India. So most of the travel writing is very unique. You can no longer do those journeys. I love them all. But then it stops there. For travel writers travel in itself is work. We salesmen, on the other hand, need to travel, reach customer sites and work there. Travel is just means and not the end for us.
From 1996 after I joined MNCs, my train travels slowly faded away and if it all I did, it was to cover the last 100 or 200 KMs from the nearest airport. So when people suggested to me to take a train, I just shot back, “I worked so hard in life so that I need not take a train. I have done a life time of train travel in about ten years.” So my romance with stopped with reading great train journeys over the years.
Travel in Europe:
There always is an exception. When we started travelling in Europe, we found out more often than not, the better option is to take a train. I always thought travelling by train in Europe is totally different, they were fast, they were punctual and they were clean. I also remembered an anecdote I read in Readers Digest years ago. A young couple were travelling in Austria and they were not able to listen to the station announcement played in the train. Fearing they would miss their alighting point, they ask the conductor, if he would help them when their station comes. The conductor asks them if they were planning to take a nap. The couple reply they don’t. Then conductor tells them, “Then you get off the train at 9.12 PM.” He was so confident that train would stick to the schedule, he confidently tells them you don’t need to hear the announcement nor look at board. Just get out of the train.
Well we found out the story could be true. Trains generally ran on time SNCF or some other train. But you missed the noise and ambience that you encounter in India. Oh yes. There were no cutlese or omlese on offer. The trains generally lack big pantry cars you see in India and non stop supply of snacks and meals. And then the price. Trains are hugely expensive. A case in point:
Once Mohan my brother, Vijay my nephew and I took the Snowdon Mountain Railway in Wales and the price of the ticket was a shocker. The journey was amazing. It was only June but we were shivering when we reached the top.
While this mountain journey at least involved some travel, the one in Swiss Alps took the cake for cost. Rachna was graduating from a School from Les Roches in Blueche, Switzerland. Renuka and I went for her graduation. We flew to Geneva and took a train to Sierre, which was on the border with Germany. Rachna greeted us at Sierre and we took a small train a funiculaire actually. It was just a 10 minute ride up the mountain and costed 6 Swiss Francs about 540 Rs in Indian money. For comparison, a journey between Mumbai and Pune in India’s most sophisticated train, the Vande Bharat would cost 500 Rs for a 3.40 minutes 192 KMs journey.
You can travel at a fraction of the cost in any of the mountain railway in India the Unesco Heritage Nilgiri Mountain Railway or the Darjeeling Toy Train or the Shimla mountain train. Renuka and I checked out the Nilgiri Mountain Railway repair garage in Connoor once and was bowled over the by century old trains which are still running well in the scenic route.
But why this sudden nostalgia? Well I had an opportunity to take some trains in the past months and was blown over by the changes that has happened in Indian Railways. Now we have a most modern ticketing system which gives an opportunity to reserve tickets even at the last moment with tatkal and premium tatkal systems. These tickets are expensive and include dynamic pricing as well. This has helped the railways to charge business passengers and spend the money on infrastructure. Even the smallest stations have an escalator and lift now. You can check the speed at which the train is going, if it is running on time etc sitting inside the train. There are no physical tickets if the tickets are booked online and TTE doesn’t even check your eTicket. All amazing improvement. And then the Vande Bharat Train story where Indian Engineers have developed world class trains at a fraction of the cost in record time – 18 months.
Cleanliness in the stations have improved a lot. Of course JK doesn’t accept. But then he has made more journeys on Trains in Europe and Japan. I can understand where he is coming from.
I still have plans to make some train journeys a bucket list so to speak. Take the Ghan railway from Darwin to Adelaide. Travel by Trans Siberian Express on the longest train journey on earth. But what do you get to eat in the train if you are a vegetarian when the train zips across the plains of Siberia? And of course take the Bullet Train in Japan. Let us see.
For the nostalgic rewind I went to Udumalpet, a town near Coimbatore to check the station there. A selfie from Udumalpet.
As I sat down to write the blog, I had a doubt. Is it back in Train or back on Train. I checked and got the following explanation. Here is another way to remember: For private transport, such as cars and trucks, use “in.” For public transport, such as trains, buses and planes, use “on.”
That is some nostalgia and some learning.
What a lovely and hilarious recollection of trains, journeys and travels. Loved reading the post. I grew up riffing through Bradshaw pages and meter gauge stories.
அளவுக்கு மீறினால் அமிர்தமும் நஞ்சு எனும்போது பிரயாணம் மட்டும் அமிர்தமாகிடுமா 😁,இந்தளவிற்கு பயணங்கள் எந்த வாகனமாக இருந்தாலும் சிரமமே
நல்லவேளை உன் பிரயாணங்கள் எல்லாம் ரயிலில் இருந்ததால் தப்பித்தாய்,இதுவே பஸ்ஸாக இருந்திருந்தால் யோசித்து பார்,நொந்து நுடுல்ஸா ஆகி இருப்பாய்
இவ்வளவு அலைச்சலிலும் அந்த வேலையை தொடர்ந்தாய் என்றால்,அந்த வேலையின் சவால் உனக்கு ஏதோ ஒரு வகையில் பிடித்து இருந்துள்ளது, அல்லது உடனே உணர்ச்சி வசப்படும் நீ,போய்யா நீயும் உன் வேலையும் என்று கிளம்பி இருப்பாய் 😊
உன் அளவிற்கு அலையாததால் எனக்கு சிறு வயதில் இருந்தே ரயில் பயணம் மிகவும் பிடிக்கும்,1970 லிருந்து செய்த பிரயாணங்கள் நினைவில் உள்ளது,எப்போது பெரிய பரிட்சை முடியும் ஊருக்கு(நெல்லை)போகலாம் என நாட்களை எண்ண ஆரம்பித்து விடுவோம்,அப்போதிருந்த ஜாலி இப்போதில்லை,பிரயாணங்களை ரசிக்கும் வயதை கடந்து விட்டோமோ 🤔
ரயில் பயணங்கள் என்றாலே ஒரு தலை ராகம் படத்தில் வரும் கூடையில கருவாடு பாடல் நினைவிற்கு வருகிறது,நாமும் அந்த இடத்தில் இருந்திருக்கலாமே என ஏங்க வைக்கும் சூழல் 😊
மீண்டும் சிறு வயதின் ஞாபகங்களை உன் இந்த ப்ளாக் கொண்டு வந்துள்ளது ரமேஷ்,சூப்பர் 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽
உன் ப்ளாக்கால் ஒரு தலை ராகம் படத்தை YouTube ல் திரும்ப பார்க்கிறேன் 😁