I believe that the Romance Quotient of train journeys is much higher than that of air travel. I dislike the adrenalin rush of checking-in at airports, getting frisked all over and then sitting cooped up sardines-like in a wobbly metal container which has very few merits otherwise. Cutting short the travel time is surely a good advantage of air travel. Another is the ambience and the service one can possibly enjoy while traveling by air. But, given a choice, I would prefer a train journey any day!
The Travails of Air Travel
Not for me the endless hours spent on packing and repacking my stuff to ensure that the baggage is within the stiff weight limits prescribed by airlines. Liquid delicacies like home-made syrups and pickles are best left out. A meticulous planning needs to be done for what can or cannot go into hand baggage. Once, a minor quantity of liquid milk being carried for a small baby caused so much trouble that we almost ended up missing our flight! The whole drill of taking off my shoes, removing my belt and letting go of my laptop and cell phone in a separate tray leaves me rather nervous and exasperated.
The duration of an air journey is good only for fleeting eye contact and for brief encounters with the finer and gentler of the species. I get looked at with fake and synthetic smiles by petite air-hostesses who are possibly planning their next activities after the flight gets over. The only time they appear to be smiling genuinely is perhaps at the end of the flight when I am leaving the plane. On the contrary, while leaving a train, I find great resistance from various quarters on terminating my journey – the passengers who are forcing their way into the compartment I am trying to leave, the porter who shows up after much reluctance, and the ticket collector who thinks I have been traveling WT!
While flying, most commercial airlines maintain the cabin pressure for altitudes between 7 and 8,000 ft. May be, that is why I feel somewhat disoriented and confused at times while on a flight. Movies on board, a quick succession of saliva-inducing food items and beverages are all designed to keep my anxiety levels down as we cruise along at heights of around 35,000 ft.
Consider the superior advantages of travelling by train. I am not referring to trains in the western world, where I could set my watch based on their arrival time, and the toilets and stations are spotlessly clean. Even if I were to consider trains in India, the experience turns out to be better than that of air travel.
To learn the basic tenets of karma yoga, all I need to do is to travel in an unreserved compartment of Indian Railways; the daunting task of going through the first few chapters of Bhagavad Gita can be easily avoided. Entry into the bogie is like life itself – full of struggle, adventure, victory and failure – requiring all the mental as well as physical agility at my command. I learn to overcome stiff resistance from those who are already inside and have managed to acquire a comfortable spot for themselves and their kith and kin. The struggle for survival brings out the worst in me. In the process, I believe, I get internally purified, getting rid of all my mental toxins!
Once I have jostled my way in, the next phase of seeking a comfortable perch begins. With toilets also jam-packed and inaccessible, I learn the value of patience and forbearance. By the next station, I have myself acquired the rights to start denying entry to those attempting to enter the compartment at all subsequent stations!
If I happen to travel in a sleeper class, I find it a very ‘homely’ experience – invariably, all passengers tend to treat the compartment as a second home! There is much sharing of news, views, family history and current troubles facing the passengers in my cubicle. Mention suffering from any disease and I am sure to be heaped with unsolicited advice on the efficacy of a wide variety of treatments. As I surmise over the troubles of my co-passengers, I am left convinced that my own problems are not that very serious. Now, what could be a better way of uplifting my sagging spirits?!
By the time the journey comes to an end, I have created tenuous bonds of transient relationships. If luck favors me, I could have even managed to charm the pretty young thing on the opposite seat by advising her on the possibilities of the next train connection and by offering to her some delectable food items bought at various stations on the way!
While traveling by air, I miss the windows. This deprives me of the simple pleasure of waving my hands, bidding a good-bye to those who have come to see me off. This is a privilege denied to those traveling by air. Also, in the absence of windows, I cannot haggle for the fruits and eatables I wish to purchase from a vendor on a station while enjoying the comfort of sitting glued to my seat.
In an AC compartment, I find great possibilities of networking. Newspapers and magazines get shared with quiet dignity. Mobile chargers can be readily borrowed. Movies can be readily shared on another passenger’s laptop. If my body language discourages a dialogue, there are good chances of me being left in peace. And what a pleasure it is to curl up with my favorite book and then enjoying a siesta after a hearty meal!
The seating in trains is invariably designed to promote brotherhood and human interaction. In an aircraft, we are seated theatre-like, with very little chance of either socializing or networking, except for the chance of hobnobbing with the passenger in the next seat.
As compared to the continuous drone of aircraft engines audible while travelling by air, trains have a unique melody and rhythm of their own. Like a lullaby, it tends to put me to sleep quite effectively.
I confess that my reasons for liking train travel are also economic; despite tall claims made by airlines of offering affordable air travel, trains are still much cheaper!
Indian Railways – Big Organization, Bigger Challenges
I really admire Indian Railways. They somehow manage to maintain 7,500 stations, 1,15,000 km of tracks and around 14 lac employees. They also cope with the daunting and mammoth task of handling 2.5 crore passengers and 28 lac MT of freight every day. This is despite the fact that 20% of their rolling stock has outlived its life, the tracks are not in the best of health and the demands of various regions are always piling up.
I believe they face serious issues in coach and track maintenance. Quite a few bridges are getting aged and slowing down trains. Outdated communication, safety and signaling equipment are not getting upgraded anytime soon. The penchant to keep announcing new trains every year continues unabated whereas safety measures invariably take a back seat.
Sanitation is a big concern. Indian Railways, the largest single employer of India, has helped perpetuate the caste oriented practice of manual scavenging for decades. The bulk of the blame for contributing towards the insanitary state of railway stations and tracks lies at their doorstep. Given the resources at its command, it should not be beyond IR’s capacity to equip trains with systems to handle fecal waste.
Improving the Romantic Quotient of Indian Railways
As an ordinary citizen of India, I would not push for bullet trains. I would rather have the railways invest in efficient waste management systems, better security measures, modern communication and signaling systems, mechanized track and station maintenance solutions.
Above all, if the stations and coaches start exuding a three-star ambience, IR would surely start persuading the passengers to treat its assets with better respect and affection, thereby improving the romantic allure of train journeys in India!