India’s fastest train.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
There is a stench of urine, and cockroaches and rats scurrying around. It is 6.05 am. At the New Delhi railway station, the Bhopal Shatabdi Express is on platform No.1, the Ajmer Shatabdi Express is leaving from No. 3, and the Shatabdi to Lucknow is on No. 9.
Seventeen pairs of Shatabdis ferry passengers across the country, connecting cities like Delhi and Amritsar, Howrah and Ranchi, Bombay and Ahmedabad, Bangalore and Chennai. Every morning eight Shatabdis leave New Delhi for cities as far apart as Ajmer and Dehradun.
Running at an average speed of 90-100 kmph, it is India’s fastest train service, though the speed of each Shatabdi may vary depending on the rail traffic, track quality and maintenance work on the route.
In 2013, the express – flagged off in 1988 to commemorate the 100th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru – will turn 25.
The Delhi Walla boarded the Bhopal Shatabdi Express one morning to travel from New Delhi to Jhansi and back — the route of the first Shatabdi.
The Shatabdi, which means centenary in Sanskrit, was launched during the tenure of railway minister Madhavrao Scindia, whose parliamentary constituency Gwalior is on the route. As the country’s first train to reach a speed of 140 kmph, it covered 410 km in 4 hours and 40 minutes. The route was later extended to Bhopal. Today, the Delhi-Bhopal distance of 700km is the longest of all Shatabdi routes, covered in 8 hours. The train is also the fastest of all Shatabdis, hitting a top speed of 150 kmph on the tourist-heavy Delhi-Agra stretch, making a same-day return possible.
In some ways, the Shatabdi is a metaphor for the state of the organization. And it is heading towards a milestone at a particularly embarrassing moment for cash-strapped Indian Railways.
Soon after presenting his annual budget in March 2012, railway minister Dinesh Trivedi was forced to resign following pressure from his own party, the All India Trinamool Congress, a coalition partner in the Union government, though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself had praised the rail budget. Trivedi had proposed modest fare hikes across all classes of coaches, the first in 10 years — this would have raised an additional Rs 4,000 crore, he said in a post-budget interview to The Hindu Business Line newspaper.
Just weeks before, in February, an expert committee headed by Sam Pitroda, adviser to the Prime Minister on public information and innovations, had said the railways needed Rs 9 trillion over the next five years for safety and modernization. This sum is 225 times the amount Trivedi intended to raise.
The scale of the crisis in “India’s lifeline” is so enormous that it is hard to see it as a whole — the parable of the blind men touching different parts of an elephant, each understanding the beast as a widely different creature, comes to mind.
According to the Vision 2020 document presented to Parliament by then railway minister and Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee in 2009, “Rs 14 lakh crore is needed for augmentation of capacity, upgradation and modernization of railways in the next 10 years”.
Trivedi’s replacement, Mukul Roy, also from the Trinamool Congress, scrapped all proposed hikes other than for the first and second-class air-conditioned coaches. So when I boarded the Shatabdi chair car to Jhansi, I paid the same fare — Rs 540 —that was applicable 10 years ago. The charge for New Delhi-Jhansi in the train’s sole executive class has risen from Rs 964 to Rs 1,180.
As the Indian version of the bullet train started making its way out of Delhi, zipping past Humayun’s Tomb in seconds, waiters in black suits, bow ties and caps busied themselves serving hot-water flasks, tea bags, creamers, biscuits and toffees, along with the morning newspapers. Unlike the Kalka Shatabdi’s executive class, there is no TV screen on the back of each seat. An Agra-bound foreign tourist is not delighted.
“This train isn’t impressive,” says Alexandra Olano from Colombia, waving her Lonely Planet guidebook. “The waiters can’t speak English beyond ‘veg’ and ‘non-veg’, and the loos aren’t clean.”
The truth about Shatabdi’s toilets is universally acknowledged.
The problem of dirty toilets is so pressing that the railways announced a plan in May 2012 to give free disinfectant to passengers in long-distance trains.
In his first and last budget speech, Trivedi also announced green toilets would be installed in 2,500 coaches in the coming year. According to the railways, which operates 160,000 toilets round the clock on coaches moving at 100 kmph-plus, the discharged waste corrodes the tracks, costing Rs 350 crore annually. The bio-toilet will process the waste inside a tank. Toilets that function on vacuum technology, similar to those in airplanes, are to be installed in Shatabdi and Rajdhani express trains.
“Foreign tourists appreciate Shatabdi’s speed and convenience,” says Sheema Mookherjee, publisher, Lonely Planet India, who last took a Shatabdi in January 2012, on her way to the Jaipur Literature Festival. “But the pantry services and cleanliness of loos could improve greatly.” Author and columnist Shobhaa Dé, who has travelled on the Shatabdi, says on email, “Shatabdi’s stinking, filthy loos are the worst put-offs!”
Ranting against the Shatabdi is easy. Start with the toilet, frown at the dirty vestibules splattered with yesterday’s dal, point to the cracked glass windows, curse the broken doorknobs, and end with a flourish about the greasy food.
But there are also passengers with happy Shatabdi memories.
In March 2012, Gurgaon-based novelist Anuja Chauhan travelled on the Dehradun Shatabdi to meet her mother-in-law Margaret Alva, then governor of Uttarakhand. “There were these big comfy blue chairs. The AC didn’t freeze us to death, which happens often on trains in India, and there were bhooley bisre (old, forgotten) songs playing on the sound system,” she says. “The train ran on time. There were flasks of piping hot tea, coffee and Marie biscuits and a choice of veg and non-veg breakfast. The young service staff were sassy. When I asked the boy after having the tea, biscuits, breakfast and coffee, ‘What will come next?’, he smirked at me and said, ‘Dehradun!’”
On the Bhopal Shatabdi, the breakfast comes about one hour from Delhi, as the train pulls out of the Mathura station. Vegetarian option: English-style butter toast, vegetable cutlets and boiled carrots; or the south Indian (when available) upma, vada and sambhar. The non-vegetarian packet: masala omelette. In the train’s executive-class coach, you are upgraded to fresh fruit, cornflakes and unlimited helpings. This is, of course, apart from cutlets, toasts and Real fruit juice (it’s Frooti for the non-executive majority seated in the 11 chair cars).
“The breakfast is prepared at a base kitchen in Okhla (south Delhi) and is ready by 3.30 am,” says Lalit Sharma, the day’s quality controller of food for the Bhopal Shatabdi. “It’s reheated in microwave ovens just before being served.”
Sharma, who is dressed in a black suit, is supposed to taste the dishes. He is employed by a firm called RK Enterprises. Although the menu is decided by the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), the catering service for all Shatabdis is outsourced to private companies.
Thanks to the complimentary food, the Shatabdis are usually free of passengers armed with plastic bags full of the classic home-made train meal of paratha, aloo subzi and pickles, the pungent smell of which normally makes you either sneeze or salivate.
Delhi-based poet Ashok Vajpeyi keenly misses these meals, and the sharing and chatting that came with them. “That’s one of the fallouts of the Shatabdi subculture,” says Vajpeyi, the founder of Bhopal’s Bharat Bhavan art centre and a Bhopal Shatabdi veteran. He last travelled in 2010 to attend a literary meet in Gwalior. “Indian trains have been vehicles of imagination and carriers of creativity, which are sometimes provoked by looking out of the window or talking to a passenger, by sharing experiences and meals with people of other castes and religions.
“But the Shatabdi emphasizes getting there fast. Travelling on it is an action with a beginning and end that has no middle. Its tinted windows block the outside. It’s as if there is an effort inside the air-cooled train to keep you from seeing the more discomfiting reality that you rush through between Delhi and Bhopal. The Shatabdi passengers, if not always of the same economic class, seem to share a uniform culture of hurry, business and the unavoidable mobile phone. Everyone eats the same boiled peas. You don’t find the plurality seen on other trains.”
However, a poet’s perspective cannot deny the truth of the Shatabdi making life easier for business travellers who must regularly commute to other cities without the expense of air travel.
“The Shatabdi is perfect for Bombay’s business travellers who come to Surat at 9.40 am and leave by 6pm to get home three hours later,” says Micky Khurana, a businessman in India’s diamond hub, Surat, where the Bombay-Ahmedabad Shatabdi stops for five minutes. “(The train) is popular among surgeons and models who come to Surat regularly from Bombay for day-long assignments.”
Vajpeyi, who regularly took the Bhopal Shatabdi to Delhi to attend classical music concerts when he lived in Gwalior, says, “Yes, if you reduce things to functionality alone, then the Shatabdi is good.” Vajpeyi now lives in Delhi.
The Shatabdi’s concept of making daytime connections to nearby cities became so popular that in 2002, then railway minister Nitish Kumar introduced Jan Shatabdi — a cheaper version of the original, with just one AC chair car — between Bombay and Madgaon. In 2009, then railway minister Banerjee announced the Duronto non-stop fast trains.
Today, there are 21 pairs of Jan Shatabdis and 29 pairs of Durontos.
Two hours after leaving Delhi, our train enters Agra. Almost half the passengers disembark and are immediately replaced by a group of noisy Italians on their way to Orchha, a touristy temple town in Madhya Pradesh close to Jhansi.
Heading towards Gwalior, the train slows a little but is still fast enough for the countryside to remain a blur.
The fabled speed of the Shatabdi is more a thrill for trainspotters than for its sleepy-eyed passengers. YouTube has dozens of videos celebrating the Bhopal Shatabdi’s WAP 5 locomotive, the train’s blue LHB coaches, and the “music” that comes off the tracks. The clip “Raging Bastard WAP5 Bhopal Shatabdi” has more than 2,000 hits. The clip of a couple crossing the track at the Faridabad station a fraction of a second before the Bhopal Shatabdi comes rushing in like a tsunami is a must-watch for its hair-raising thrills.
The Shatabdi, however, was not the first train to enter India’s imagination for its speed, air-conditioned comfort, complimentary meals and elite status. That credit goes to the Rajdhani Express, introduced in 1969, which connected Delhi to Howrah at a maximum speed of 130 kmph. Today, there are 26 pairs of Rajdhanis linking Delhi to various state capitals, and running at almost the same speed as the Shatabdis. When the train finished its 40th year in 2009, singer Usha Uthup, actor Prosenjit Chatterjee and other stars joined railway staff and passengers at the Howrah rail terminus to celebrate the occasion.
The cult of the Rajdhani is set to grow. A movie being made with tennis player Leander Paes is tentatively titled Rajdhani Express. According to press reports, the plot centres on a terrorist travelling on the Bombay-bound Rajdhani — the Bombay Rajdhani completed 40 years in May 2012. It is the same train that Delhi-based novelist Advaita Kala, who co-scripted the Vidya Balan blockbuster Kahaani, boards each time she goes to Bombay. “In this age of air travel, it may seem like a waste of time to take a train, but for me, it is a wonderful disconnect from experiences with the outside world,” Kala says. “I know the regular commuters of the Bombay Rajdhani and they know me, so it’s home-like.”
Maybe because, unlike the Rajdhani, no one on a Shatabdi spends a night on board, the passengers rarely talk to each other. It is hard to warm up to your theme when the journey is only a few hours long and the meal tray needs attention. The classic elements of rail travel are absent here.
It has been half an hour since we left Agra. We are entering the Chambal ravines, which used to be the home of outlaws like Phoolan Devi and Paan Singh Tomar. As the Italians continue chattering, the Indians, aware of the valley’s legends, take photos with their mobile phones.
Coincidentally, an article in the April 2012 issue of Rail Bandhu, the railways’ first on-board magazine, launched in 2011 for free distribution on Shatabdis and other fast trains, describes the same scenes: “It looks like they (passengers) are craving to spot a sign of life, a horse, a gun shot, a gallop, a hood flying behind a roaring Robinhood, a bandit with a brandished sword.”
But all this cannot mask the crisis the railways is in.
“There are almost no countries left in the world in which railway services, railway stations and railway tracks look as bad as ours do in India,” says author Tavleen Singh, a “frequent flier” on the Amritsar-bound Swarna Shatabdi – Singh’s weekly column in The Indian Express frequently talks about India’s woeful infrastructure. “This is because we have so far not had a single railway minister who has understood the importance of changing methods of governance, which remain the same as they were in colonial times.”
Railway officials assigned to the Bhopal Shatabdi, who talk on condition of anonymity since they are not authorized to speak to the media, say a shortage of funds is directly responsible for the poor quality of maintenance and abysmal passenger amenities.
In our coach, for instance, the missing liquid soap container in the toilet was substituted by a mineral water bottle. “We have to raise the ticket prices, otherwise we will sink,” one official says.
Travelling on the Shatabdi inevitably brings comparisons with the progress that the Chinese have made. In June 2012, the Chinese launched a bullet service between Beijing and Shanghai at 300 kmph, double the Shatabdi’s speed. In his book, Earth Wars: The Battle for Global Resources, Sydney-based business journalist Geoff Hiscock writes: “In sharp contrast to the speeds reached in China, India’s fastest train, the Bhopal Shatabdi Express, has a theoretical maximum of 160 kmph on its relatively sedate 700km, 8-hour journey between Delhi and Bhopal. There are no bullet trains on the horizon for the eight billion passengers who use the Indian Railways every year.”
Singh says: “There would be more than enough money to pay for dramatic modernization if the railways used their vast tracts of urban land for commercial purposes. There are magnificent railway hotels that could bring in money, and why should there not be shops, restaurants, spas and bars at our railway stations that could also bring in money? Why should railway colonies continue to sprawl over huge areas of expensive railway land that could be put to much better use?”
This is, finally, beginning to happen. The railways has 43,000 hectares of vacant land. The land not required for operational purposes is being identified and entrusted to the Rail Land Development Authority (RLDA), a statutory authority, for commercial development. The RLDA is developing multi-functional complexes (MFCs) through the public and private sectors which will provide shopping areas, restaurants and budget hotels to rail passengers, according to the RLDA website.
“This is the only option,” says Samar Jha, who retired as financial commissioner of Indian Railways in 2011 and who now lives in Calcutta. “The railways are unable to move more traffic because we don’t have the capacity, which can only be built by improving the infrastructure, which can only be possible by injecting more money. RLDA was created for the exploitation of railway land. But there needs to be political will to raise funds through real estate, for land is a sensitive issue.”
The ministry of railways sanctioned 67 and 93 MFC sites in 2009-10 and 2010-11, respectively. According to the cover story in the 2 April edition of Outlook magazine on the “creeping privatization” of Indian Railways, the RLDA has identified 52 sites that seem commercially feasible, with the potential of earning `5,500 crore. Five sites are being leased out for 30- to 90-year periods. The largest site, the magazine said, is in Sarai Rohilla in Delhi, where Parsvnath Developers has struck a Rs1,651-crore deal, under which it will build luxury residential flats along with 750 railway staff quarters.
In Gwalior, the Bhopal Shatabdi picks up lunch packets. As it leaves the town behind, the train makes a steep curve around a hill so that all the fourteen coaches are visible from the guard’s cabin. Half an hour later, as we pass Datia, the Italians swoon with delight on sighting a ruined palace.
The guard showing the green flag as the train prepares to leave Jhansi. It’s almost 11 am, nearly five hours since the train left from New Delhi station. It is about to reach Jhansi, our stop.
According to station deputy superintendent M.K. Mishra, more than 200 trains pass through Jhansi junction daily — yet it feels like a place that has fallen off the map. A Raj-era pink-and-white building with a gabled roof, the station has a tonga stand, among other facilities. The foyer has a painting of Rani Lakshmibai, the warrior queen of Jhansi who was killed in the 1857 uprising. The walls are painted with slogans praising the importance of Hindi as India’s national language. The platforms are mostly crowded with people waiting for locals that go to towns with names like Orai and Banda. Unlike most railway stations in India, there are no dhabas (roadside eating joints) outside the building.
Only a few coolies and vendors are aware that Jhansi used to be the first Shatabdi’s final destination. Most of them don’t care about the train. It stops a mere eight minutes and passengers, unless they have to get off in Jhansi, do not bother to step out on the platform to stretch their legs or buy samosas.
Killing time in the station’s air-conditioned VIP waiting room, Sanjay Srivastava, the rail crime reporter for the Rashtriya Sahara newspaper, confesses that he has never been inside the Shatabdi — “because I cannot afford it”. Nevertheless, Srivastava says low ticket prices are killing the railways. “While the fare of an ordinary state-bus ride from Jhansi to Kanpur has increased to Rs 160 over the years,” he says, “a ride on the passenger train to Kanpur still costs Rs 32.”
Across the road from the station is the office of the North Central Railway Men’s Union. R.N. Yadav, the union’s secretary, explains the crisis by complaining of staff shortage, heavy workload, lack of funds and no rise in fares. “Ten years ago, 60 trains were running between Jhansi and Delhi,” he says. “Today, that number has increased fourfold, but the staff strength is the same.”
Only a couple of coolies gather at platform No. 4 as the Shatabdi for Delhi arrives at 5.47 pm. It has the same catering staff we met in the morning. The welcome snacks are wafers instead of biscuits.
As darkness descends, it is difficult to see the countryside through the window. If he limits himself to the Shatabdi, Vajpeyi will never be able to discover a new word for his poetry, as he did once during his student days. “I was going home from Delhi in the general compartment of a slow-moving passenger train,” he says. “We were somewhere in Madhya Pradesh. It was raining at dawn, and there was this beautiful light coming into our compartment. The rain looked like an embroidery work of beautiful gold threads. A Bundelkhandi peasant squatting on the floor described the sight as ‘chamatkaron’, a word I had never heard before and which language experts I later consulted didn’t know existed.”
Vajpeyi used that word in his verse.
But any Shatabdi traveller can find memories to take home. “My daughter, who is in class XII, was on the same Shatabdi on that trip,” Chauhan says of her most recent journey to Dehradun. “Her batch was going to a rafting camp for their school summer camp. My husband and I had to keep ducking so all these cool, scruffy teenagers wouldn’t see us and think that we were some weird, paranoid, child-shadowing parents. I think they saw us.”
I experienced my Shatabdi moment shortly after the train left Agra. Everyone was busy with the dinner when a passenger slapped a waiter for not bringing more paneer (cottage cheese). Sympathy for the “poor man” flowed across the coach. Railway police arrived and hauled the paneer lover to the vestibule for prolonged questioning. By the time the train reached the outskirts of Delhi, the passenger had apologized to the waiter.
We reached New Delhi at 10.30 pm. By midnight, all the Shatabdis that had left New Delhi that morning were back.
Inside the New Delhi-Bhopal Shatabdi
Scenes from Jhansi