Its going to be a hard and gruelling summer,especially if your vacation plans involve airlines such as Kingfisher and Air India. When I see images on TV,of stranded passengers immersed in violent disagreements with airline staff,or others helplessly sitting on the top of their suitcases,all I can think is,thank god thats not me. It could be any of us with a holiday ruined,non-refundable hotel bookings gone to waste,time,effort and stress compounded with the disappointment of it all. Since the start of competitive airfares in India,many of us have totally ditched the previous best option: the Indian Railways,since the AC-First fare on Rajdhanis was not significantly cheaper than an early-bird offer on low-cost carriers. But with the kind of losses airlines seem to have now,the price gap between the railways and airlines has widened permanently,and air tickets to almost anywhere have become prohibitively expensive. Its so unfair. Right when we allowed ourselves to get spoilt by air travel,well have to go back to affordable train travel.
We all have memories of Indian Railways,that,at some point,has been an intrinsic part of our lives either as children going to meet grandparents and relatives,or as older students,going back and forth from college. Many of us tend to travel on them less frequently as working adults,thanks to the till recently thriving aviation industry. But if you want to go to remote corners of the country,chances are youll still have to fall back on the railways that connect a mind boggling number of areas and people. As a child,I found the journey by train much better than the holiday itself. I have memories of lovely scenery and wonderful sights,a comforting chugging of wheels and endless portions of delicious,greasy food. Over the years,Ive done many overnight journeys by train to Kathgodam from Delhi,a very convenient time-saving option if youre heading anywhere in the Kumaon hills. Every visit to New Delhi Railway Station leaves me marvelling at how,in the midst of all the chaos of hordes of humans shoving their way around,trains leave with surprising punctuality. The railways show a spirited resilience,considering the ratio of carriage to passenger,much like Indians themselves. Which is why,railway officials can,very matter-of-factly suggest that passengers carry their own phenyl bottles to maintain hygiene in the washrooms. Theres no covert sarcasm there,just a practical solution,also recommended by Lonely Planet.
However,after my last long journey by train,I decided I was done with the railways once and for all. A whole bunch of us were travelling to the interiors of Rajasthan in AC-Second,because,despite scouting for every early-bird plane ticket,it still worked out frighteningly expensive. It was kind of exciting: we made sandwiches,bought some junk food,took our playing cards,Scrabble and even Monopoly. The first dampener was when we arrived at the station,and found two passengers squatting on our seats,refusing to budge. We brandished our confirmed tickets at them,to no avail. They didnt move,and didnt seem particularly perturbed by our angry glares. The TC came three hours later,well into the journey,and they reluctantly took themselves off. At night,I woke to the sound of a crackling chips packet,to find two huge mice busy tucking in,three feet away from me. Throughout the night,there were interminable stops in the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. Eighteen hours later,we were nowhere closer to our destination because the train was delayed for five hours due to fog. We arrived covered in grit and soot,shattered and dishevelled,ready to fork out whatever it would cost to take a flight back. All my romantic notions of train travel came to a bitter end. In fact,if you ask me,this is what will save the Indian airline industry: the second best option the railways is so way behind that travellers will be willing to factor in expensive tickets as part of the cost of a vacation. People may cut down on the number of vacations they take,or the number of days they go for,but if youre travelling for leisure,going long haul by Indian Railways kills the purpose of a vacation at all.