Platform number 9 of Ahmedabad’s Kalupur railway station had never been so decked up.
The red carpet remained laid out from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have alighted from the train, the rest of the platform wearing a grey carpet to match with the colour of the cement on the other platforms.
Fifty-year old Purnima Parekh and her son, Karan (22) had booked themselves on a 6 am Shatabdi from Mumbai to land at Ahmedabad to board the upgraded Vande Bharat Express that was flagged off by Modi from Gandhinagar on Friday.
“We reached Ahmedabad at around 12:25 pm, changed platforms and sat here ( inside the Vande Bharat Express). We only came to experience the train because we had heard that the Vande Bharat is excellent in the New Delhi route and this time we wanted to experience it first hand,” says Purnima, who is a homemaker and a Borivali resident.
Having sat in the coach for an hour at the time when The Indian Express spoke to her, Purnima however makes her displeasure clear at the first day novelty treatment the train is receiving.
“Children and people have been coming in and out of the coach, only because they want to take a look. They’re making things dirty,” she says.
The train took off on its maiden journey around 2 pm but not before a 14-year old boy and his cousins — all boys — had playfully zigzagged through coaches in short sprints, pushing buttons, taking a swiveling round in the chairs, making use of its feature of 180 degree turn flexibility, touring the bathrooms, checking the taps.
The indigenously made semi-high speed train with 16 coaches — with one of the key features being speed, capable of running at 160 kilometres per hour — is however at least several months away from realising its full potential, even as the ticketing fare accounts for a “super fast charge” component, ranging between Rs 45 and 75.
The total ticket cost ranges between Rs 1,275 and Rs 2,650, the journey from Gandhinagar to Mumbai Central costing more than that from Mumbai Central to Gandhinagar.
Sumit Thakur, chief public relations officer (CPRO) at Western Railways says, “The sanctioned speed for Vande Bharat Express is 160 kmph but it will run at a maximum of 130 kmph at present because of our track structure. Work is already underway for upgradation of the track, with a target to complete by March 2024. This (upgradation of track) would also include fencing around it to prevent stray cattle etc from venturing onto the tracks, as well as realignment of curves along tracks. The upgradation will cover 519 kilometres between Ahmedabad and Mumbai Central, and overall, a total of 1478.82 kilometres of track between Mumbai Central and New Delhi would be upgraded at a total cost of Rs 6,661 crores so as to better speed for all trains in general.”
Not only speed, but the anti-collision technology of Kavach too remains to be fully realised.
Though the train is equipped with the anti-collision feature, the track remains to be equipped with the same, which is expected to be completed as part of the track upgradation. The mechanism to avoid collision involves radio frequency communications between the train track and the train.
Meanwhile the maiden journey saw few ticketed passengers and most coaches comprising government officials, railway officials, police personnel and mediapersons.
The train, with its bottle-nosed front, grabbed eyeballs of bystanders at stations, railway crossings, train depots and control rooms etc, as it zoomed past most stations but nearly all phones were out at the smaller train stations of Sachin (in Surat) and Bordi (in Maharashtra), to take photos.
With three-minute halts each at Vadodara and Surat, and automatic gates, it is a significant shift from the train travel as one has traditionally known, allowing one to get off a running train or alight one, stopping for a quick purchase of snacks at interim halts.
At Surat, a disheveled man with a backpack hurriedly entered a coach in his quest to reach Vapi, only to be told that the train will only stop next at Mumbai Central.
He got down at the nick of the time, and the train zipped past Vapi station at 129 kmph.
The train with Braille lettering on most textual content (such as seat numbers, soap dispenser etc) also claims to be friendly for the specially-abled.
With a vegetarian fare for lunch and snacks, the train’s visible attempt towards a more hospitality-oriented approach is apparent.
Vidhi Patel, a “hostess’” as her name tag reads, says that each coach will be catered by two hostesses, the concept modeled on flight stewardesses.
With a BBA degree in aviation, hospitality, travel and tourism management from Parul University, and employed by RK Associates, which provides catering to the IRCTC, Patel says that the hostesses have been deployed to “serve people better, especially children and the elderly.”
IRCTC too has its own set of servicing personnel.
As the swanky machine of the railway ministry glided into Mumbai Central at 7:28 pm, seven minutes before schedule, Mumbai received it sans excitement. There was only the public announcement service of the Indian Railways extending a “warm welcome” to the passengers on the Vande Bharat Express’s maiden journey.
(Sohini Ghosh went on the Vande Bharat Express on an invitation from the Indian Railways)