It was a risk we had to take. My friend and I had already taken a trip to Amritsar. And shopped more than what two backpackers should. Now, we had 30 kg on our backs and another bag with the 14-inch laptop that the friend was lugging everywhere because she was on a working holiday. We still had two more cities to cover over the next four days before returning to Delhi, our nodal centre for the trip. So, gobbling down a dinner-cum-breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast at 3.30 am in our room at a no-star Paharganj hotel called All Iz Well, we considered our options.
An hour later, our bags strapped to our backs and caps pulled over our ears, we set out into the fierce Delhi winter, neon signs blazing in the dark. We waded our way through the thick fog towards New Delhi Railway Station for the train scheduled at 5.30 am. Fifteen minutes later, we were outside a dark, dank room next to the station master’s office. We stood there for the next minute or so, staring at the yellow sign that read ‘Cloak Room’. It remains, even today, one of our finest budget travel discoveries.
Cloakrooms in India are a British legacy. No coats or hats here, though; the service in India is used as a “left luggage facility”, provided at most major railway stations across India. It is a pocket-friendly, but most importantly, safe place to stow away your luggage for up to seven days. The bags are scanned, the locks sealed by an Indian Railways sticker to ensure the locks and bags aren’t tampered with, and then put away in one of the many racks that line the room. The current rates, after a nominal raise recently, are Rs 16 for the first 24 hours. For every day after, Rs 10 is added to the amount. In most cities, the cloakrooms are open 24×7, allowing the passengers the flexibility to collect luggage at whatever unearthly hour the train brings them back.
At Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway station, the cloakroom has two rooms allotted for the service. In the busiest railway terminus in Maharashtra, a person manning the cloakroom says they attend up to 600 visitors every day during peak season. Central Railways also launched the cloakroom service at Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, Kurla, last month. That service remains underutilised as enough people don’t know about the service. “It’s the safest place to leave your luggage behind for seven days… provided you don’t put perishables in the bags. Because we cannot guarantee the safety of those,” says Narendra A Patil, the Chief PRO of Central Railways.
Inside the magnificent building that houses CST railway station, the cloakroom wears a bleak look. The greying yellow walls are lit up by two tubelights, while the attendants see a steady stream of people on the weekday morning. It is Jaswinder Singh’s second time here but the 49-year-old claims to be a veteran user of cloakroom facilities across. “I own a textile business in Punjab and travel extensively in the neighbouring states, often carrying cloth samples. At such times, the facility comes handy,” says Singh, who is en route to Ahmedabad before he goes to Mumbai for two days “to chill”.
While the railways is bound to receive a few complaints off and on about missing items — commonplace also with airlines — Patil insists it largely remains a reliable service. He cites as example the near-empty complaint register. And what happens if the passenger doesn’t return in time to collect the bags, if the bags are at the cloakroom for over seven days? Singh says, “We keep them in safe custody till a month, after which we try to locate the owner. If we are met with no luck, the items are auctioned off.”
On that winter morning two years ago, the very civil, but mostly uninterested, caretaker within took us through the pretty straightforward procedure — fill a form, make sure your luggage is secured with the appropriate locks, and then deposit it into any one of the cavernous shelves inside the massive room. When we returned five days later, there was our stuff, untouched. And we paid under Rs 50 for the service.