As much as I love trains, something recently struck me as my most boring, stupid train journey in my life: New Delhi to Amritsar on the Amritsar Shatabdi. Well this train gets an Alstom LHB rake (unlike the regular azure-blue rakes that we see all over the country). Click here to see a video of an LHB rake. The loco we had was a WAP5, slightly less powerful than the one in the video. The train started slightly late from NDLS, negotiated the various points slowwwly and continued slowly for the rest of the journey.
Or so it seemed. Till I went to the door. Before I reveal what happened, a little word about travelling at the door in Shatabdi and Janshatabdi trains in North India: You are automatically assumed to be what I call, "the ubuquitous and disinterested traveller", in other words, the "I'm a busy arse" kind of person, who, at the first moment of getting into a train (or any other moving object for that matter), shuts down completely and goes to sleep, his only goal being his destination. So, most doors are jammed with big crates and what not. If you try to open the door when the train is moving, you are given stern, suspicious("Suicide case?") glances by the people inside. Well I managed to evade a couple of those glances, and parked myself at the door. The train was doing 110+ and the gentleman at the helm (read Big White WAP5) was making mincemeat of the whole rake. Add to it the fact that the WAP5 loco has a feature called BPCS, similar to cruise control, and it was probably set to 118kmph, so the whole train was just going on and on at that speed. It was quite frightening to stand by the door, actually :) Since it was a straight, long section of track for most of the journey from NDSL to ASR, it was pretty boring too. Last but not the least, it was an electric loco at the front, so none of that powerful turbo or chugging sounds or the smoking action all we diesel lovers love :)
So much for the outside, now for the inside. Inside, it was a room. A 'room' because in any room, you wouldnt expect it to shake or emit sounds or give you an identification at what speed it's travelling (given that it travels at all). That was how the LHB coach felt from the inside. Food kept arriving by the minute - snacks, tea, soup, supper, ice-cream. None of that "clickety clack" of the wheels, none of the air rushing through the open window at high speeds, none of the echoes of the horn of the loco sounding on a curve, nothing.
And the people inside read magazines and listened to music from their phones without so much as a cursory glance outside. They have a sleek carriage.. they need to get to their places fast, they have it. What else?
Amidst all this smoothening, polishing and trying-to-make-it-look-more-like-an-aircraft kind of design, what's lost is the very essence of the train journey. The journey is what entertains you, unlike journey by air. Heck, that's why they HAVE the inflight entertainment onboard aircraft --> simply because there isn't anything else to do. (Oh wait, maybe you could try counting the number of electric lamps inside the plane, or try to guess the air-hostess's age. Which are, in my opinion, rather dull and pointless means of passing the time).
Take the second class coach in a casual express train on a non-electrified route. The lovely horn sounds, and a slight tug tells you that you're moving. A few seconds later, the chugga-chugga-chug music from the loco sounds and the train picks up pace. There are no cantenaries (posts that hold the overhead wires) periodically blocking your view..Just plain green Indian countryside, with rocking movements from the coach and lovely rhythmic track music to add to the cheer.
This is India laid bare. The train passes at a comfortable pace, blowing lots of dust at top speed onto the tiny platforms in wayside stations, and stops for a crossing somewhere deep in the heart of the journey. Enjoying a cup of fine tea and waiting for a crossing train at some wayside station, under the shade of old banyan trees with the birds chirping overhead is something with no words to express it. Yes, in a couple of decades we will have high speed rail transport - plush cars and sleek trains, but what is lost is the Indian touch to it.
Yet the ever present irony continues across the country. Parents still introduce babies to trains in books as "Koooo.. chuk chuk chuk". Steam traction disappeared off Indian mainlines and branch lines by the end of the last millenium. When these toddlers grow up and see an electric locomotive on the track, they'll obviously be left to wonder what the hell went "koo chuk chuk" in it. Hell, you want those lovely steam engines in colouring books, picture charts and general train 'iconification' but you DONT want it in real life. HOW MORE HYPOCRITIC COULD YOU GET? I fully agree to Ranga's view that the steam locomotive is the most awesome machine ever created by man. Who would have thought it possible? Just climb into the cab of a steam loco (in Ooty, for instance) and check out the number of levers and gauges inside the beast. It is mechanical engineering at its best. All run on superheated water.
Countries like England have preserved their steam beauties with a sense of pride. They run these locos for specials in weekends and the like, to uphold the reverence to the machine man engineered and perfected to embody the very notion of speed and power - You fed it fire and it ran. We Indians on the other hand, just waited to dispose of these workhorses and move on. I listen with envy when I hear my grandpa relate how he used to watch coal being piled into the firebox and how the smell of steam rose and the pistons hissed as the train inched out whistling, from the station. I was born too late to hear a whistle blow. I guess my children will never know it ever existed.
That's the way everything is, I guess. Life just goes on, isnt it. How very beautiful.