Riding the Rails with an Indrail PassMemories of India 1977
India 1977 : Riding the Rails with an Indrail Pass
As luck would have it, India Railways introduced their updated Indrail Pass ticket for foreigners just a few months before. This updated version of the Travel Anywhere ticket allowed holders to buy a predetermined time range for travel.
I chose the 30 days for $25 in second class and set about discovering India by rail. Unlimited rail travel for one month – wow!!!!
Before each journey , just out of interest, i would ask the fare at the ticket office and make a note in my diary. At the end of the month i totted up the total which came to $28.70, meaning i has saved the grand sum of $3.70 using the Indrail Pass.
Actually the Indrail Pass was worth much more, as it fast tracked me onto “fully booked” trains. I was told that there are seats on every train reserved for VIP’s which besides Indrail Pass holders included politicians, police and army officers and railway employees.
It would be unfair to say that when I rode on India’s railways I put my life in their hands. It would be fair to say that I put my time in their hands. I never knew when I would get to my destination, but I knew that I would sooner or later, usually later. This is the miracle of Indian trains, which travel, sometimes for more than 3 days and a thousand miles, through a land that has been described as “functioning anarchy.”
For passengers the anarchy starts at the station. I always loved watching the red-shirted porters milling around the station entrance. With baggage perched precariously on his head and festooning his shoulders, the porter will guide you through the dreary gloom of an ill-lit station. He’ll keep at bay beggars and shoeshine boys who soil your footwear and then suggest you clean it. The porter also ensures you’ll reach the place on the platform where your coach will stop when the train eventually arrives. As Indian trains can be more than a third of a mile long, that is rather important.
While waiting, travellers are reminded that they have lost control of their time by broadcasts of the dismal litany of delays, punctuated by the meaningless “Inconvenience is regretted.” Everyone in India has a story about being pleasantly surprised by the timely arrival of a train, only to be told that it is yesterday’s train running 24 hours late.
Once you’re under way, unscheduled halts are common and can be inordinately long. Frustration is heightened by the difficulty in finding out what is wrong. There are no official announcements, so rumors abound.
Once when my train stopped between Calcutta and Madras, I was told we’d halted because the line had been punctured, which turned out to mean a rail had cracked. Some trains make such long stops that they are actually described as lost.
The railways are run by the government, and there’s nothing Indian bureaucrats like more than complication. There are a bewildering number of classes of carriages and types of trains, from the very slow Passenger at the bottom to the Super-Fast at the top.
By today’s standards “super-fast” was a bit of an exaggeration. Once when I mentioned to a ticket inspector that my Super-Fast express seemed to be a slow train, he replied with typical indian logic:- “No sir. This is a Super-Fast train. It is only going slow.”
The slower a train goes and the more time that is lost to delays, the greater the camaraderie between passengers. Barriers break down. I once found myself in the middle of a lively carriage. A large family was annoyed at the late arrival of meals and decided to cook their own. Out came everything needed except the kitchen sink. A fire was lit, rice boiled and soon some vegetables were transformed into a delicious hot curry. I was invited to join them along with a couple of other passengers in our section of the train, and soon a camaraderie was formed.
I firmly believe that anyone who has never travelled on an Indian train fails to arrive in the real India. The key is to forget time, relax, and enjoy the opportunities to experience the unusual.
One incident i remember from a complicated journey involving several changes on the way from Goa to Cochin. At my first change I was told by the Station Master that my connection was “indefinitely delayed.”
“You mean it’s lost,” I jokingly replied
“You could say so,” he replied politely. “But do not be so concerned, sir. There is another train which was lost and we have found it.”
I caught that one and, sure enough, eventually arrived at my destination.
Video – Rail Travel In India, 1970s – Film 8508
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