This is a three part series of trip reports covering three memorable journeys on three special trains within a span of one week- the August Kranti Rajdhani, the New Delhi-Bhopal Shatabdi and Jaipur-Bandra Garib Rath as a part of my North India tour of December 2008.
Part I: Jerks, Fog and a Surprise!
(Mumbai Central to Nizamuddin by August Kranti Rajdhani Express on 8th Dec, 2008)
Being my first journey on a Rajdhani, I insisted on boarding the August Kranti Rajdhani from Mumbai Central, 30km away from home, inspite of it having a halt at Borivali, mere 5km away. We (mom, dad, uncle, aunt and myself) reached Mumbai Central an hour early at 1635, expecting heavy security check after the 26/11 attacks. But sadly, it was not to be. We alighted on Platform 4 on the Local station and took the Foot Overbridge to Platform 4 of Main station, crossing an unmanned metal detector serving as the sole “security check”. The ever-late Ajmer Express was occupying the platform meant for AK Rajdhani.
After a long wait, finally at 1705 the AK Rajdhani was slowly brought into the platform. Immediately, almost a dozen passengers jumped into the coaches, with baggage et al, even before the rake was brought to a standstill! Mumbaikars being Mumbaikars, can’t seem to realise that Rajdhani is a fully reserved train and unlike the regular morning local, seats are not to be “caught” on first-come-first-serve basis!
After the “check-in” (finding seats, adjusting the luggage) before settling on my seat, I walked the length of the train to the First AC attached right at the back and requested the TTE at the door to allow me a peep inside which he gladly agreed to. The First AC, I must say looks impressive but only the lucky ones who have actually travelled by it would be able to give a correct picture. I also gave a quick visit to the Washroom which looked quite different from the ones seen on regular trains. I fiddled with all the buttons inside (there is one to pour the water into the container, another one to flush and so on), checked out the branded stainless steel Wash Basin taps, freshened up using the nice smelling liquid soap and returned to my seat, ready for the journey.
At exactly 1740, with a light jerk, we started and just outside the station, a Virar Fast waited for us to take the Down Fast line, with the passengers in the crowded local giving us disgruntled looks for making them wait! As we breezed past the suburban stations at decent speeds, evening snacks were served consisting of a half cheese sandwich, a samosa, a boondi laddoo and a packet of Appy apple juice. A little kiddo boarding from Borivali saw these items on my lap (I was on the very first Side Lower berth from the door) and with worried look, told his mother, “Mummy, sab log ne khana kha bhi liya!”. The mother consoled him with “Beta, humko bhi milega, chalo” and only then he proceeded to his seat.
By the time we departed from Borivali, it was already dark and there was little to see excpet the interiors of the coach reflected in the huge glass windows. It was great fun to see illuminated stations passing by in a jiffy at 120kmph! Dinner was served just before Surat. My dad, just to be a bit experimental, had asked for Veg Jain dinner and the bet paid off well. While all of us got watery Paneer and mixed vegetable gravy, he got a delicious Paneer Mutter! My allotted seat was Side Upper and the person with the Side Lower was going to board from Surat. To avoid “losing” the prized window seat, me and dad spread out our dinner on the Side Lower berth just before Surat and as expected, the young man boarding from Surat agreed to climb up to the Side Upper berth and nod off! By this time, my dad had decided to occupy my “captured” Side Lower berth and I was left with the Middle Berth in the inner bay. The best part about LHB coaches is that the windows are high enough for even the Middle Berth occupant to look out easily while sleeping!
The LHB coaches made sure nobody had a sound sleep. Every now and then, as the we accelerated or braked, there were terrible jerks awaking quite a few passengers every time. The run, I believe must have been good, for we reached Ratlam (again with a big jerk) a full 35 minutes before scheduled time! This meant a 45 minute halt for us with not a soul around on the platform. The departure from Ratlam was with a bigger jerk but I somehow managed to stay put on my berth. By the time we reached Kota, we were running 10 minutes behind schedule and the jerk as we halted at Kota was the biggest of the lot and almost the entire coach woke up from sleep by this. As dawn broke, all I could see around was fog and more fog. Nothing unusual for this time of the year, I thought. At sunrise we reached Sawai Madhopur and I ran out of my coach to get a couple of cups of chai for myself and mom who were tired of drinking the milk powder tea served inside. The start from Sawai Madhopur was perfect and we soon hit 130kmph for a brief spell before heavy fog slowed us down. And this time, it lasted for long. Really long. Four and half hours to be precise. The visibility all this time was hardly two coaches and I wonder on what logic was the Loco Pilot driving through it! I enquired with the Coach Attendant about the fog situation only to be told- “Maine itna fog last ek saal me nahi dekha!”. What luck!
AK Rajdhani through heavy fog.
At Mathura, for the first time in the day, we got to see the sun and blue sky. The driver decided to make up on lost time and we crossed station after station at 130kmph raising a huge dust storm before we were made to halt for fifteen minutes at Okhla for unknown reasons. Quite a few passengers got down here while the others waited patiently for the last leg. The biggest shocker came at Nizamuddin station where we were put on an under-renovation platform 4 even as other (better) platforms lied vacant! The passengers juggled with their luggage to find a place to put their feet on the uneven platform surface with wet concrete making things worse. A couple of passengers toppled over, few choiciest Punjabi gaalis were blurted out and this marked the end of a rather eventful journey- my first Rajdhani ride!
Part II: Sarson De Khet @ 150kmph!
(New Delhi to Agra by Bhopal Shatabdi Express on 11th Dec, 2008)
Excited like never before to board India’s fastest train, we started from Hotel Ginger (formerly Rail Yatri Niwas) in the station compound at 0545 to catch the Bhopal Shatabdi departing from New Delhi at 0615. As we climbed up the bridge from Ajmeri Gate (Platform 16) side, I heard the announcement- “Jammu se aanewali Rajdhani Express Platform number 1 par aa rahi hai” and immediately I felt something amiss. After all, Platform 1 is usual departing place for Bhopal Shatabdi. How can Jammu Rajdhani be arriving there? The suspense was broken in a minute as another announcement, this time by an announcer whose nasal voice would give tough competition to a popular Hindi singer, was made- “Bhopal ki aur jaane wali Bhopal Shatabdi Express aaj 6 bajkar 15 minute ki jagah 8 bajkar 15 minute ko ravana hogi”. With a collective sigh of “What the…”, we slowly got down on Platform 1.
The platform resembled the lounge of international airport (anyways the infrastructure at our airports is no better than railway stations) with dozens of foreigners strewn all over the place. More drama was going on inside the Station Manager’s office as a Japanese couple, an Israeli gentleman and two aged European tourists were simulatenously bombarding the Manager with questions on the delay. My dad got in between and asked the same, but in Hindi, and got an immediate answer. It turned out that the incoming Shatabdi had returned late the previous night and the rake was being washed currently. As a result it would depart two hours behind schedule.
Satisfied with the answer, the foreigners backed out and we made our way to Upper Class Waiting Room, overflowing with harried passengers. Not willing to remained confined within the boring Waiting Room, I went out on the pretext of buying newspaper and found that the Chinese/Japanese tourists were busy with their cameras capturing all and sundry, the Europeans were busy noting down the details in their trip diaries while the Americans had their faithful Lonely Planets for company. The Indians, meanwhile settled down on the platform making newspaper carpets. So far so good. But the scene I saw next really amused me- a family of four had settled down on newspapers and the head of the family carefully placed his laptop on the platform floor, started the animation movie Madagascar on it and made his two little kids sit in front of it, thereby ensuring peace for themselves and others for two hours! All this while there was absolutely no sign of any security personnel around. I could have well carried an Agni missile into the platforms and nobody would have bothered.
After the Jammu Rajdhani vacated Platform 1, Amritsar bound Swarna Shatabdi occupied the place. It was 0700 now and passengers of Bhopal Shatabdi were getting restless. A seemingly funny announcement was made then- “Platform number 1 pe khadi gaadi Amritsar Shatabdi hai. Bhopal Shatabdi ke yaatriyon se nivedan hai ki ve Amritsar Shatabdi me na chadhe!”. I returned to the Waiting Room, laughing all the way. After the Amritsar Shatabdi departed from PF 1, we made our way out on to the platform and most of the other passengers followed suit. However till 0745, there were no signs of Bhopal Shatabdi anywhere. The crowd on the platform was swelling and in the mini-chaos, somebody pushed a trolley containing the breakfast for Bhopal Shatabdi and around 50 packets of breakfast fell headfirst on the platform. I pity the passengers of C2- God only knows what in what condition must have they got their breakfast!
- The interiors of Bhopal Shatabdi
The first look inside the train left me speechless. Huge windows, swanky curtains, plush seats, individual reading lights and transparent fibre-glass luggage rakes- things that we only dream of or see in European trains were right before me! I settled on my window seat and started hearing the announcements being made inside the coach- “This is Bhopal bound Bhopal Shatabdi Express. Please do not hand over your tickets to any person till the train departs.” and then the same thing repeated in Hindi. I had a quick look around and found that we had more than two dozen foreigners in the coach. At exactly 0815, without any warning, we started crawling slowly out of New Delhi station. The run till Tughklaqabad was slow with brief spells of high speed. By this time, tea was served and I was pleasently surprised to see bags of Assam Tea instead of the usual Taj Mahal etc.
The real fun began after Palwal. It being winter season, the landscape on both sides was filled with bright yellow flowers of Sarson (Rapeseed/mustard) for as far as the eye could see and one couldn’t help but recollecte the famous scene involving SRK and Kajol from DDLJ! Crossing station after station at close to 150kmph is an experience that cannot be explained in words. Due to the rescheduling, we crossed the Mumbai Rajdhani at an effective speed of approx 280kmph (150+130) and the same spectacle was repeated with August Kranti Rajdhani! Soon after, breakfast was served and it took away my attention away from the window for brief intervals. The breakfast had an option of Bread Cutlets or Upma and Vada with Sambar. I chose the latter and it was finger-licking delicious. The usual Bread-butter-jam were present too. It was while having breakfast that I realised the amazingly smooth acceleration and braking of the LHB Shatabdi, a total contrast from the terrible jerks felt in LHB Rajdhani! Somewhere near Mathura, we were crawling at 20kmph and I diverted my attention away from the window towards applying jam on my bread and by the time I was done with it, in just two minutes or so, I looked out and whoa! We were cruising at 140+! I didn’t even realise when the acceleration happened!
The speakers in coach that were earlier giving out instructions now started dishing out music- instrumental versions of classic Hindi movie songs. Call it co-incidence or great choice by the authorities. the first song played was “Suhana Safar aur yeh mausam haseen!” How apt! The melody was broken only to announce the arrival of Mathura Junction. It was now that I realised that I had half of my breakfast to eat, and the mango juice to drink, all before reaching Agra, just 30 minutes away! We had a brief 2-minute halt at Mathura and the ride now was even more scenic- ‘the sarson de khet’ were omnipresent and the speed constantly hovering in three figure mark, whizzing past station after station raising a huge dust storm everytime! Just before Agra, the speakers came to life again with the announcement- “Agla station Agra hai. Yeh shahar Mughalo ki rajdhani thi. Vishwa prasiddh Taj Mahal is shahar me hai. Agra utarne wale yaatriyon ko hum vidaai dete hai.” indicating the end of an amazing run but not before the channel music played “Jeena Yahaan Marna Yahaan… Iske Siva Jaana Kahaan?” clearly echoing a true railfan’s feelings while onboard a train!
Part III: Romancing the Desert!
(Jaipur to Borivali by Garib Rath Express on 15th Dec, 2008)
After travelling by Rajdhani and Shatabdi, this was the first journey of the trip where food was not included in the fare and as a result, we stopped by at the famous Rawat Kachoriwala enroute to Jaipur railway station and picked up 3 Onion Kachoris, 2 Mawa Kachoris and 3 glasses of Kesar Masala Milk, not having even the slightest clue about the taste of each of the items selected.
As we entered the station, Jaipur-Mumbai Central Superfast was waiting on Platform 1 while Garib Rath was scheduled to leave from Platform 3. We climbed the FOB but were unsure which side to get down. All I knew was that my coach G13 was going to be the last but one coach in the train. I had a quick glance at the train on Platform 1 and immediately announced to the family- get down on the right. Proud at having used my common sense, we alighted on the platform only to find G13 written on the electronic display board on the extreme left end of the platform. It was then that I realised my blunder- Jaipur-Mumbai Central Superfast goes to Mumbai via Sawai Madhopur while Garib Rath takes the route via Ajmer. As a result both trains depart in opposite directions from Jaipur even though their destination is the same!
Immediately on the adjoining platform, Ajmer-Kishanganj Garib Nawaz Express arrived. I stopped by at a General coach to ask if the train had come from Ajmer or Kishanganj? After knowing it was from Ajmer, I once again stopped, this time at a window with an orange flag hoisted on it, and asked “Ye Kishanganj kahaan aata hai?”. The man at the seat replied sternly, “Bihar! Bihar!” and pointed towards a banner stuck on the coach which read “Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad- Bharat Ekta Rally to protest illegal migration of Bangladeshis into India”. I located Kishanganj right next to the India-Bangladesh border and immediately realised the reason for this group boarding this train. Meanwhile I saw the rake of Garib Rath being brought into the platform and immediately rushed to the end of the platform with the thought of having a quick chat with the Loco Pilot but his looks- long white hair, even longer white beard and a big tilak on the forehead making him resemble more like a sadhu at Kumbh Mela, made me change my plans and I started walking back when my eyes hit the digital clock showing 14:26- the train was brought on the platform with only 14 minutes to departure! I paced myself and crossed 19 coaches in 2 minutes and reached my coach at 14:28 with my family giving me that “Where the hell were you?” look.
As luck would have it, we were allotted berths number 79,80,81- the very last three berths in the very last passenger coach of the train with the loudly humming Generator Van as my immediate neighbour. The train departed exactly at 1440 and it turned out that a newly wed ‘dulhan’ going to her ‘sasural’ for the first time alongwith her husband were amongst our co-passengers and the dulhan’s family was at the door till the moment the train started giving teary-eyed ‘vidaai’ to her. Once the train started, the bride broke down crying with her husband giving her a long hug to console her- all this happening in the doorway. When this continued for close to five minutes one of the pantry staff decided it was enough and commented- “Bhaisaheb chalo, ab baaki andar jaake…”. The couple had no choice but to head back to their berths.
We opened our packets of snacks and found that the Onion Kachoris were delicious and were finished in no time but the Mawa Kachoris, considered a Jaipur speciality, were actually a sweet dish dipped generously in sugar syrup. After managing half of it, we decided it was no longer bearable and assigned it to the huge dustbin below the Wash Basin. By this time, the catering staff had started making rounds selling Bread Cutlets, noodles, Veg Burger and chips thereby assuring us that we won’t have to go hungry. The coaches of Jaipur Garib Rath have an electronic scrolling display above one of the doors which displays the name of next station, the remainig distance to that station and the current speed of the train, all updated in real time. This board was right above my seat and provided great entertainment. Soon after leaving the city, the display started showing speeds in the range of 104kmph to 108kmph tempting me to go to the door. I dared to open the door and stood for a few minutes before I realised that the afternoon sun and the tremendous amount of dust flying due to the train crossing arid terrain at 110kmph was too much to bear and I returned to my seat only to try my luck once again half an hour later.
Another half an hour into the run, we were put to wait at a tiny station and I excitedly jumped out of the train onto the tracks with my dad and uncle following me to the door. The signal on Main Line turned green and just then a shepherd decided to take his huge flock of goats across the tracks. Thankfully the goats were quick and I did not have to see a live mass murder of goats. Within few minutes, raising a huge dust storm, horns blaring, the Ajmer-Delhi Shatabdi blasted past at 110kmph leaving everyone speechless for a minute. I boarded the coach from the other door and as I crossed bay after bay of seats, I couldn’t help but notice that by sheer coincidence or luck, the newly-wed couple had an entire bay of seven seats to themselves and they were making the most of it, indulging in some really intimate Public Display of Affection (PDA in college-terms) providing free entertainment to the two passengers on side berths opposite them. This news somehow spread throughout the coach and every few minutes someone or the other would walk across the length of the coach, slowing down to peep inside the fourth bay and returning with a blush or a giggle.
- Garib Rath glitters at Ajmer
Thankfully the attention of the coach was distracted soon as the attendant opened the huge “wardrobe” to rent out bedrolls and the first lady getting her set shouted out “Sirf 40 set hi aaye hai!” and all hell broke loose! Passengers from all corners of the coach rushed towards the attendant and formed a long queue to get their bedrolls. The arrangement of side berths in Garib Rath coaches is such that my berth was right opposite the “wardrobe” and there was no way I could reach there until the entire crowd returns to their seats. This commotion was absolutely unnecessary as there were enough bedrolls for all the 81 passengers, and then some more! I decided it was best to be at the door and positioned myself at one right upto Ajmer. Being at the fag-end of the train, at Ajmer I had to run three coaches ahead to fetch tea for mom, dad and myself. After Ajmer, the evening got cooler and standing at the door, more enjoyable with the blast of wind hitting in the face and the vast open plains of Rajasthan for as far as the eye could see. In the half hour that followed, I spotted a huge six-foot tall black and white deer/sambar/buck (whatever it is called), four white peacocks and around two dozen normal colored peacocks, including a pair standing sweetly right next to the flag-man at a tiny station as we whizzed past them at 105kmph.
As it got dark, I decided to check out the entire train- all 19 coaches of it and started the long walk. By the time I returned, it was a literal Bharat Darshan for me. I saw people playing cards, singing songs, reading books/novels/newspapers, sleeping, eating homemade food, chatting, children screaming, a sadhu praying sitting on his Side Lower berth, a Muslim devout offering namaaz in the doorway, families watching movies on laptops, even one gentleman who had typed one full page of text in Notepad on his laptop- in Telugu (quite an effort that would have been!). You name it and it was there. In the three Chair Car coaches (which are glorified detention camps) Ticket Checkers were busy selling off vacant Sleeper seats to passengers yearning for a bit of comfort. During my return walk, I lost count of the number of coaches crossed and overshot my own coach to land up in the pantry which is actually the Handicapped portion of Generator Van!
The pantry staff had assured us that dinner would be loaded at Falna and we were expecting hot food. But they couldn’t wait that long and started serving food when the electronic indicator was showing “Falna 10km”, thereby exposing their fraud- the food was loaded from Jaipur/Ajmer itself and was absolutely cold by now! Grudgingly we tucked into one dinner, two biryanis, two burgers and one noodles between the five of us and waited for Abu Road to arrive. Abu Road was reached at 2130 and once again I rushed out onto the platform, looked out for a stall three coaches ahead, got three packets of lassi and returned and commented that rabdi was available at the stall. Hearing this, my mom made me rush to the stall again and once more I successfully finished the sprint, this time with a ‘kulhad’ of rabdi in hand, in time before the train departed. After this I went off to sleep, only to briefly wake up at Vadodara where we stopped for only four minutes and it was for the first time in years that I was seeing a train depart from Vadodara so soon! After this, my sleep was broken only at Surat.
Now desperate to reach on time, the drivers let loose and we started doing 114-115kmph for long stretches of time. I dared to open the doors and felt the early morning wind as we whizzed past Valsad at 106kmph and Vapi at 111kmph (all speeds courtesy the electronic indicator in the coach). After Vapi we hit 116kmph once and this was the highest speed I saw on the indicator during the journey. The almost 150km run from Surat to Dahanu was done in 90 minutes, giving an impressive average of 100kmph even while keeping maximum speed within the 115kmph limit! Finally we pulled into Platform 6 of Borivali at 0740, only 17 minutes behind schedule, doing the 233km run from Surat to Borivali in just 2 hours 35 minutes bringing a memorable end to a memorable journey!
This ended a week of amazing trip and three journeys I will never forget!