America The Beautiful

America The Beautiful

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee

Yes, as this century old famous song suggests, the United States has an abundance of natural beauty- from snow covered peaks to dense forests to miles of deserts and everything in between. The country, however, is very vast. So how does one best enjoy this beauty? Certainly not from a cramped airplane cabin flying at 35,000 feet. Possibly by driving, but that requires the driver to focus on the road and gets tiring after several hours. Fortunately, there is another way- the way early men conquered the Wild West- yes, by train!

Contrary to oft heard statements like “nobody rides the trains anymore” or “there are no trains in America today”, the reality is that Amtrak, the often-neglected but still surviving passenger rail service of USA does run a few cross-country trains that offer a relaxed, comfortable way to enjoy the beauty of this huge country.

Long distance train travel is more than just the scenery. Unlike air travel where everyone sits in silence waiting for the trip to get over, on the train the atmosphere is a lot more relaxed and social. A part of it is thanks to Amtrak’s communal dining policy- you are encouraged to share tables with random co-passengers and this leads to some memorable conversations. Over my numerous journeys I have met Amish families, two grannies in their eighties who decided to spend the last years of their lives traveling far and wide by themselves, a Japanese tourist who did not speak a word of English but visits every year to see the country, a mom and her daughter starting a new life away from the abusive husband who had joined the drug cartel in Mexico, a couple celebrating their honeymoon, and the list goes on.



So, where exactly can you travel by train? The answer is- anywhere across the country! Amtrak runs a variety of trains across 46 of the 48 contiguous states (guess the 2 unlucky states?) but some routes are obviously better than others. If I were to pick favorites, I’d say the five long distance routes west of Chicago are truly spectacular and provide the best experience- large reclining seats or private bedrooms, full service restaurant onboard, lounge car with huge glass dome windows and couches to chill out-  if you want to experience America by rail, pick one of these five and you won’t regret. 


I have been on all five of these journeys, at least in parts, and from here on, I will mostly let the pictures talk for themselves. 

All pictures below are as-seen-from-train taken personally by me.

1. Empire Builder – Chicago to Seattle/Portland

The great northern adventure takes us from Chicago through Wisconsin, along the upper Mississippi river, through the endless farmlands-now-turned-into-oil-fields of North Dakota, lush green meadows of Montana, cutting through the heart of stunningly beautiful Glacier National Park, and depending on whether we go on the Seattle half or the Portland half (the train splits in Spokane), either a climb through the beautiful northern Cascades or a meandering run along the Columbia river gorge. 









2. California Zephyr – Chicago to San Francisco

Some have called this the most beautiful journey in America and there is probably good reason to it. Starting from Chicago, we run through the vast corn fields of Iowa and Nebraska to Denver, from where starts the climb into the Rockies, following the Colorado river, meandering through narrow canyons, opening up to the high plains of Utah to Salt Lake City, continuing into the desert of Nevada, cutting through the Sierra Nevadas down to the City by the Bay. 








3. Southwest Chief – Chicago to Los Angeles

Fancy yourself a ride literally cutting across the country? This is it. We start southwest from Chicago across Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, the greenery of farmlands gives way to vast arid plains of New Mexico to Albuquerque, through Native American land, on to the beautiful painted desert of Arizona, navigating through the lower Sierras to the City of Angels.   






4. Sunset Limited – New Orleans to Los Angeles

This is a truly southern adventure. Starting by trudging over Lake Pontchartrain out of NOLA, through the swamps of Louisiana, deep in the heart of Texas all the way from Houston to El Paso, literally hugging Mexico, through the desert of lower Arizona to the lights of LA, this is a deep dive into seeing up close how vast this country really is.







5. Coast Starlight – Los Angeles to Seattle

Love the Pacific coast? Here we go. From Los Angeles to San Jose, we travel for hours along the beautiful blue Pacific coast, revealing hidden gems not accessible even by the famous Highway 1. The fun does not end here. Going north, we pass by Mt Shasta meandering into the remote Cascades mountains to Portland. For the finale is the run along the Puget Sound to Seattle, photogenic every minute.






Go ahead, the next time you are planning a vacation, add a train journey to it. Or, if short on time, make that itself the vacation- the journey is the destination! It could end up being an experience of a lifetime. All aboard!


If you are wondering, no, this post is NOT an ad for Amtrak nor an endorsement. 


Slow Train Through Saurashtra – Part 2

This is a continuation from Part 1

Map of the route for the journeys covered in this part-


These are the trains we take during this trip-

  1. 19221 Somnath Express from Ahmedabad to Veraval (pink)
  2. 52929 MG Passenger from Veraval to Dhasa Jn (red)
  3. 59226 Mahuva-Bhavnagar Passenger from Dhasa Jn to Dhola Jn (yellow)
  4. 09232 Bhavnagar-Bandra Special from Dhola Jn to Joravarnagar (blue)
  5. 19222 Somnath Express from Surendranagar to Ahmedabad (green)

– – – – –


Somnath Express ready for departure from Ahmedabad

Ahmedabad’s Kalupur railway station is a beehive of activity at night with trains arriving from and departing to all corners of the country every few minutes. My train, the Ahmedabad-Veraval Somnath Express is boarding from platform 10. By some stroke of luck, Abhishek who booked the tickets has managed to get three window seats for all three of us- we have lower berth, lower berth and side lower berth! I volunteer to take up the side berth which has relative lesser legroom, but is compensated by having two windows to myself, a decision I soon regret as the windows refuse to close shut tight, leaving a thin slit letting in chilled wind as the train gallops at over 100 km/hr through the cold winter night. I bundle up myself in a bedsheet, get some half-decent sleep and the next thing I know is we are pulling into Veraval bang on time, well before sunrise.


The Retiring Room at Veraval station is clean and functional

We have precisely three and half hours before our next train departs, so we head straight to the ticket counter and enquire if there is a retiring room available. It turns out there is one available, but it has no hot water because “the solar has stopped working”. Fine, we will take it. The retiring rooms sit just outside the station building and are quite decent for the price. I have no intention of taking a cold water bath after suffering the wrath of cold wind all night long, so I just dump my bags in the room, and off we go to squeeze in a quick trip to the famous Somnath temple (after which our train was named). A high-speed rickshaw ride through empty streets deposits us at the temple basking in the golden rays of the morning sun. The temple complex sits at the edge of the sea, with spectacular views, but alas, paranoid security concerns mean we are not allowed to carry camera or cell phones to photograph this beautiful place. Just outside the temple is a not-so-clean food stall preparing fresh hot Gujarati delicacies- jalebi, fafda, dhokla and masala chai. For a moment I worry about the hygiene of the place, but the sights and smells are too tempting and I give in. A hearty breakfast, and another breakneck speed rickshaw ride later, we are back to Veraval Junction to start our journey through the hinterlands.


Somnath temple shines in the morning sunlight


Veraval station overview. Meter gauge lines are in the right side corner

Our plan is to take the 9.40am Meter Gauge passenger from Veraval to Dhasa Junction reaching at 4.40pm, and connecting there to Broad Gauge passenger departing at 4.46pm to Dhola Junction. This six minute layover to change trains, including buying tickets was worrying me, but thankfully at Veraval they issue direct MG-BG combined tickets to Dhola Junction! That’s one less thing to worry now. Like everywhere else today, the meter gauge operations at Veraval are relegated to one corner, with most of the prime property taken over by the big brother mainline operations. Our seven coach train is already fairly full but a little walking around fetches us an empty bay with two windows, again with one Emergency Window with no bars. We depart right on time at 9.40am, and the landscape outside Veraval leaves me surprised. There are coconut palms, and abundant paddy farming. This is something I associate with coastal Kerala, not Saurashtra which, in my ignorant mind, was all dry and arid. The train stops at all stations, once every few minutes but the stops are extremely brief, most of them taking less than a minute. In about half an hour, we reach the first major stop- Talala Junction.


Delvada-Veraval Passenger is already waiting as we enter Talala Junction


My train- the seven coach Veraval-Dhasa Passenger stopped at the other end at Talala Jn

Talala Junction is a tiny station, with just one low platform and three additional tracks. The platform line is already occupied by the Delvada-Veraval Passenger that arrived before us, and transfer passengers are waiting on the tracks to board our train. The crowd settles in few minutes and I expect we will get going soon, but I am told that is not the case. A third train, from Junagadh and heading to Delvada (see map above to get an idea of the routes) is yet to arrive, and only after all three trains have arrived and passengers given a chance to transfer from either to all, will each of them depart. Oh the logistics! Since all these meter gauge lines in these rural areas see only one or two trains a day, the timetables are well synchronized so that passengers get an option to travel from anywhere to anywhere in the network. Since we have about half hour of wait remaining, I make friends with the local villagers sitting beside us, ask them to take care of our seats and bags, and get out to wander. Our train’s driver is also wandering outside. A brief chat with him reveals that the journey ahead through Gir National Park will be done at a restricted speed of 30 km/hr to avoid chances of wild animals being run over by the train.


Junagadh-Delvada Passenger gets the signal to enter Talala Jn, completing the trio

About forty minutes of wait later, a gateman goes to the outskirts of the station, manually lowers the semaphore signal, clearing the route for Junagadh-Delvada passenger to enter. As soon as that train arrives, and transferring passengers given sufficient time to jump across to our train, we get the first clearance out of the three trains to leave. Back in the coach, the locals have realized we “tourists” are the odd-men-out on this train, so they decide to be our local guides, telling us everything from history and geography of the region to what wildlife can be seen where. This is the best part of traveling in rural India- it takes no time for strangers to open up and help. The six minute connection we have to make at Dhasa is still bothering me, so I ask the locals how often is the connection made successfully. The answer is unanimous- “100% guarantee. You will make it!” Well, I like the confidence.

IMG_3656Waiting at Sasan Gir for a crossing with our sister train from Dhasa


Sasan Gir reminding passengers of its most famous attraction

After an hour of slow trundling, we arrive at Sasan Gir, the main entry point for Gir National Park. The tiny station is nicely set in the middle of the forest. The timetable shows this to be a two minute stop, but locals tell otherwise. Since the entire route is single tracked, we have to wait here for about 45 minutes for the train from opposite direction to arrive and cross us. It’s a daily ritual, not documented in the timetable. Well then, again time to get off and explore. On one side of the train, about a dozen monkeys have gathered, sitting patiently for passengers to feed them. This, too, is a daily ritual, the monkeys know the train timings and show up daily without fail. On the other side, a sole food stall is making brisk business selling masala chai and cold drinks. An enterprising jeep driver waits at the station entrance, hoping someone has last minute change of mind and decides to get off here and go on an impromptu safari into the sanctuary.


These monkeys know the ritual- wait for train, get food


The sole ticket window at Sasan Gir has a lot of information and instructions!

After waiting for what seemed like eternity, finally the train from Dhasa makes an appearance from the thick foliage and comes to a stop next to us. For some reason, most of these single line sections seem to follow a Last-In-First-Out approach, so that train gets the go-ahead first, with just a brief two minute halt, while we have to wait few more minutes to get the clearance to proceed. As soon as we are out of the station, the locals tell us to be ready with cameras to capture any wildlife we may encounter by the trackside as we make our way cutting across the national park. Sadly no lions to be sighted on this free local-villager-guided-safari, but we do end up seeing a few peacocks and a few deers, apart from a bunch of monkeys monkeying around here and there. The next station, Kansiya Nes, is just a tiny cabin in the middle of the forest, manned by one guy who is the station master, and the flag man, and the support staff all by himself. This is not the kind of place I would want to be at night, and suddenly I consider myself to be a lot luckier to have a fixed desk job in a city.


Can you spot the train in the forest? Just outside Sasan Gir

The slow 30km/hr restricted speed crawl continues up to the next major stop- Visavadar Junction. It’s lunch time and I was hoping to get some food from here, but no such luck. The solitary food stall at the station does not have anything except some biscuits and chips. So, we will have to dig into our backup plan- the ever-present Gujarati travel food: thepla that we picked up previous night from Ahmedabad. But this place does have a solution to another problem we had been struggling with- the Emergency window has a shutter that keeps falling down, blocking our view and rendering the window useless in case an emergency comes up. One of our co-passenger who had gotten off at the station, returns with some rope. It then takes three engineers and two villagers to come up with an ingenious jugaad to tie the culprit shutter in place, finally giving us the fully open emergency window.

The run from Visavadar to Amreli, probably the biggest town along the route, is quite boring, and sedate. After Amreli it turns even slower, and we are losing time fast. I start getting skeptical of making the connection at Dhasa, but the locals are still calm and confident. Turns out, the extremely slow crawl after Amreli is due to unusually heavy rains washing away the soil under the tracks last year, and this section in the boonies is being neglected by the railways. We gather a lot of delay, but finally pull into the last major stop along the line- Khijadiya Junction. Here we join the Dhasa-Jetalsar line which seems to be the best maintained so far, and difference is felt immediately. The driver takes to no time to accelerate all the way to 75 km/hr, the maximum speed allowed for meter gauge trains today. The next fifteen minutes are like an action-packed climax to a boring movie and we finally pull into Dhasa Junction at 5.00pm, 15 minutes late, and 9 minutes beyond the scheduled departure time of our connecting train. Fortunately or unfortunately, the connecting passenger is also running late, so we will be able to make the connection! The locals gave a “We told you so” look as we get off and walk across to the opposite platform.


Bored passengers at Dhasa wait on the tracks for Mahuva-Bhavnagar Passenger

The broad gauge side of Dhasa Junction is crowded with passengers waiting for the passenger. We step out of the station for some chai, again served in extremely miniature cups, and get back just in time for the passenger from  Mahuva to pull in. The train is already completely crowded, but thankfully we have to travel only three stations to Dhola Junction so we squeeze in and I manage to get some standing room by an open door. Our original itinerary involved having to wait three hours at Dhola Junction to get the connecting train to Surendranagar, but it we are told there is a Bhavnagar-Bandra holiday special train running before it, which will cut down our waiting time by about two hours! Apparently this “holiday special” runs all year round, since the locals seem to know of its existence too. As we were talking about our further plans, a guy sitting by the door quipped in- “You guys are in luck. Today is Sunday, you will get Bandra Special now!”

A quick thirty minute ride drops us at Dhola Junction. This was once an important junction of the Bhavnagar State Railway built and run by the local rulers, not the British who built most of the other railways. This is evident in the station architecture, built in traditional Gujarati style. We purchase tickets to Surendranagar, confirming from the ticket issuer that the “Bandra special” is real and will run today. There is a small issue though- this train does not go to Surendranagar main station, instead it stops at a small station in the suburbs of the town called Joravarnagar and bifurcates from there. Not a problem, if it saves us two hours of waiting here, we will get off at Joravarnagar and hopefully there will be rickshaws to take us to Surendranagar from there. The sun has set, there are hundreds of parrots living on the trees at the station who are creating quite a racket. About fifteen minutes past its scheduled time, the Bhavnagar-Bandra Holiday Special arrives, its general unreserved coaches fairly empty. We find good seats, and in a rare turn of events, nobody is really keen on sitting at the window seat since it has gotten dark and the fast  running train’s cold wind hitting you is no fun.


The station building at Dhola Junction, reminding of its Bhavnagar State Railway roots

The holiday special gets pretty good priority on this section and it drops us at Joravarnagar right on scheduled time. The station itself is tiny- one platform and a small building, but thankfully there are about a dozen autorickshaws waiting outside, all their drivers come rushing at us to get our business. We cannot get an auto rickshaw all to ourselves for three people, we have to share it with as many as can fit in. I end up sitting next to the driver in the front, holding on for my dear life as we made our way at crazy speeds through dark roads and narrow lanes to eventually reach Surendranagar station, in one piece thankfully.

We had taken for granted that the main railway station of a major town like this one would have dining options nearby, but boy we were wrong! The station sits by itself in one obscure corner of the town, with nothing nearby. The station itself has just one refreshment room which looks quite sketchy so we give it a pass. Well, we will have to go back into the town then, but where? I figure the best person to ask would be the railway police men busy gossiping. One of them suggests- “there is one nice restaurant opposite Milan cinema. I don’t remember its name, but if you go there and look its right there”. Not knowing anything better ourselves, we decide to go on this hint, hailing an autorickshaw to take us to Milan cinema, wherever that is. I have taken a bunch of crazy rickshaw rides in the last two days, but nothing even comes close to this one. This guy would give Fast and Furious a run for its money, the entire journey I spend thinking if I am going to die any moment now.  He drops us at Milan cinema, and everything around it is already closed for the night. I am almost regretting the decision to come here, but then I spot a brightly lit sign for a restaurant in a small bylane. We walk up there, open the door, and whoa! It looks like this is the sole restaurant in the town and the entire town is out here to have a weekend dinner. The cop was right, the food is really good, although very expensive by small town standards, and another rapid fire rickshaw ride brings us back to the station.


Desolate midnight at Surendranagar Junction

Since we shaved off two hours of waiting at Dhola, it means now we have two more hours of waiting here than originally planned. The station is extremely boring and quiet, we find the waiting room that has good chairs and is completely empty, except the dozens of mosquitoes making their way in and out. Our train to Ahmedabad arrives at ungodly time of 1.30am, and it is only 10pm now, so the next three hours or so are spent uncomfortably sleeping in the waiting room chairs. We head out to our assigned platform at around 1am. The station is desolately calm, but soon a local passenger train arrives on the next platform, and it has an hour long halt at Surendranagar, so we will have company until our train arrives. Its 1.30am, but no signs of the train. No announcements either. But fifteen minutes later, quietly, the Somnath Express to Ahmedabad pulls in. We find our coach, everyone is asleep inside with all lights off. We get in and realize our assigned berths have been taken over by unreserved passengers to sleep. We immediately get to waking them up, they don’t realize what suddenly happened, so I switch on all lights in the bay, in the process waking up other passengers too. Five minutes of ruckus later, they get off and give us our reserved berths, and in the process probably half the coach will now be hating us for disturbing their sleep at this odd hour!

This time, luckily I have an upper berth, so no more unwanted wind draft freezing me. I manage to get a couple hours of sleep before we pull in right on time into Ahmedabad at 03.55am. An hour later, a bid adieu to Abhishek and Kaushik as they take the Karnavati Express to Vadodara, while I wait another hour to board the AC Double Decker Express towards Mumbai. Once again, like the Shatabdi previously, this train too runs to clockwork precision, and gives a fast and eventless ride back home, not anywhere as interesting as the slow train through Saurashtra.

Slow Train Through Saurashtra – Part 1

The inspiration for this trip came from this excellent travelogue written by Mohan Bhuyan back in 2006, and hence the almost similar title. One of my major gripes has been that in spite of being a Gujarati, I had never gone beyond Ahmedabad into the depths of Gujarat, and this trip is an attempt to fill that void. After weeks of scheduling and rescheduling, the final itinerary involves traveling 1,721 km hopping between 10 different trains all within a period of 48 hours. This is the route I take on this journey through Saurashtra.


The route map. Meter Gauge lines are marked in red.

This is Part 1 of a two part series.


It is said the journey of a thousand miles starts begins with a single step, and for me it starts stepping carefully through Borivali station that is already crowded with office going crowd at 6.30am. I reach the platform where the Shatabdi Express to Ahmedabad is scheduled to arrive in fifteen minutes, but it is currently occupied by Gujarat Express, also bound for Ahmedabad, but which we will overtake halfway and reach almost two hours earlier. As soon it departs, someone pulls the emergency chain and the train comes to an abrupt stop. Now starts the scramble to locate the on-duty staff who has to reset the mechanism inside the train for it to depart again. Repeated announcements over the PA system yield no results, the person in-charge has probably still not woken up. Fifteen minutes later luckily someone is found to do the task and the train finally departs, making space for my train.


Last minute sprint to catch the train. Not for me though.

The Shatabdi Express was waiting for the track to clear up, it arrives immediately and departs after a brief 2 minute stop to pick up hordes of passengers. The train is packed- every single seat taken, thankfully I have a trackside window seat. The run up to Vadodara is eventless. The German design LHB AC Chair Car coaches of the Shatabdi are clean, comfortable and quiet. The Western Railway mainline from Mumbai to Vadodara works with clockwork precision and the high priority given to Shatabdi Express means we maintain our schedule up to the minute throughout the journey. The only thing noteworthy is that the catering menu has changed since I last traveled four years ago. The morning breakfast now has upma, two idlis with a small side of sambar, and two slices of bread with butter, quite a change from the ubiquitous veg cutlets that have been staple of railway catering since times immemorial. A bigger change though is the post-breakfast drink that used to be packaged mango juice has now been replaced with flavored milk. I drank the whole bottle, soon regretting the decision as my partially lactose intolerant tummy starts complaining and I have to spend the next two hours in mild irritation.


Meals onboard the Ahmedabad Shatabdi – Breakfast, Lunch, Milk

At Vadodara, Kaushik, one of my partners-in-crime for this trip joins me. Lunch is served, again pleasantly surprised with the change in menu. The last time I had this lunch, the Paneer Whatever dish was exactly two pieces of paneer in a tasteless watery gravy. This time we get Palak Paneer with liberal amount of paneer and the gravy actually has a taste. The dal, rice and roti are quite edible too, and to wrap up there is vanilla ice cream, can’t go wrong with that one. Meanwhile, the run from Vadodara to Ahmedabad is agonizingly slow for unknown reasons, but thanks to a liberal schedule, we still manage to reach Ahmedabad ten minutes before scheduled arrival time at 1.00pm.


The German LHB design Shatabdi coaches are some of the best in India

While wondering what to do in the couple of hours we have to spare before we start the journey into interior Gujarat, we realize a Meter Gauge passenger to Mehsana departs Ahmedabad at 1.50pm. For those unaware, some flashback- there was a time many decades ago in British-ruled India when thousands of kilometers of railways in the country ran on tracks (and as a result, coaches) narrower than what we see around today. It is said that this gauge was chosen by Lord Mayo (then Viceroy of India) based on calculations to allow 4 persons to sit comfortably abreast. However, in the 1990s Indian Railways came up with Project Unigauge to get rid of all Meter Gauge (MG) lines and convert everything to Broad Gauge. As a result, very few Meter Gauge routes remain today, mostly in rural areas, and they too are disappearing fast. So, I do not let go any opportunity that comes my way to ride these Meter Gauge trains wherever possible before they all ride into the sunset. Anyway, back in Ahmedabad, quick decision is taken to hop on to this MG passenger for a short joyride to Sabarmati, one station away. I run to the ticket window and ask for two tickets to Sabarmati by chhoti gaadi (“small train” as the MG trains are colloquially called these days). The ticket vendor gives the tickets with a surprised look- Sabarmati is just a hop across the river from Ahmedabad and there are many ways to travel there, this one easily being the most inefficient.


Ahmedabad bound Meter Gauge train at Sabarmati

Back to the platform, the MG Passenger has filled up, all good seats taken. Anyway I am in no mood to pick a seat for a 5km journey, so decide to sit at one of the empty open doors. What was supposed to be a quick hop turns into an ordeal as we are stopped just outside Ahmedabad station to let another train pass, and then after crossing the Sabarmati bridge, stopped again for no apparent reason. Fed up, and with the station in plain sight a few hundred meters away, we decide to hop off the train, walk the remaining distance to Sabarmati and take a rickshaw to Gandhigram, our next destination. The rickshaw driver looks like practicing for Formula One, racing through the traffic and deposits us at Gandhigram station in fifteen minutes flat.

Our third member of the party- Abhishek joins us here. Our train to Veraval leaves only at 10pm, so its time to do another meter gauge joyride, the difference being, this one was pre-planned as a part of our itinerary. The meter gauge trains to Botad once used to run from the main station at Ahmedabad but the line through the heart of the city had 23 road crossings, so every passing train used to cause massive disruption to road traffic. To solve this problem, a few years ago MG operations were shifted to Gandhigram station at the fringe of the city. This has, however, not reduced the popularity of this route, and it remains one of the most well patronized Meter Gauge trains in the country today, used by thousands of commuters working in Ahmedabad and living in nearby towns and villages. We are at the ticket window, but with one small problem- we don’t know where are we going! Going all the way to Botad would not bring us back to Ahmedabad in time for our night train to Veraval, so we need to decide a random intermediate station from where we can get a connecting train back. Studying the timetable reveals two possible candidates- Moraiya or Bavla. We don’t know anything about either of these places, so I quickly check Google Maps on my cell phone and decide we will go to Bavla since it appears to be bigger of the two villages, so greater probability of finding an alternate transport back in case our connecting train never shows up.


Ahmedabad-Botad section still runs on old-school semaphore signals

The popularity of this route is evident as soon as we enter the platform. The 3.50pm passenger is brought in as 3.20pm and within a minute it fills up completely! And this is not a small train either- it is full 13 coaches long, which must be some kind of record for MG trains surviving today. Some swift use of skills developed during years of catching overcrowded Mumbai local trains results in us getting two window seats, including an Emergency Window with no obstructing rods on the windows. Soon all the seats around us are taken up, the crowd mostly being local villagers. The train departs dot on time at 3.50pm and the first few kilometers through extended suburbs of Ahmedabad are traveled with the horn blaring loudly continuously in an attempt to shoo away humans, two-wheelers and animals who carelessly wander onto the tracks.

As we slow down for the first scheduled halt at Sarkhej, Kaushik decides to whip out his camera to record the rise and fall in intensity of the incandescent bulb and the fan inside the coach, both of which are fed by battery that charges by a dynamo off the motion of the train, much to the amusement of our co-passengers. To add to the fun, Abhishek and I open up my trusted Great Indian Railway Atlas to study the route, making us look like a full-fledged research party out on some mission. After a couple of attempts to record the fan-light-intensity-change routine with little success, Kaushik decides to interview the co-passengers about the history of this route and if they have any anecdotes or memories about other Meter Gauge lines in the area that are now abandoned. Unfortunately he is hit by language barrier since the locals speak only Gujarati and Kaushik speaks Hindi. This is when I have to join in as the interpreter since I understand both languages- translating Kaushik’s Hindi questions and asking them to the locals in Gujarati and re-translating their Gujarati responses back to Hindi for Kaushik. This goes on for about ten minutes, ending with disappointing information that once upon a time there used to be a railway line going beyond Botad but nobody knows when why and how it was abandoned.


The ubiquitous Indian Railway fan and almost-extinct incandescent bulb lighting

At 4.40pm, we reach Bavla, a moderate sized station with one platform and three additional tracks. A surprising thing I notice is that the platform is super long, probably long enough to accommodate 20-25 coach trains, probably a hint to the past glory of this now skeletal network, when many long trains would be passing through here. Our returning train to Gandhigram is scheduled to arrive at 5.15pm, before that we need to purchase tickets. I was hoping this small station might still have the old style card tickets that pop out of a mechanical machine, but no such luck. Everything is computerized and we get the same boring printed tickets like any other station. The sole food stall at the station is boiling fresh hot chai. We decide to get a cuppa and are handed out the tiniest plastic cups I have ever seen, holding less quantity of chai than liquor shots! Cost cutting measures, we are told.


Solitary Tea Stol (Stall) at Bavla

It’s 5.15pm, but no sign of our train. No announcements about any delay either. 5.25pm, still no signs of the train, no announcements. I walk up to the station master’s office to enquire but am stopped by a signalman waiting outside. I ask him when the train is expected, and get a rather obscure reply- “Soon. It comes everyday, will come today too”. Things in these small towns are a lot laid back, unlike the city. Well, no option but to accept it. Wait and watch.


Bavla is one of the major stations along the line, seeing considerable crowd movement

Finally at 5.45pm, the semaphore signal drops and the station bell is rung, signaling the arrival of the train. Five minutes later, the train arrives, reasonably full but having few vacant seats here and there. I find a seat next to a young couple, most likely college students, and the next 30 minutes are spent silently observing what symbolizes India today- a society transitioning from conservative and traditional to liberal and modern. The guy and the girl are sitting as close to each other as possible to show their affection, but constantly making a conscious effort to make sure no part of their bodies physically touch each other, so to not ruffle any feathers among the elderly seated opposite them. Since it has gotten dark and I don’t have a window seat, I decide to pass time eavesdropping on their conversation. The guy is talking about how lazy he has become about cooking ever since he moved to a hostel and the girl is giving him easy-to-cook recipes and explaining the importance of eating healthy. The conversation then wanders between how a mutual friend from the village made it big in the city (Ahmedabad) and has purchased an apartment “costing Rs 50 lakh!” to one of the cows in the family back in the village having given birth to a calf and back to some discussion about merits of milk products when one statement by the guy catches my attention- “you know, in the European country of Bulgaria, they eat so much curd and yogurt and due to that the entire population stays healthy!” Where did this come from?!! I am not going to go check the validity of the claim, but the sheer confidence with which he brought up this random piece of trivia completely blows my mind!

Meanwhile the train has made its way back to Gandhigram and its time to get off. I want to visit Manek Chowk for dinner, Ahmedabad’s street food heaven, but I am told we are too early for it since the street food stalls open for business only past 9pm and go on until 2-3am. Instead Abhishek who has lived in the city for a few years and knows the local places well decides to take us to Municipal Market where one can find incredible delicacies such as Chocolate Cheese Pineapple Grilled Sandwich that I risk to experiment. It turns out to be surprisingly good. This along with mango juice followed by traditional sweets has filled my stomach enough to last through the night. We quickly pack up some snacks for the journeys ahead and another Michael Schumacher-wannabe rickshaw driver deposits us back to “Kalupur” station (that’s what the locals call Ahmedabad’s main railway station) to continue our journey further into Saurashtra.


Chocolate Cheese Pineapple Grilled Sandwich, an Ahmedabad specialty

To be continued in Part 2

In The Footsteps Of The Imperial Mail

It is a fine summer day in 1927. A Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company’s ship has just arrived at Ballard Pier in Bombay with passengers from England. They alight and ride a horse-drawn buggy to Victoria Terminus, a short distance away, where a cream and brown train of The Great Indian Peninsular Railway with a mighty maroon steam locomotive is ready to take its passengers on a 36 hour journey across the country to Calcutta. This is no ordinary train and these are no ordinary passengers. Each of them has paid eight times the standard rail fare to travel on this train complete with a fine dining restaurant and bedroom suites with individual bathrooms. This is the most luxurious train in the world of its times. This is The Imperial Indian Mail.

Cut to winter of 2012. The British have long disappeared from India. A much shorter and faster route from Mumbai to Kolkata cutting across the central plains has opened long back and almost all trains between the two metros now use that route. The most prestigious train between the two cities is now the newly started non-stop Duronto Express. The luxurious Imperial Indian Mail is long gone but as its last reminder, there still exists a train, nowhere as luxurious as its predecessor, which takes the long circuitous route from Kolkata to Mumbai as it originally existed during the British Raj, taking 37 hours to complete the 2177 km journey passing through six states, stopping at 48 stations along the way, and that’s the train I was going to board- train number 12321 Howrah-Mumbai Mail via Allahabad.

Howrah Mail Route Map

The Imperial Mail route

I arrived at the sprawling Howrah railway station around 20.00 with two friends- RR and VI who were also traveling by the same train but in different coach than me, a little too early for the scheduled 22.00 departure of the Mumbai Mail and one look at the indicator display board confused me. It was showing “12321 Mumbai Mail Dep 01:00 PF 00” At first we ignored it, thinking the indicator might be malfunctioning but a visit to the Enquiry counter revealed what I had feared. The train was indeed scheduled to depart three hours late, and considering we were at the station two hours early, this meant a long five hour wait! Now,Howrahis one humungous station with 23 platforms and hundreds of trains departing throughout the day, so it is always buzzing with activity, but still, five hours is a long time to wait for the journey to start. We found the air-conditioned waiting room on the second floor of the main station building with a giant terrace overlooking the majestic Howrah Bridge, which was good to kill an hour or so.

Howrah Bridge at Night

Yet another friend CG was going to take the Mumbai bound Jnaneshwari Express departing at 23.00 (but reaching seven hours before I reach owing to its routing via the conventional shorter route) so once he arrived at the station, we headed to the big cafeteria in the concourse to grab dinner. Chaos ruled the place. It has a huge variety of food items displayed on the menu but on enquiry it was revealed that only dinner thali and biryani would be available, and for that too one would have to stand in a serpentine queue to first get a coupon and another one to get the actual food. Thankfully a Monginis outlet within the cafeteria serving mini veg pizza and spring rolls came to our rescue.

It was past 22.00 by the time we got our tummy full. CG’s train was to depart from Platform 21 in the so-called New Complex which is an extension of the originalHowrahstation built by the British and lies a long walk away from the main concourse. Having plenty time to kill, we walked all the way to see of CG, our luggage in tow, and back to the main concourse once his train had departed. Now it was time to wait for any announcement for our train. A large part of concourse floor was by now filled with poor passengers taking trains next morning but having no other place to spend the night. Once the last scheduled departure for the night was gone around midnight, the cleaning crews came out for their duty, while we waited, still clueless about the train’s departure time or platform. By 00.30 passengers started getting restless and some of them, including yours truly, started wandering around anxiously. Someone mentioned that the train always departs from Platform 9, and sure enough I saw enormous quantities of parcels and luggage being brought at the end of that platform to load into the Parcel Vans at the end of the train, so we decided to wait there, in anticipation.

At 01.00, the supposed-to-be departure time, an announcement was made in true Indian Railways’ ambiguous style “Mumbai Mail will depart from Platform 9 shortly”. No mention when it will arrive, no mention when it will depart. “Shortly” is all we need to know. By now we had figured out that the incoming train had arrived at 16.45, six hours late, and around 18.00 it had gone for primary maintenance, which takes about seven to eight hours. This means, even if the yard staff worked real hard, the train might be just about getting ready for its journey. In the next half hour, the same announcement as earlier was made about ten times. Still “arriving shortly”. Still no time of departure given. Finally around 01.35 the train was shunted back into the platform and the impatient crowd took no time to board the train. I had a AC 2 tier seat in a composite First AC + AC 2 Tier coach, numbered HA-1. RR and VI had AC 3 tier seats in B-2, two coaches away from me. My coach was a 1997 make vintage which had probably not undergone any overhaul ever since. Since I had booked my favorite Side Lower berth, I would have two windows to myself, out of which one was discolored and dirty. Thankfully the other window was relatively better off. Since this was such an old coach, there were no plug points, so I had to run to RR and VI to grab an empty power outlet in their coach to charge my dying cellphone overnight, before heading back to my seat, making the “bed” and lying down to sleep even before the train can depart. In my semi-sleep state I noticed we pulling out ofHowrahat 01.55am, almost four hours behind schedule.

I had a comfortable night’s sleep thanks to nice thick blankets and a good soft pillow provided and when I woke up we were at what is today probably the weirdest named station in India- Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Gomoh Junction. It was called a decent “Gomoh Junction” named after the town but then a certain influential politician decided to append the freedom fighter’s name to the station while keeping the town’s name intact too. One of the best parts about travel on Indian Railways is the feeling of waking up in a completely unknown place and finding a chai vendor to start off the day.


A quick look at my copy of The Great Indian Railway Atlas revealed the delayed departure was going to be a blessing in disguise for me- instead of crossing it in darkness, the run through Gurpa-Gujhandi ghat (mountain pass) section would now be in soft morning light, so while all other passengers in the coach were still fast asleep, I opened the door and stood braving the cold winter morning wind blowing into my face. Soon the coach attendant came and asked “Kya janaab! Yahaan bahar kyun jhool rahe ho?” (Young man, why are you swinging at the door here?) I told him my desire to photograph the scenic run and that convinced him. He just smiled and went away.

Gurpa Gujhandi Ghat

A look inside the coach revealed all other passengers still fast asleep, curtains drawn, so I walked across two coaches to B-2 where RR and VI were already out at the door, occupying the coach attendant’s seat, and I joined them. A vendor from the Pantry car selling breakfast was stopped in his path and we ordered (and ate) our breakfast sitting at the coach attendant’s fold-down berth next to the door (and that means, next to the toilets too!). Others would cringe at this idea, but for us, it was fun, to have breakfast enjoying the cold morning breeze and the run through ruralBiharinto Uttar Pradesh awaiting the next major halt- Gaya Jn. At Gaya, an elderly Buddhist lady alighted from our coach, probably heading to Bodh Gaya where Gautam Buddha attained nirvana, and as soon as she was seen on the platform, a frail and elderly porter (coolie) walked up to her and to our surprise, asked in English “Where you go? Any more luggage inside?” Yes,IndiaShining!

The run after Gaya was smooth and the coach attendant had by now resigned to the fact that these three crazy guys are not going anywhere and made himself comfortable some other place, leaving the door and his fold-down berth for our use. An hour later, we slowed down for the long crawl across the Upper Sone bridge at Dehri-on-Sone. This 3.2 km long bridge, built in 1900 was the longest railway bridge inIndiafor 110 years before the bridge toKochi’s International Container Terminal took over the crown. Even today, the Upper Sone bridge is the longest bridge one can cross as a passenger in a train inIndia, since the other bridge is for freight trains only. The section from Dehri-on-Sone to Mughal Sarai is triple tracked and we had a good run since the slow freight trains were happy to be on their own different track. I peeped into my coach once and in spite of it being close to noon, even now everyone else was sleeping or lying down with all curtains closed. Don’t these people ever feel claustrophobic? So I decided to head back to the door and awaited the sight I badly wanted to see, one of the prime reasons why I took this train- the run through the gigantic Mughal Sarai yard that seems to go on and on for several kilometers. It is said to be the largest railway yard inAsia, and after looking at its expanse, I don’t doubt this claim.

Mughal Sarai, for those who don’t know, is the major railhead for the city of Varanasi, located a few kilometers away on the opposite bank of the Ganga; the famous Dufferin bridge (rechristened Malviya bridge now) that has formed the backdrop for several photos and movies shot in Varanasi connects the two towns. I was hoping to find some delicious authentic food to grab for lunch here but being at the 21st coach of the train put us way too back from all the food stalls, so I had to settle for the drab and boring lunch provided by the Pantry car. Post lunch I was feeling drowsy so I finally made some good use of the quiet environs of my coach to catch some sleep once we were out of Mughal Sarai, still maintaining the four hour delay we had started off with. At one point I woke up, saw we were crossing Mirzapur, and slept off again. When I woke up we were stationary in the middle of nowhere. A little enquiry revealed we were few kilometers out ofAllahabad and it was 4.30pm, which means the section controllers royally screwed up the once-prestigious Mail’s run between Mughal Sarai and here, adding almost two hours of delay in less than 150 km. Damn!

A couple of more unscheduled halts, a slow crawl over the kilometer long rail-cum-road double decker bridge over the Yamuna and a short parallel race with a freight train later, we pulled in to Allahabad at 17.15, a little over six hours behind schedule. To add to it, I spotted a sparkling new WDP-4B class EMD diesel locomotive standing ready for duty, spoiling my mood further. How? One of the prime reasons I wanted to take the Mail was because it used to be hauled by a pair of classic Alco WDM class diesel locomotives between Allahabad and Itarsi but off late they had instead started assigning it a single “modern” EMD diesel locomotive. I did not like this for two reasons- one, this “upgrade” was actually a downgrade for the Mail, reducing the total hauling power available from 6200hp (2x3100hp) to 4500hp, and two, I get to see truckloads of similar EMD locomotives in the United States, the fun of Indian train journeys is behind classic chugging Alco locos. Anyways, as they say, change is the way of life. The Mail reverses its directions at Allahabad, so the diesel loco was attached behind the last coach (which now became the first coach), the electric loco was detached from the other end, crew changed, train watered and we were out at 17.45, still over six hours behind schedule.

Pulling out ofAllahabad, we crossed the same Yamuna bridge once more, diverted from the line we had just come from, and stopped on a curve at Naini Junction. This station is crossed twice by the Mail, once before going toAllahabadand once after leavingAllahabadbut it stops there only once. Darkness fell little after we left from Naini, so I could not see anything in the entire non-electrified section betweenAllahabadto Itarsi. It was dark but the three of us continued to stay near the open door in B-3. I decided to sit on a small staff seat near the door and my posterior accidentally touched a fire extinguisher cylinder sitting in the corner and activated it. We tried plugging it but it was too late. Within a minute the entire corridor between B-3 and A-1 was filled with foamy white smoke. I ran across the coach and woke up the attendant happily sleeping in his cabinet and informed him about the “accident” and opened all the doors which quickly allowed the smoke to disperse, but the incident left a thin white layer over the floor in the corridor, a tell-tale sign of what had just conspired!

The dinner provided by Pantry Car was again insipid and tasteless and I ended up throwing away half of it. I tried my luck to get something to eat at Shankargarh and Manikpur but both being small-ish stations and my coach now being third from the loco meant we were too far from the food stalls, so I just gave up and decided to sleep, but not before wondering how stark contrast this is from the Imperial Mail of the past that had a well-appointed restaurant car for onboard meals! This night I broke my personal record for longest uninterrupted sleep on a train and woke up directly after ten straight hours of sleep when we were just departing from Khandwa Jn. At around 07.00, means we had maintained our six hour delay through the night. My first instinct was to go to the door and check out who is hauling us now, since we would have had our second loco change at Itarsi sometime in the night, and as expected, an old workhorse WAM-4 from class electric from Itarsi shed was now effortlessly pulling the 24 coach load. Soon we came to an unscheduled stop at a wayside station and the lowly Chhapra-LTT Express overtook us, no respect for the Mail anymore!

We pulled into Bhusaval Jn around 09.30 and the long halt was used to pay a visit to the locomotive and stretch out. In the meantime I realized my cellphone had ran out of juice completely, so I went to RR and VI but the charging point near their seat was being used by other passengers. So now I had to start the treasure hunt in search of an elusive available plug-point! All points in all the AC coaches were occupied, so I walked further ahead into the non-AC section. The non-AC Sleeper coaches have two charging points at one end of the coach, near the door, if present at all. First coach, no plug-points. Next coach, two plug points, both empty, so I happily plug in the phone, but no response. Both were faulty! Walk further ahead. At the next coach finally I found working plug-point, and not just that, also an empty door next to it and enjoy the breeze! I was impressed at the near-absence of any unreserved/ticketless passengers in the non-AC Sleeper coaches. I stood at the door, cellphone in one hand, holding it upright in a way that the charging cable reaches upto the plug point mounted high up, upto Jalgaon and then decided enough of this exercise, back to the confines of AC coach.

The run from Jalgaon to Manmad was through familiar farmlands ofMaharashtraso I decided to join RR and VI inside their coach and indulge in what is also an important part of Indian Railways travels- small talk with fellow travelers about anything and everything. Instead of reaching at teatime, we reached Manmad at lunchtime and not wanting to experiment with Pantry food once more, I grabbed a veg sandwich and mango juice from the station. Since RR and VI were getting off atNasik Roadto take a bus to Pune, all three of us decided to spend the last hour together at the attendant’s berth outside. We pulled intoNasik Roadat 13.45 and RR and VI made their way out as soon as possible to catch their bus while I returned to my original berth, only to realize that my phone had not charged enough in the morning and I need a plug point again! This time luckily in the 3A coach I found one entire bay of six berths empty with a plug point so I decided to make full use of it upto Igatpuri. At Igatpuri it was time for the third loco change of the journey, now the good old WAM-4 giving way to an AC/DC dual power WCAM-3 class electric loco for the last leg into Mumbai.

The halt at Igatpuri was quite long and the passengers were getting impatient by now. I wanted to be at the door for the run through the mountains of Thull Ghat so I waited outside until everyone else had re-boarded. Soon after the train started the coach attendant came to the door, saw me there, I just looked at him and said “Photos”, he probably remembered something from 24 hours ago, smiled and let me stand at the door, even suggesting that there is a “nice bridge ahead”, which I obviously knew! After two fairly long mandatory brake-testing halts we were at Kasara at 15.40 and I told a curious co-passenger that we would be at Kalyan in an hour which he refused to believe. The loco pilot lived up to my expectation and we were at Kalyan’s outer signal at 16.45, but then had to wait fifteen minutes for a platform assignment. I had tickets upto Mumbai CST but I decided to end my journey at this distant suburb of Mumbai and use suburban transport for the remaining journey home, bidding farewell to the train that had been my home for 40 amazing hours.

My Coach