So, back to Indian Railways and the Surat trip. I didnt have a window seat while going, but I was lucky to get one on my return trip. One of the big differences over the years is that the same compartment which earlier used to seat 90 people now packs in 108. This means that the space per person has been reduced. So, one is a little cramped in the second-class compartment. Add to that the people who pile-on without a reservation even in the reserved compartment and it makes for quite a crowd.
Then, there are the various vendors! Newspapers, food, fruits, trinkets everything is available from vendors as they walk up and down the narrow aisle. Theres always a buzz of activity as something or the other is being sold by these micro-entrepreneurs. Even I was tempted I decided to drink the fresh, tasty, elaichi-special tea from the hawker who offered a dont pay if you dont like it guarantee! It cost Rs 5. Those who know me will be a little surprised I dont drink tea, coffee or any of the beverages, sticking instead to water, milk and juice. But here I was in a train and it was time to jettison some rules out of the window! Well, the tea was absolutely amazing. I burnt my tongue a little because it was so hot, but the taste lingered long.
The people in the train were a mixed crowd. Some seemed to be regulars. A few were probably first-timers I sensed that from the advice they were getting from their family at the station. A motley crowd, quintessentially Indian. This was the real India. Sitting in my air-conditioned office in Lower Parel in Mumbai and moving in eclectic tech circles, one kind-of loses touch with the world outside. Nothing like a train journey to bring India alive!
The sense I got as time passed that day is that trains are the lifeline of India. It should have been obvious and something I should not have forgotten, but my long hiatus from trains had made me forget about this. Trains connect places and lives. There is a huge economy which is built around trains. It may be easy to get misled by the low-cost airlines that some people travelling by train have started flying. The reality is that for most of India, trains are the only connectors. There are no flights between Mumbai and Surat. The road journey would have taken too long. The train was the only practical option.
Perhaps the best thing to have happened with train travel in recent times is the online reservation capability. I did all my pre-travel look-ups on the Indian Railways website. I didnt book online because I had only a couple days before I did the travel and it takes a little longer to get the tickets couriered. It is probably not too long before the Railways introduce e-tickets, or probably m-tickets in the Indian context where the info is SMSed to the traveller. The site itself could be made a lot more user-friendly, but is probably already one of the biggest innovations in making travel easier in India.
Tomorrow: The Institution
TECH TALK Trains, Planes and Mobiles+T