I have been a train person for much of my life. Given a choice between traveling by road or rail, I usually prefer the latter. Of course, for longer distances, a flight remains the only option. Recently when I needed to travel to Surat at short notice, I took the road. There is no airport in Surat, which is about 300 kms from Mumbai. My previous journeys had been by train. I checked with my uncle who had recently travelled along the same route he said the road condition was very good and we should be able to do the journey in about four-and-a-half hours, provided we left early in the morning to avoid Mumbai traffic.
Road travel in India has not been a pleasant experience in the past. The condition of the roads made driving difficult. While we may term some of the roads as highways, they in no way conjure up the images of the freeways one sees in the US or Europe. Most highways are one lane in each direction, making overtaking slow-moving traffic a somewhat risky proposition. There is a lot of truck traffic on the roads, so one has to be very careful while driving. Stopping en route at restaurants or petrol pumps means suffering smelly and unclean toilets. And then add to that the time unpredictability because of traffic conditions. The flexibility of using the car is all but taken away by the other elements en route.
Compared to all of this, trains are predictable and comfortable. The only problem is getting confirmed tickets at short notice, but even that is starting to change with online and mobile booking options. In the past few years, train travel has also improved forced in part by the proliferation of low-cost airlines offering tickets at throwaway prices.
My long-distance road journeys have been limited to travelling to Pune, a distance of about 180 kms. That journey has become a very pleasant experience because of the six-land pride of India expressway that has been constructed. A journey of four or more hours earlier can now be done in less than three hours. The problem remains the city traffic.
So, when I decided to take the road to go to Surat, there was some trepidation. There was no expressway yet to Surat. My driver has limited experience driving outside the city limits. But we had little choice there wasnt enough time to get confirmed train tickets. We (my wife, Bhavana, along with our year-old-son, Abhishek) decided to take the car. I am always game for some interesting adventures every once in a while!
As it turns out, I travelled to Surat twice in the past month by car. The second time I had a choice and I preferred to take the car. It is what I saw in my first trip reinforced the second time around that this Tech Talk is about. Indian roads are changing, and with them, they are starting to change the way we travel.
Tomorrow: Cars and Choice