I love trains.

Amal Chatterjee
12 min readSep 3, 2017

I love trains

Source : Google photo of luxury train in India

Synopsis : The The era of Rudyard Kipling’s trains are vanishing under the onslaught of modern trains in India but something still remains that brings people together ,makes new friends and reconnect with the old ones.The blog explores the evolution of trains.

Once I was in Paris and had to reach the Gare de Lyon during the evening rush hours so found a taxi and asked the driver if he could take me to the station using some short cuts for which I promised him a good bonus above the fare. He smiled and said that he knew some short cuts and will get me to the gare and monsieur need not worry. You will surely catch your train.

The evening traffic in Paris is horrendous to say the least but my taxi man kept his promise and through many narrow roads and other back roads brought me to the station. But my ordeal was not over yet.

I had to retrieve my luggage from the kept luggage room and then find my platform so I ran to the concierge and said that please give me priority and get my luggage quickly because my train is about to leave. Wonder of wonders, he found my luggage and I then ran to find my platform no. 17 where the train was waiting. The light was green meaning the train could leave any minute but it was a night train and a couchette train meaning all the coaches had beds. I did not have a reservation on a train like this but I got on anyway hoping that the conductor will find a bed for me somehow.

Soon the train left the station and started to pick up speed on its way to Marseille. I waited patiently for the conductor who showed up and said that I had the wrong train because I did not have a bed reservation so I said that I had to take this train because tomorrow morning I must reach Marseille from where I must take the ship to Algiers. Please find me a bed somewhere s’il vous plait ? He smiled and said that he will see what he can do for me because he understood my situation. Soon he returned and said that a bed has been found for you monsieur so just pay additional 18 francs that I gladly paid. Knowing French helps a lot.

The trains in France are really nice. They not only have comfortable beds but they give you blankets and the coaches are heated. You are also given pillows that are sanitized and sealed in plastic. I was in the 7th heaven already and very comfortable. My co passenger was a girl from Nice so we chatted for many hours and then fell asleep only to be woken up at 4 am by the nice girl who shook me and said monsieur monsieur wake up please. Marseille is coming up. I have forgotten her name but she was a very nice person and she was from Nice.

I have travelled all over Italy by train where you can buy a 3000 km ticket at a discount during the summer and go wherever you want. No reservations were required but often the trains were crowded so I stood in one corner. Soon the Italians made room for me to sit down and said You are from India? Your first lady is Italian. I silently thanked that lady.

But my experience in train travel in India is most extensive. India has a very large network of railway lines and runs over 11000 trains daily carrying millions of passengers to all parts of the huge country. Only in India you will find the super deluxe trains that you cannot find in any other country. These super deluxe trains offer pure silk bed sheets on king size beds, personal servants, extensive bar and five star cuisines. You can sit in the lounge decorated with silk curtains and chandeliers. The floors are covered in plush carpets and no luxury is spared but it comes at a steep price so ordinary folks can’t afford them.

For the ordinary people there are the regular trains that have the first class and the second class with air-conditioned coaches and nice beds and nothing else. In many long distance trains they offer vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals at a modest cost that are very tasty and steaming hot. They take your order and either e mail the order to the station where they serve the food or call them by phone and give the order. You do not have to go to the dining coach because they bring food to your seat.

The Indian railway has gone through great transformation over the years that I now notice. Now you can book your journey from any point to any point through computerized reservation system so you don’t have to fight for a ticket at the ticket counter but in the old days it was not so.

Then it was more of an adventure to take the train. I had to often get to my seat through the windows because the doors were blocked by luggage or people leaving people no choice but to find other ways to get in. The passengers sitting near the window did not like it one bit and often pushed people out who were desperately trying to get in. I had to once get in this way that the lady passenger found very annoying but later she became my fan when I said that I was going to Delhi to catch my flight to the Philippines where I had a scholarship. It did not hurt that she and I had the same family name.

In those days of steam engines, the soot and the coal grits filled your hair and dirtied your clothes but it was fun just the same. You would meet all kinds of people who would take part in the conversation no matter what the topic and freely offered all sorts of advices. They shared food if they saw that you had no lunch pack or offered you a smoke. One conductor came to check our tickets and then sat down when people said that he smelled so good.

He pulled out of his pocket a vial of perfume of Lucknow and put a drop on anyone who wanted. This is the Indian train I still enjoy so much. You can meet someone and become a lifelong friend at the end of the long journey. I do not know how many romances blossom in trains but there must be many.

If you read Kim by Rudyard Kipling then you will get a real sense of what the train journeys in India were like and still are. The train journey there is never cut and dry but full of people who crack jokes, share stories with strangers, offer food and exchange ideas.

I have taken trains in France, Italy, Algeria, Hong Kong, Japan , the Philippines , Bulgaria and Australia. Each train ride was unique in its own way.

I will just mention how unique briefly in the following story. It was my train ride from Sophia to Istanbul which was quite an adventure. The train was not from Sophia but came from Warsaw passing through Sophia so I asked the help of a Polish gentleman to buy me a ticket as no one spoke English. It was a long journey through the night passing through dimly lit stations.

The trouble started at perhaps 4 am when some Turkish policemen asked me if I had a visa which I did not so they said that I should get off the train and go back to Sophia and get the visa. Somehow I convinced them that it was not a good idea so they should give me a visa. These crooked cops then asked me for twenty bucks which to me was excessive but I had no choice in the matter.

Now to make the matter worse they wanted Turkish liras which I did not have so I went back to my compartment and locked the door .They were not going to throw me off the train Gandhi style in the middle of nowhere so I ignored their banging the door. After some banging they went away.

Early in the morning another policeman came who looked nice so I told him that his companions were first class crooks who were bothering me for a twenty dollar visa. He said that the visa was only three dollars but I still had to pay in Liras. So I proposed to pay the fee at the airport in Istanbul because it all went to the treasury, right? He was convinced and stamped my passport.

Many years later we were in Sydney so we decided to take the train to Canberra for a change .It was a good ride but my Australian friend who took the same train a few days earlier had a bad luck because his train engine broke down just near the Canberra station. He was furious because they would not open the doors although he could see the station and offered to walk. Aussies can also be hard headed so the train had to wait until the engine could be started again somehow.

We joked that perhaps the engine ran out of gas but his humor took some time to come back. In India the trains are electric or diesel so it is unheard of that they break down like this but Australia was different. May be the driver forgot to fill up his tank.

In Japan it was the bullet train that I took from Tokyo to Kyoto that was super-fast and steady. A glass full of water on the window sill would not spill a single drop such was the technology used there. Outside scenery was just a blur.

But it was the Philippines train that was amusing at first when I could climb into the engine room with pack of beer in my hand and offer it to the surprised but overjoyed driver. You could never do that in any other country. I wanted to see the rails from the engine room with its powerful headlight so it was a unique experience.

Sadly the trains there have fallen into disrepair and one day derailed while we were going somewhere so that cut short my romance with the trains .We have never taken trains in the Philippines since. We were not hurt in that accident but I saw some bodies. Some thieves ran away with our luggage in the dark so it was bad. The poor condition of tracks overgrown with weeds, stations that are derelict and the trains in very shoddy condition make it one of the worst trains I have ever taken anywhere. It is no longer amusing.

So I return to India again where the trains are really nice and cheap way to travel anywhere. Now that the roads are being widened and new high ways are cris crossing the nation, more and more people are starting to take buses but train travel still remains the most popular mode of transportation.

The Indian railway stations are very unlike any you find in Europe or other countries. Here it is a very lively place where there are book stores that sell newspapers, books, magazines and many such things. There are food vendors, tea vendors, fruit vendors, vendors of handicraft and numerous things. It is crowded place but there is an order where everyone gets to his seat easily even if it looks chaotic.

There are colored televisions everywhere so the passengers can while away their time waiting for their trains watching popular shows or play with their hand held gadgets using the free wi fi.

By comparison the American train stations look empty and forlorn. Very few people get on or off a train so the platforms remain empty of people and vendors. Most people there prefer to drive or take buses but I was once able to send my luggage from California to Washington,D.C. by train. Not only it arrived on time, it was delivered to our office downtown by the railway staff.

In India you can bring your motorcycle or scooter to the station where they will load it into the luggage van of your train. You can transfer all your household things from one part of the country to another this way.

What is interesting in India is the offer of the Indian Railway to reserve an entire coach for you if you have 40 or more people travelling together and want to visit all the famous tourist places in the country. They will join your coach to the appropriate train at certain stations but your coach becomes your sleeping quarters during the entire trip thus saving you considerable hotel expenses.

There are high speed trains that many prefer who are afraid of flying and there are fast trains for long distance travel. If you want a really luxury train as I mentioned above then you can do so and visit the country for tourism .It is nothing less than a five star hotel on wheels where every whim of the passenger is catered to for a price.

Source : Google photo of a Luxury train in India showing the bar

Source : Google photo of inside the luxury train in India

Source : Google photo of a train in India

The future of train travel :

Source : Google photo of Japanese bullet train

I have taken the high speed train in Japan and know what it feels like travelling at 250 kms per hour. Many countries since then have developed high speed trains like in France it is the TGV and in Spain they have such trains as well. But the Chinese have made the most advance in the high speed train travel and have introduced Maglev trains and other trains that run at blazing speed.

Now India plans to build high speed trains in collaboration with Japan and the first such train will run between Delhi and Mumbai. Their effort to run such trains in collaboration of Spain did not get them very far so Japan is their choice for the transfer of technology.

In the USA there is a hyper loop train in the process of development by Elon Musk that will be the fastest in the world and will transport people from Los Angeles to San Francisco in just two hours but it will not be like a train as you and I know. It will be a metal tube inside of which there will pods that will carry people at super-fast speed in a friction less environment. The practical application is still many years from now but some serious research is going on right now.

The traditional railways are spreading all over the world in which both India and China are leaders. China is working on a rail link to Europe using the old Silk Road that will join land locked countries along that road to open up trade and commerce. Already trains are running on some sectors in that project.

Technically you will be able to travel in comfort from London to Beijing in the future passing through Istanbul, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and places like Samarkand and Bokhara or you will be able travel from London to Beijing passing through Moscow. Russia has extensive railway lines and modern trains.

These are exciting times for rail travel. Chinese are talking about cutting a tunnel under Mt. Everest to join Kathmandu with Lhasa with modern railway. They have built a rail link to Lhasa from Beijing already bringing fast development to Tibet. The Swiss and the Italians have literally made the Alps into Swiss cheese by cutting tunnels through it and making rail and road links.

Ethiopia now has a modern rail link to Djibouti and India is building a thousand mile long railway in Nigeria and will supply all the hardware and technology.

What I wish is that the people do not lose their soul in the process but maintain the social link that a train provides in India that Kipling wrote about so long ago. That is what makes trains so charming so I love trains.