There were pressing reasons why I travelled on what my batch-mates, who received a continuous flow of videos and photographs from me, called Bharat Darshan by rail.
Almost a year-and-a-half at home without travel and a near-death experience in April 2021 with the dreaded COVID, which impacted me physically and mentally, as well as an intense desire to start writing again, led to this journey. So here I am, trying to find my mojo again – for me, it returns only with travel.
Over the month of August 2021, fully compliant with the existing COVID advisories and precautions, I decided to roll on steel wheels using 2AC options on all three sectors of my journey. I had already lost too many friends and family in the past few years, and wanted to ensure that I touched base with those who were still around, while we are still alive.
Delhi - Bengaluru - Goa described my triangle. It will not be an exaggeration to say that I am at my happiest when in some form of a vehicle, with a reasonable plan in place, some music, a camera, random local food and, if possible, decent company.
As things turned out, AC-2T on all three trains was at about 20% occupancy and I was mostly on my own except for the overnight leg from Secunderabad to Bengaluru. On that stretch, I had the company of an elderly Punjabi-origin gentleman from the taxation line, settled in coastal Andhra for three generations, living in Secunderabad, and heading out to work in Bengaluru. He kept me enthralled till late at night with historical facts on this part of India.
The other co-traveller was a Bihari youngster from the database part of the infotech industry, who was fed up of working from home in Delhi and was heading to Bengaluru to join the bio-technology industry with a bit of pay cut.
He wanted to move to a domain that interested him as much as the love interest he was hoping to revive.
On the Bengaluru to Goa leg, I travelled with my wife, in an almost empty coach once again. And on Goa to Delhi again, I was solo all the way, except for a young lady ex-Kota, who slept all through.
Coming back to trains and railway lines, I prefer berths near doors so that I can rush out to grab a shot if needed and feel the train thundering on the rails under me. Delhi to Bengaluru was electric all the way, Bengaluru to Goa was diesel with triple bankers downhill to the coast, and Goa to Delhi was part diesel till Vadodara and electric again thereafter.
The pace of track doubling on the Bengaluru to Hubbali stretch en-route to Goa was so impressive that our train did the nine-hour sector (a time set when the track was still single), in just seven hours.
On the rest of the sectors too, the sheer speed of track doubling, tripling or quadrupling, as well as electrification, renewal of infrastructure like old bridges, is as visible to the keen observer as is the work done on cleaning up and maintaining railway premises and passenger rolling stock.
Nothing much can be done about toilet usage habits, though every effort is being made, and the internal fittings in passenger coaches whether Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) or traditional Integral Coach Factory (ICF) ones continue to display the problem in government contracts.
The LHB coaches are lighter in weight, have higher carrying capacity, higher speed potential, increased codal life and better safety features as compared to (ICF) design coaches. Indian Railways will replace conventional ICF design coaches to LHB coaches (source-Wiki).
Likewise, privatisation of services also shows up in the form of low-calibre staff, at wages which are, at best, pittances.
The direct freight corridor is like a silent partner to the existing network. We saw hardly any container trains on our route, so presumably they do not use the existing network as much as they did.
What I noticed was the huge increase in longer cargo trains with multiple engines in front and in the middle, thus improving path utilisation by multiples. Locomotives themselves appear to have gone into brighter colour schemes and there is some fantastic railway engine art waiting to be captured.
Passenger coaches are also spotted in a variety of colour combinations and designs, which also includes the humble passenger trains—all shades of the palette. Total freedom, it seems, has been extended to the railway station staff as far as reflecting the best of local culture and arts at railway stations is concerned. I cannot think of one out of the many brightly lit small stations that we pelted through, which failed to reveal a sudden riot of bright colours before the train would get captured by the darkness of the Bharat shooting past.
I repeated this observation made famous by the later farmer leader Sharad Joshi that we are really two countries rolled in one. One is India, which is Mumbai, Delhi and their environs and a couple of others who are catching up. The other is the rest of Bharat (or Al-Hind, take your pick). The only two locations on this complete trip where filth still captured the environs of the stations were in and around Mumbai and Delhi. In addition, walls taken over by slogans or offering cures for myriad ailments including impotence, were also abundant near these two cities.
Back onboard trains—two issues which passengers faced—quality of food on board and the linen provided have found simple and expedient solutions. The first, by enabling more options for online booking of meals delivered to the seat at way-point stations and the second, by totally doing away with linen (as well as curtains and carpets).
Ordering food is extremely simple—you have to key in your PNR on the IRCTC website to get a list of options at all stations en route or order on phone—and it works. I used this option on two sectors and was happy with the results (see photos).
On linen, carry your own basics, or pick up packed sets that are available for a moderate price outside all railway stations.
There are no crowds at the railway stations today. There are no issues with reservations. AC-2T is now the preferred class for me instead of 1AC (because that category is full of free riders).
The problem of VIPs remains, and stories of unreasonable demands pour forth—the non-vegetarian VIP always seems to want mutton curry whilst the vegetarian VIP typically brings his own food, is something new that I learnt!
The big takeaway for me from this trip was the possibly beneficial impact that climate change will have on a monsoon dependent country like India.
Based on inputs from various sources, especially maritime, the current line of thought, I gather, is this—with the possible exception of the Gangetic Riverine system, and maybe the Brahmaputra if the Chinese have their way, the rest of India is looking at becoming a water surplus territory. With the west flowing Narmada and Tapti, the eastbound Godavari, Krishna and Tungabhadra, and the fast-flowing westbound rivers pelting out of the Western Ghats—all that is needed is some sort of linkage via the Chambal and the Betwa to the Jamuna—and then some relief to the fertile Gangetic plains as well as an efficient water distribution and preservation system.
As we glide over bridges, one can already observe a huge increase in the quality and quantity of country boats on our rivers—different types for different purposes.
There is also more sustainable mixed use agriculture all through these routes. This is easiest to spot if you travel by Western Railway, doing the Bharatpur to Godhra stretch by day, and try to understand the changes that have already happened in what used to be yellow and brown desert all through the year just about 20-30 years ago.
Apart from agriculture stretching out in all directions amidst the colours that the local people wear, is the sensible bio-diversity approach to farming here, with no two adjacent plots of land showing the same crops. In addition, every now and then, pisciculture tanks as well as floriculture abound. The new big railway station with much more traffic on it now is, by the way, the aptly named Meghnagar. Look it up.
If you want to feel positive after a long pandemic-caused hiatus, I can only say this—catch the train, keep your eyes and mind open. Sure, right now it's mostly the long-distance trains—but what's to stop you, if in Mumbai, from booking a seat in the Vista Dome coach of the Mumbai-Goa Jan Shatabdi or Deccan Express Special towards Pune? Best seats, all India.
(Veeresh Malik is an activist from Delhi, who continues to explore several things in life.)