First of all, my favourite train between Goa and Delhi is the Sampark Kranti Express, the 12449/12450. However, as it has now been extended to start from and terminate at Chandigarh, the algorithms for reservations, especially in First AC, are skewed to favour passengers boarding at Chandigarh which, in turn, keeps the waiting list pending till four hours before the departure of the train from Chandigarh.
This is a game with all trains in India, the four-hour window when all 'quotas' are released, but it is worse in 1AC because allotment of lower berths is kept pending for these 'quotas', which are the bane of our passenger reservation system.
In addition, the 12449/12450 also operates only twice a week, which did not fit in with our travel plans this time. So, perforce, we booked ourselves on the costlier Trivandrum Rajdhani, the 12432, which appears to have not-so-good reviews online for catering and other services. One reason for this is that the same catering and support crew work non-stop on this train for a journey that is over 3,000 kilometres and almost 48 hours long. The other big reason is that this train appears to be over-staffed, with the usual passing the buck going on, and the NO FOOD option available on many other trains is not available here.
Why, for example, the catering staff cannot distribute and collect bedrolls is a valid question. But simple solutions fall afoul of an assortment of vertical silos and horizontal frictions with Indian Railways.
Into all this, then, is lobbed our favourite, IRCTC, Indian Railways Catering & Tourism Corporation who, it must be said, do a great job in many other aspects—as long as one doesn't depend on them for catering on the Rajdhani and Shatabdi class of trains. Some sort of weird legacy is at work here. Which, in turn, makes IRCTC treat passengers who are known as 'the public' as captive prisoners. But I get ahead of my story.
We reached Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station with about 30 minutes to spare for departure time and, for a change, there was no big traffic mess at the entry.
There was, as usual, the old parking scam at this railway station of trying to force cars and cabs into the parking lot, to exit from which one has to shell out Rs50.
Once we got around that, we disembarked at our favourite spot, near the Platform 1 entry from where the un-sign-posted elevator can be reached.
Why are elevators not sign-posted at many railway stations? So that you look at the formidable steps and seek assistance for which there is a substantial fee. To be fair, the railway station area was very clean, though our platform number 4 and 5 was under repairs with all sorts of construction material lying around, obviously not barricaded or sign posted.
What really intrigued me was the substantial fee demanded this time from me—a mind-boggling Rs850. For one mid-sized suitcase and two trolleys. I once again blame my brightly coloured socks for this; they were bright pink this time, and so we happily rolled our bags to the coach ourselves. Till the asking rate dropped down to a more reasonable Rs200 to our coach.
First AC on the Trivandrum Rajdhani is at the tail of the train when leaving North India. We departed dot on time at 10.55. And then picked up speed. And that's when the coupler fun started. I've encountered the sharp retort type LHB coupler issue many times on Indian Railways; but this was a totally different ball game, with both frequency and amplitude suggesting something totally amiss. The Nizamuddin to Kota non-stop section is a high-speed one demanding an average speed of 104kmph (kilometres per hour) so the train is often travelling at maximum speeds approaching 115-120kmph, and that's when the jerks really make life uncomfortable. It became better on the slower Kota to Vadodara section with an average speed of 77kmph, and with diesels on the much slower Vadodara to Madgaon section, the coupler jerks were almost absent—which could also have to do with the visible lack of maintenance on this rake.
Primary maintenance of most Rajdhani Express rakes is done in and around Delhi, and vests with Northern Railway, which appears to be over-worked. The Trivandrum Rajdhani has a rake sharing arrangement with the Secunderabad, Madgaon and Chennai Rajdhanis, and, as a result, unlike the dedicated rakes for Mumbai and Kolkata, appears to be nobody's baby. The Mumbai Rajdhani rakes, for example, operate only between Mumbai and Delhi, and primary maintenance is carried out in Mumbai, so there is obviously a lot of accountability.
Luckily, we carry a small cleaning kit with us when travelling, so cleaned the tables, berths, windows, crockery and cutlery provided on our own. The very good part for us was that we had four berths to ourselves all through—even though the train reservation had shown waiting list for over a month. And food on this train is not optional.
Which brings me to the worst part of the otherwise brilliant journey. From the time-table part, this train to the west coast of India from North India is ideal, though it could incorporate a few more stops en route in the catchment areas. But, for the rest, the catering crew onboard this train, who also form the largest and, therefore, dominant contingent on board, appear to have nil willingness to adhere to any forms of hygiene, sanitation, or safety.
You know what happens when one contingent is 20+ strong, and the rest are in 1s or 2s? Nobody takes on the fairly militant catering crew on these trains, least of all the variety of superintendents or managers onboard, and that's a simple fact. They run the train and everybody else keeps quiet. This extends to the way they treat passengers too. Aggression towards meek passengers is part of the course.
In this day and age, I video record such episodes and send it to safe accounts at home, and let them know I am doing this. Not meek.
I spotted -
# fire extinguishers removed from their securing points so that food trays could be stacked there.
# about 50% of the doors of the train blocked by food trays and garbage.
# used crockery and cutlery being washed in toilets and then dry-wiped with one cloth throughout the journey.
# plastic and other waste being collected and then vanishing in the middle of the night, probably thrown trackside.
# the less said about the excessive oil used in the all dishes, the better. All food tastes the same.
# attitude. Instead of trying to resolve matters, the two catering managers onboard just appear to give up.
# the less said about the conditions in the pantry car the better. I'm not expecting ship galley perfection but something should be clean?
We resolved the expected food issues by carrying our own, though our ticket price included about Rs500 charged for three meals and two teas over a 26-hour journey, menu for which is also getting repetitive and not representative of anything except the lowest bid. In addition, using the same IRCTC's online service, we ordered a brunch for ourselves at Ratnagiri station on day 2 from a co-op outlet, paid for it online whilst the train was rolling, and received some excellent kolim + 3 jawar bhakris and sambar + 3 idlis with a delicious curd-based chutney representative of the best of Maharashtrian Konkan cuisine. For all of Rs118 delivered to us—the delivery person almost missed the train and ran to hand it to the guard from whose coach I then collected it.
Thing is, not that Indian Railways cannot deliver good healthy food to passengers. Food on some trains is legendary, brilliant.
Thing is, that the attitude towards passengers especially of Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains where 'NO FOOD' is not an option is that we are 'the public' ( as in 'public toilet') as different from 'the Quota VVIPs/VIPs' (as in HO Quota etc). It took a few tweets for the size of the boiled eggs to become massive and decent crockery cutlery to arrive, while veg breakfast on offer changed from the usual triple fried cutlets to the brilliant upma-sheera transferred from the preceding 10,111 Konkan Kanya. (yes, I recognise the taste of the upma sheera from Ahuja Caterers on the 10111/10112 cum 10103/10104, and have my own sources too.)
All Rajdhani and Shatabdi Express and similar trains need to become NO FOOD optional trains as soon as possible. Delivery of hot freshly cooked meals onboard is very convenient and brings in a much needed healthier option that the tray of lowest bids served from the pantry/kitchen car. And, most of all, the attitude of the catering staff onboard, whether contractual or employed, will change. NO FOOD, from what I am told, is up to 30% on some trains and rising.