India 2008: Riding the Rails

It would be unfair to say that when I ride on India’s railways I put my life in their hands. It would be fair to say that I put my time in their hands. I never know when I’ll get to my destination, but I know I will eventually. This is the miracle of Indian trains, which travel, sometimes for more than a thousand miles, through a land that has been described as “functioning anarchy.”

For passengers the anarchy starts at the station. I always advise hiring one of the red-shirted porters milling around the entrance. With baggage perched precariously on his head and festooning his shoulders, the porter will guide you through the stygian gloom of an ill-lit station. He’ll keep at bay beggars and shoeshine boys who soil your footwear and then suggest you clean it. The porter also ensures you’ll reach the place on the platform where your coach will stop when the train eventually arrives. As Indian trains can be more than a third of a mile long, that is rather important.

While waiting, travelers are reminded that they have lost control of their time by broadcasts of the dismal litany of delays, punctuated by the meaningless “Inconvenience is regretted.” Everyone in India has a story about being pleasantly surprised by the timely arrival of a train, only to be told that it is yesterday’s train running 24 hours late.

Once you’re under way, unscheduled halts are common and can be inordinately long. Frustration is heightened by the difficulty in finding out what is wrong. There are no official announcements, so rumors abound. A few years ago, when my train stopped between Agra and Jhansi, in central India, I was told we’d halted because the line had been punctured, which turned out to mean a rail had cracked. Some trains make such long stops that they are actually described as lost.

The railways are run by the government, and there’s nothing Indian bureaucrats like more than complication. There are a bewildering number of classes of carriages and types of trains, from the very slow Passenger at the bottom to the Super-Fast at the top. By today’s standards “super-fast” is a bit of an exaggeration. Once when I complained to a ticket inspector that my Super-Fast express seemed to be a slow train, he replied aggressively. “No sir. This is a Super-Fast train. It is only going slow.”

The slower a train goes and the more time that is lost to delays, the greater the camaraderie between passengers. Barriers break down. I once found myself in the middle of a lively discussion between a Muslim woman (who took off her burka when she boarded), an elderly Hindu nationalist politician, and a student who had no patience for politics.

I firmly believe that anyone who never takes an Indian train fails to arrive in the real India. The key is to forget time, relax, and enjoy the opportunities to experience the unusual. I learned this lesson on a complicated journey involving several changes. At my first change I was told by a railwayman that my connection was “indefinitely delayed.”

“You mean it’s lost,” I said angrily.

“You could say so,” he replied politely. “But do not be so concerned, sir. There is another train which was lost and we have found it.”

I caught that one and, sure enough, arrived at my destination on time.

Mark Tully is the author of India’s Unending Journey, out in paperback this month.