Passenger Trains Are India’s Real Lifeline

We all love trains. All of us have some fond memories of train journeys – even those among us who are unfortunate enough to live in areas yet to be covered under the Railway map. All of us know that Railways is the lifeline of India. But little do we know that away from the world of reservation charts, air-conditioned coaches and bio toilets lies a whole different world of passenger trains that really keeps India going. A world where the hoi polloi constitute the majority, where city slickers stick out like a sore thumb, where TTEs are conspicuous by their absence.

As we – I and the rest of the eight-member family – check into a compartment earmarked for ‘ladies’ at the Hatia railway station, I am a little apprehensive. What if the TTE comes and asks us to disembark and get into another non-reserved compartment, I wonder. But the presence of a few men inside reassures me. An adivasi youth asks me to relax, assuring me that my apprehensions are unfounded. And he is right! No TTE bothers to come to the apartment during the journey to Bano (to attend a marriage ceremony) that lasts three and a half hours – nearly an hour and half more than its scheduled traveling time.

A stream of vendors – all of them women – keep entering the compartment at stations with their baskets – some selling neatly sliced pieces of papaya, some slicing and serving fresh water melons, others serving ‘chaarakoli’ or ‘jamukoli’ on cups made of sal leaves…. All the stuff on offer is priced so cheap no one really bothers haggling – something that is such an integral of the Indian marketplace.  The best part is everything on sale is organically or naturally grown and fresh and hence infinitely tastier than its counterpart sold in the city. A little inquiry reveals that they are allowed to sell their stuff unhindered by the railway staff for a small price!

It is a world where humans are not the only passengers; goats, chicken and – at times – pigs too travel alongside men and women. There are inanimate objects too: bundles of wood, basketfuls of sundry forest produces and even bicycles hung upside down from the railings of windows (See Picture above). Journey on passenger trains is a leisurely affair, time table be damned. There are times when a train halts for half an hour or more at a station where the scheduled halt lasts just a minute, to give passage to an ‘express’ train that apparently cannot wait. No one travelling on a passenger train appears to be in any particular hurry. They while away their time waiting for the elusive ‘green signal’ on what passes off as a ‘platform’, but is actually no different from the rest of the landscape – except that it is a little more leveled. They munch on peanuts or other stuff on sale on the platform, smoke their bidis or ‘pikas’ without a care in the world (‘No smoking zones’ are an alien concept in these parts) or chat among themselves till it is time to board the train again. Chatting with them while waiting for the train to chug again, I find that someone is going to the weekly haat two stations away to buy or sell his/her stuff, someone is returning home, someone else is visiting a relative nearby.

As the train slows down while approaching a station, I can see people – men, women and children – literally running or furiously cycling their way towards the platform and wonder if they would ‘miss the train’. They don’t. Each one of them manages to get in before the train gathers speed. It is if the train is waiting for them as the one-minute scheduled stop stretches into five, six or seven minutes!

For the vast majority of the people, the passenger train is just about the only mode of local communication. The ‘express’ trains on the route either don’t stop at the stations they want to visit or are too expensive for them to afford. Though the TTEs seldom bother to check, it is gratifying to find that a majority of passengers do buy tickets. They clearly know they cannot afford to sink what is their lifeline!