How does a Lajpat Nagar housewife on a tight budget get her Sadar Bazar fix of affordable essentials? Not on the Metro. Every weekday, the dusty old Delhi Ring Railway sees six sets of unhurried, even scenic,revolutions which serve a small class of commuters like her more satisfactorily. This year marks the third decade since the service began its sleepy circuit of the Delhi you don’t observe from your car.
The Ring Railway’s circular 35km route runs for 90-120 minutes both clockwise and anti-clockwise, to and from Hazrat Nizamuddin, from 8am-7pm. A return ticket for the entire journey costs Rs 12, compared with Rs 60 on the Metro. The average ticket on the Ring Railway is a mere Rs 2-4; the monthly pass is for Rs 100. It’s an unmonitored world the Capital’s upwardly mobile are rarely aware of.
Here is a dwindling parallel universe which can’t keep stride with the brave new world of the Metro; halwais from Panipat, Haryana, decrying the lack of fresh milk in “boring” Delhi, peanut sellers who squat by the door with sacks of goods despite rows of empty seats, lower-rung government employees whose offices will understand if the train is delayed by half an hour.
As a railway employee who daily idles from Nizamuddin to New Delhi Railway Station states (with no sense of irony), “This train is for those with no restriction of responsibility.” She giggles with three co-workers as they suggest increased frequency of trains, cleaner carriages and a toilet facility,saying, “Don’t use our names. Call us Rita, Nita and Gita!”
The irregulars: Fewer passengers now use the Ring Railway, whose track once serviced goods trains. Photosgraphs by Divya Babu/Mint
Introduced to service goods traffic in 1975, the Ring Railway ran 24 additional services during the 1982 Asian Games, upgraded to handle increased passenger load. “They were supposed to make these trains better for the Commonwealth Games too,” says 40-something housewife Suman Mediratta, one among regular commuters who were promised a similar upgrade for 2010 but got just a facelift at several stations. Last year, 13 inter-city train services were pared down to only six daily. Buses and the Metro monopolize Delhi’s new urban geography, while alongside, this ghost line runs its 34 local trains—suburbans and EMU (electric multiple unit) trains.
When I rode the Ring Railway on a Monday morning in February, I saw men, women and children scrambling off the train in all fashions. At particularly derelict stations there was no platform, and people hoisted themselves off the tracks, four-odd feet up on to the battered old train. On my second trip, one railway employee chivalrously hoisted women off when we stopped, just outside of Sadar Bazar station proper, away from the platform. On the sometimes ghostly Ring Railway, stations are often un-stations.
The first half of the Ring Railway’s circuit is of mostly anthropological interest, for a curious casual rider (some sights are less scenic than others; at Shivaji Bridge, less than a kilometre from The Lalit New Delhi hotel, stood a line of urinating men, streams of people crossing over and around them). But nine stops in, after Patel Nagar and especially Naraina Vihar, your view becomes special. At the Sarojini Nagar and Chanakyapuri stations, I found lovely rock faces and broad vistas of forest, glimpsed through the large, door-less entrances. Weeping water towers and sleepy fields completed the time-warp illusion of the train’s long halts.
Gavin Morris, creative director at Penguin Books India, was directed to the Ring Railway by a friend, and recalls the Circle Line of his native London when he speaks of the panoramic view of Delhi the route offers. “There’s a rare view of Delhi you don’t get elsewhere; the train takes you around parts of the city you don’t usually go to, and above ground.” The little-visited Brar Square in south-west Delhi is one of the many stations which make you want to get off and explore on foot; how would you even have heard of the place, off the Ring Railway?
Housewives keep company with errant schoolboys, on the mid-morning circuit.
The route is significantly representative of the long view of Delhi; it trundles along from the earthy, monument-studded navel of its Mughal past (Nizamuddin) to the shiny “posh” face of its flashy west Delhi present (Kirti Nagar), through to the outstretched, cosmopolitan arm of the diplomatic enclave which charts Delhi’s progress into the global future (Chanakyapuri).
Premila Nazareth Satyanand, 48, remembers riding on the Ring Railway in 1984-85, usually with her then boyfriend. “I lived in Moti Bagh and when we were in Chanakyapuri, where Nirula’s used to be, we’d cross and jump on. I remember the wonderful airy emptiness of the train, the happiness of being there with this young man. This beautiful open place didn’t relate to our crowded, structured lives. It was like a toy train.”
Ridership is declining daily, say sources within the Northern Railways, and the costs of improving facilities are prohibitive; Rs 400 crore for one kilometre of track, for a service which is losing money.
“You get the beautiful view and the ugly view on this train,” says Ashwani Lohani, Delhi’s divisional railway manager, Northern Railways, speaking of the Ring Railway’s journey. “Delhi was much smaller before, now there is encroachment in stations like Inderpuri.” While ticketing is being privatized, nothing else is planned, he says, regarding potential connections to the Metro and improving connectivity from deserted stations to arterial road. Refusing to comment specifically on the amount the Ring Railway loses, he only disclosed that 5,400 tickets are sold daily. “You cannot measure service and utility.”
It’s a situation with the recurrent conflicts of the all-Indian vicious cycle; the commuters don’t want to pay more for an outmoded facility, the authorities don’t want to invest in a non-lucrative service not enough people are using.
“Many ride ticketless,” says our Nizamuddin Station source. “We can’t afford to hire collectors to check for tickets.”
The Ring Railway often runs near empty, while outside, the congestion on the roads a mere 500m from the train leads visitors to laugh at the paradox. “Why don’t they at least tell us about this train?” they ask. “No one even knows where it comes, where it goes.” Says another visitor, “These trains could be taking some of that crowd off the roads.”
Ultimately, progress is moving elsewhere, to someone else’s doorstep, and the infrastructure of pre-liberalization India has been left behind.
However, for those who dislike the Metro’s newfangled operation—the climb up and down many flights of stairs, the unsettling descent underground and the many lines to be changed—the Ring Railway is easier, even if it halts for 20 minutes, from time to time.
“Direct jaate hain, ghoomte nahin,” says Harvinder Kaur,one of two sisters-in-law on their way from Lajpat Nagar to Sadar Bazar for cheap schoolstationery. For these ladies, the line goes almost door to door; with the Metro, they’d have to make several switches, with an aspiration to swift, efficienttravel which belongs to the iPhone generation.
M.L. Bhutani, a self-employed 79-year-old who says he is an assistant director with Air India, uses the Ring Railway over the Metro because of its connectivity. “His son and daughter ride in a car,” his co-passengers, “but he chooses the local train.” Says Bhutani “This train is so comfortable.” Like many, he enjoys his smoke on this open-carriage ride—which one station manager jokes is an added privilege.
A view of the rural world that urban Delhi is leaving behind.
The age-smoothened wooden seats on which the women sleep, spacious compartments where men congregate, playing seep or flash, this is an old-fashioned den of comfort. “There are three groups,” Bhutani says. “My group has been meeting for eight years.” The men around him smile generously. One is out on errands for the Kerala state government; another says he has to get to the hospital only by 12 for his shift.
There’s only one kind of illegal commuter who’s afraid of getting caught loitering on the train mid-morning—a clutch of schoolboys who have begged off school, and scurry up and down the 10 compartments of the train like a pack of restless simians. “Better to study at home!” they cry. Vinay Sharma, who is in class X, asks, “You must be writing about how things are changing, yes? How our culture is changing, with all this development in the city.” Where is the change going? “Only up,” he states, unequivocally.