White-glove service with a smile, moderate tipping suggested. Turn-down service before falling asleep at night, on a bed wide enough for two. Internet connectivity most of the way, use your mobile phone whenever you want. City centre to city centre with ample baggage allowance, no more scuffling for space while the driver circles outside. An easy ongoing lesson on the ground realities of India, from behind air-conditioned windows or hanging out the door. Best of all —fresh air served at ground level straight from the countryside, without suffering the health issues of frequent pressurization and de-pressurization of cabins, as well as recirculated air mixed with “bleed air” drawn through the engines of the jet you often find yourself on.
Add to that what more people are discovering: There is no bullying in the name of security from a variety of uniformed people that many now accept as the high price to pay for air travel. Never mind the police, they are doing their job. It is the vast number of often uncouth youth on the ground and in the air, uncomfortable in their tight skirts and trousers, trying out their lack of knowledge and deficient people skills on what they call “self-loading freight” or “freight on feet”. Yes, as frequent travellers on Gold, Platinum, et al, this doesn’t impact us — but dropping profits will wipe that differential out, too, as those of us who sit in the front of the plane have started noticing lately.
Change is in the air — or in this case, on the ground.
In the last few months, I have travelled by train more than a few times — first air-conditioned or air- conditioned chair car, the preferred way to travel, but also unreserved on a “whatever is available” basis. A decade of commuting by air was coming to a point where I would feel like retching every time I reached an airport. The insult to our national intelligence and pride that is Bengaluru’s new international airport, was the last but one straw. The final one, uncontrolled hypertension because of bad air on board and then reading up on how airlines, manufacturers and regulators in denial mode were all playing with our health by serving up contaminated air on new-generation aeroplanes in the name of fuel economy. Half recirculated and half through the jet engine (known as bleed) is what we get on board lately, with cabin pressure set at 8,000- 10,000 ft above sea level.
The difference between servility and service is often stretched thin on trains — feudal era habits die hard, especially on some routes in the cow-belt — but on metro routes and services between non-political centres, it is pure value for money. Or more — for less than 10% of the cost of your long-distance first air-conditioned train ticket in tips, you will get fresh cooked food in the style you are used to (I like my South Indian filter coffee dark and sweet, my meals simple vegetarian, fresh boiled eggs for breakfast — carry the basics, and wait to be served). I call it the ethos of mutual self-respect. Beat that on our low-cost carriers that have even done away with drinking water.
Business travel by train, at a station close to you, and better in many ways than before. The cleaning contractor in Bhusaval explained, while I looked on admiringly, how his smart work-gang went about cleaning a full train — toilets, reserved and unreserved coaches, the works — in less than 10 minutes. The past is here, the future, too — it’s up to us to take it further.
Rail travel is no longer romantic — far from it, though the dreamer in us will persist, and why not. But it is setting the standard in India again. The air you breathe on trains is healthier — and that is what it is all about for anybody flying more than 25 hours a month.
Note: Toxic air and the effects of rapid pressurization/de-pressurization on travellers using scheduled airliners is becoming a grave concern internationally. If you typically travel more than 25 hours a month by air, read up, see a doctor who knows aviation medicine, check your blood pressure frequently — and consider using the train again.
Veeresh Malik heads the Asia operations of Infonox, a Silicon Valley technology company, and travels a lot for work and pleasure. Comment at email@example.com