Akola Junction’s platforms 1 and 5 could well be different worlds.

Platform 1 is blanketed by the intense white glare of tube lights. It’s 5am, but four tea stalls are open. Each flaunts bright, shiny, coloured packs of chips and glimmering bottles of cool drinks. Vendors wheel their carts across the clean, polished platform in front of closed office doors.

On platform 5, lights are few and far between in the semi-dark chill of early morning. There is no concrete, no paint, no polish and no activity. There are no stalls, no milling tea vendors. The platform’s dusty unpaved surface is almost at ground level, indistinct from the earth. A dull brown 11-bogie train stands still, its fading signboards murmuring “Akola-Ratlam".

Akola is an undistinguished town in north-eastern Maharashtra, 250km from Nagpur. I’m in Akola to travel on the Akola Ratlam Fast Passenger, India’s longest-remaining metre-gauge train route, a world apart from platform 1’s broad gauge trains.

Gauge change

Squeezed: Tiny bogies force passengers on to the roof. Photo by Karan Desai/Flickr.com/photos/theblueindian

In 1951, metre gauge comprised 45% of the length of Indian Railways. It was possible to travel over 2,500km from Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, to Sarai Rohilla (Delhi) by metre gauge alone. Extensive networks of both metre and broad gauges remained well into the 1990s.

But transloading passengers and freight from one gauge to another wasn’t efficient. Indian Railways, therefore, aggressively pursued Project Unigauge to convert metre-gauge routes everywhere to broad gauge. The Rameswaram-Delhi metre-gauge route has diminished progressively to Jaipur-Secunderabad, and then to Jaipur-Purna (Maharashtra) over the last 20 years. Today, all that remains of this north-south corridor is the 435km stretch from Akola in Maharashtra to Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh, still the longest remaining line of its kind in India.

Before long, this might be gone too, taking with it a slower, older way of travel and life.

Slow trot

The Ratlam Akola Fast Passenger’s gentle rocking feels like the deliberate sway of a cradle as it dawdles slowly past brown fields. There are no houses, roads or vehicles in the empty landscape. A golden ball of sunlight emerges in the distance. A solitary bus purrs by a railway crossing. The first few stations have abandoned station buildings, with dried leaves strewn across platforms. In the first 30km, I see no people along the track.

The tender swaying and the unhurried pace are comforting. Slow travel, bereft of sensory overload and human presence, allows me to stop, wait, peer out, think and see clearly, unfettered by external stimulation.

Yet, there are moments when I’m impatient for the rush of a fast train’s pace, when I crave distractions. At Patsul village in Akola district, the music of an old Hindi song from a portable radio outside is a welcome burst of sensory stimulation.

One question perplexes me. The person who put the word “fast" into Akola Ratlam Fast Passenger—what was he smoking?

‘Useless line’

A food vendor at the Khandwa station in Madhya Pradesh. Photo by Karan Desai/Flickr.com/photos/theblueindian

In his cabin, an iron trunk doubles as a writing table, on which are neatly arranged a notebook, a toolkit, a walkie-talkie, and a row of blue, green and red pens.

“Bahut bekaar line hai yeh (What a useless line this is)," he laments, adding that trains can’t go faster than 30 kmph because of the quality of the track.

“The 174km from Akola to Khandwa takes 7 hours!" he says. “This section is under South Central Railways. The section from Khandwa to Ratlam comes under Western Railways—and because the track is better there, trains often touch 60-70 kmph. But these will never touch the 100 kmph speed of broad-gauge trains," he adds.

He tells me there’s no labour or material available to keep the route in order; that’s why trains go slow. He adds: “If the railways sell tickets at such subsidized rates, how will they get money to repair anything? A 20-30km journey costs 3-4. That’s less than the cost of a cup of tea."

I ask him if he will miss the metre gauge when it’s converted. Of course not, he says emphatically. Broad gauge will cut the 7-hour trip to Khandwa down to 3 hours—that will mean faster travel, shorter working hours, fewer stops for repairs and crossings. I ask if it isn’t worthwhile to preserve the metre gauge’s heritage. Gautam snorts, “Well, if they want to preserve it, they should just use a museum."

“Ek minute," he excuses himself. He picks up one of four baskets with tiffin boxes from a shelf and leans out of the door. At a railway crossing, he deftly delivers the day’s lunch into the gatekeeper’s waiting arms. Over the morning, he delivers all four tiffin boxes to railway staffers on the route.

Hill thrill

The train ascends the Gawilgarh hills. I peer down into a yawning viaduct marked “Ampitheater (sic) viaduct". Suddenly the train plunges into darkness, but not before I glimpse “Wan tunnel, 1960, 558m".

All along are dry forests full of spindly, emaciated trees. Barks have gnarled, freckled surfaces. Viaducts and bridges have waterless bottoms. Occasional smudges of smouldering black offer a clue to the reason for the leaflessness.

Gautam interrupts my meditation. “Saab! Isko zaroor dekhiye (Sir, you must see this)." Ahead, the track goes into the shape of a number 4. It traverses some distance, curves on itself, and ends up running under, and perpendicular to, the bridge we are crossing. A board helpfully announces “Spiral".

Civilization at last

As it pulls to a halt, the slow rocking rhythm of the train subsides. “Tukaithad," say the boards. It’s 10.30am. There are vegetable sellers, bhelpuri vendors and a tea-and-snacks stall—a relief after the largely civilization-free stations so far.

In the stationmaster’s room, the driver, Naseem Sheikh, has made himself comfortable. He is waiting for another train to arrive before we can leave. Sheikh also laments the trains’ slow speed. He lowers his voice and says: “This is an Adivasi area. That’s why there’s no development and the condition of tracks is bad."

He adds, “See? Now we’ve stopped here for 30 minutes. Sometimes, we have to stop for 4 hours. Do they care to protest? Until that happens, the condition of the track won’t change."

By now, we have descended the Gawilgarh hills. A “Welcome to MP" board passes by. Dry woods slowly give way to occasional rivulets. Groves, roads and electric poles, largely absent so far, suddenly become ubiquitous. The Tapti is a wide sash of glimmering water.

The languid rocking of the train remains unchanged. Its slowness transmits itself to me as I take deep breaths and deliberately, clearly arrange my thoughts.

Nothing changes

Slow shuffle: The train halts at a small wayside station somewhere between Khandwa and Omkareshwar.Photo by Karan Desai.

The train is much faster now. Even at a top speed of 60 kmph, though, it maintains a shuffling gait, not quite managing the urgency of broad-gauge trains.

B.S. Goswami is the new guard, a man with a twirling moustache and booming voice. Goswami tells me that the route has not changed for decades. Semaphore signals line the route. Frayed bamboo hoops called tokens are used to mark the arrival of trains. Mechanical line-clearing systems regulate traffic. Bogies have wooden foot boards. Train lights often refuse to work. But these are unchanged not to preserve history, but simply because it isn’t economical to refurbish these before the broad gauge takes over.

At Nimar Kheri in Madhya Pradesh, a railway staffer enters, opens up a part of the top of a big red safe in the guard’s cabin and places a jingling pouch in it. He then pulls a lever down so that the pouch goes into the safe. Every station on the route puts its daily cash collection in a leather pouch and deposits it in the safe, which is opened at the end of the line at Ratlam.

Goswami mentions that the 1925 train robbery at Kakori, a flashpoint in India’s independence movement, entailed the robbery of cash bags from just such a safe.

Change is necessary

“This, our train—you should see how packed it is when people go to Mhow and Nagpur for Ambedkar Jayanti, or during festivals at Indore or Omkareshwar. People ride on the top of the train, and you have no space even there."

Goswami then comes to the point. “When people travel like that, when we’re so short of capacity, how can people say they want a 11-bogie, 48-seater metre-gauge train instead of a 24-bogie, 72-seater, broad-gauge train? Besides, how can we use this old unreliable signal and traffic technology instead of functional, modern equipment?"

At Mhow

The train rumbles across the Narmada river in the late afternoon sunlight. At Kalakund, a banker—a special engine for mountainous terrain—joins the rear of the train so as to push it up the 1:40 incline (that is, for every 40m horizontal distance covered, the altitude rises 1m). Far below, the rocky Choral river winds its way along a canyon, until we reach.

At the curiously named Mhow (actually an acronym for Military Headquarters of War), a massive photograph of Babasaheb Ambedkar presides over the station lobby, for it is Ambedkar’s birthplace.

End of the journey

I stop in Indore for the night. As I resume the journey to Ratlam the next afternoon, farms and fields continue to be plentiful. Ajnod station is but a signboard plonked in the middle of sprawling farmland. At Fatehabad Chandrawatiganj, people load large milk cans made of iron on to the train, while others suspend these cans with hefty chains from train windows.

Past Fatehabad Chandrawatiganj, wheat chaff rises in the evening sunlight in fields, suffusing the air with a magical halo. The dust of crushed maize hits my nostrils with its musty odour, pervading the compartment. The train has slowed to 30 kmph again.

As the yellow sky pales to black, bleak lights from houses make tiny breaches on the dark horizon. Weak zero-watt bulbs in ancient bogies look like they’ll die out at any moment. The starlit darkness is slowly diluted by the faraway lights of Ratlam.

After a day through lands largely untouched by urbanity, on a route that harks back to an ancient connection that will soon be no more, the train drifts into Ratlam station, refusing to change its pace.

At Ratlam, two station buildings face each other. Ratlam’s broad-gauge section faces the metre-gauge one that I exit. After a day full of leisure and deliberation, I step across into Ratlam’s broad-gauge building to take the midnight Rajdhani Express to Mumbai that immediately races to its destination at a breathless 120 kmph.

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