Indian Railways is rightfully considered the lifeline of the country. So you’ll agree that as India celebrates the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas K Gandhi — kicking off a two-year period of celebration in 2018 — there cannot be a more fitting tribute to one of the world’s greatest leaders than to offer hundreds of people the option to travel in clean and comfortable coaches on a route that he took in 1915, when he returned from South Africa. This certainly will trump some of the other initiatives such as the launch of stamps and the compilation of an anthology to commemorate the life of Gandhi.
Back in 1915, as you know, Gandhi travelled along this route in a third class railway carriage, as part of attempt to reacquaint himself with a country he’d left nearly two decades earlier. He started his journey in Pune, or Poona as it was known then, and then travelled this route.
Today, the train that connects the cities is No. 19572 or the Porbandar-Rajkot Express, which covers the 180 kilometres between them in four hours and 45 minutes. Let me explain why this train needs a complete overhaul.
The Porbandar-Rajkot Express is an entirely general class train. It does not have any air-conditioned cars or other classes of coaches. It leaves Porbandar at 2:30pm and makes 13 stops before reaching its destination at 6:45pm.
Last Tuesday, About 40 people, including farmers, students and a few employees, kept me for company in my coach when the train started from Porbandar. By the time the train reached the penultimate stop of Bhakti Nagar in Rajkot, the number had more than doubled.
A ticket for this four-hour-forty-five-minute journey costs ₹75, which is very impressive and much to the railway’s credit. The seven-coach train, with each coach having 90 seats, can legitimately accommodate up to 630 passengers.
Sir, it is befuddling how railway authorities expect four people to sit on a single berth—there are no separate seats— when across the country, a maximum of three people are assigned to a single berth. Again, to my surprise, only the lower berths of all the coaches had cushions; the overhead berths only had steel racks, which suggests they are meant to be used only for luggage. But the train is so overcrowded, that people squeeze themselves into these upper berths. It is barbaric to expect people to sit on seats made of metal slats. Still, two tired students used their school bags as pillows and took an afternoon siesta for an hour on the metal-slatted upper berths.
People cannot move between bogeys as every coach is an independent car, which is unusual for a passenger day train. Passengers cannot buy bottled water or food from hawkers as they do not enter the train.
There are no charging points on the train.
Oddly, one cannot stop the train in case of an emergency. It is not because there is no emergency chain; rather the emergency chain has been sealed permanently.
I believe even the railway staff has given up on cleaning the current train. Cockroaches could be seen skittering on the floor. The toilets were dirty and by the time train reached Rajkot, the taps in the washbasin had run dry.
So despite this current state, why do people still use this train?
As you are fully aware, trains are one of the cheapest and most flexible means of transport in the country. One does not need to book a ticket in advance, unlike an airline. Unlike buses, there are no unscheduled stops along the way.
“Unlike the private and state buses, where anyone can stretch out their hand to stop the vehicle and hop on, the trains do not stop anywhere unexpected and you can reach on time," said Dinesh, a 34-year-old employee of a private firm in Rajkot. Dinesh takes the train twice a week and travels on business.
Of course, one does not expect air-conditioned coaches on this route, which largely serves daily commuter between the cities. And of course, it is a route on which the national transporter barely turns a profit.
Still, it would definitely make travel more comfortable—and maybe even draw passengers and profits— if the express had new coaches. Hundreds of people travel between these two well-known business centres and tourist hubs every day, and Gujarat is one of the fastest growing states of the country.
On behalf of the thousands of travellers who use the train every year, I hope you and your government will consider this request to replace the current coaches with new cars.