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Social Concerns


Kovai Express: Woe on wheels

Trains evoke pleasure. Certainly a sense of leisure. Sometimes, romance.

I remember reading a novel long ago, where the Madrid Express running between the Spanish capital and Barcelona under a starry night stimulates a passionate affair between a nobleman and a working class girl.

Not just books, but even cinema set its love stories on rails. Who can forget David Lean's immortal 1945 classic, "Brief Encounter", where trains play Cupid to Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in a touching and exquisitely handled tale of stolen glances and shy smiles.

Our own Mani Ratnam used the train as a powerful leitmotif in his wonderfully romantic narrative, "Alaypayuthe" (Waves). Here Madhavan and Shalini use Chennai's suburban Electric Motor Units to step up ecstasy. And, in a series of moving shots Ratnam uses metal and mind to create a symphony of sheer tenderness, much in the same way that Lean once orchestrated joy in the midst of clanging coaches.

Trains have always given a sense of solitude where one finds it easier to relax and, perhaps, romance. The Great Orient Express, and India's Palace on Wheels have been built to recreate an ambience of enchantment, aided and abetted by the gentle motion of a carriage as it rumbles along and disappears into the darkness of night. In fact, a train chugging under a star spangled canopy is a fascinating sight.

But trains are not just about mood and magnificence. They are also about efficiency and comfort. One has seen Japan's sleek Bullet Trains gliding at 300 km an hour. You can hold a glass of wine, smug in the confidence that it will not spill. So, smooth are these rides. Then, there is Europe's TGV and Thalys which are the last word in style and speed.

Some years ago, there was this great desire in the echelons of Indian administration to introduce our own bullet trains. Nobody knows what happened to this grand scheme, but Indian Railways is surely hurtling downhill.

Let me just describe a rail journey between Chennai and Coimbatore that I made recently. I chose the Kovai Express, which was introduced a couple of decades ago with hype and hoopla. Its airconditioned chair car used to be neat, even aesthetic in a vague sort of way. The on-board food was tasty; Indian Railways canteens, at least in the southern States, took pride in serving nourishing good meals. Not any more, though.

My Kovai ride proved a nightmare, when I found an airconditioned three-tier coach in the place of an airconditioned chair car. But horror of horrors, eight passengers were packed into each cubicle, otherwise meant to accommodate six ! Imagine a seven-hour journey from Chennai to Coimbatore in such cramped rigour.

The Travelling Ticket Examiner was a friendly guy, keen on parting with information. He told me that three-tier airconditioned bogies were being regularly used instead of airconditioned chair cars, which were being "repaired". He also regretted that the South seldom got the superior Integral Coach Factory (at Perambur on the outskirts of Chennai) carriages, which were routinely diverted to the North or the West. What the South got was the worn-out hand-me-downs from the other regions. What is more, these were built at Kapurthala, not exactly known for quality or precision.

To me, what seemed even more incredible was that the highest fare paying airconditioned chair car traveller was being subjected to this kind of torture, and without even a warning ! Nobody told me when I reserved my seat that I would have to travel this way.

My journey back from Coimbatore was as uncomfortable and distasteful in a similar airconditioned three-tier compartment, where men and women were packed almost body to body. Perhaps, Southern Railway has lulled itself into believing that the average Indian rail passenger is highly docile, and tolerant to
such grossly unfair practices.

While our new Minister is busy Indianising the railways, with ethnic icons such as earthen cups and khadi curtains, the Kovai -- among a host of other trains -- continues to plod along on criminally neglected tracks, where passenger comfort and  safety are brushed under a bed of stones. Obviously so, for theairconditioned three-tier compartment was clearly overloaded in gross violation of safety norms.

As I returned home, I could not help thinking how callous Southern Railway was to its fare paying customers, who on the  Kovai Express were treated no better than a heard of cattle.

Indeed, a far cry from the picture I carry of train journeys which soothed you to sleep or pushed up your pulse in an alluring way.Either way, trains could cast a spell of magic on you. But not any more, it appears, with Indian Railways puffing pain.

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