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The immersive joys of train travel

Trains are reminiscent of a time when humans discovered the joy of motorized transport. For many today, they still retain their charm

The 'Toy Train' from Shimla to Kalka. Courtesy Wikipedia

By Rishad Saam Mehta

LAST PUBLISHED 28.03.2024  |  10:50 AM IST

“The train saves time." When Naraayan Kannan, director of communications at Nissan Motor India, told me this, I didn’t believe him. How could the 12951 Rajdhani Express leaving Mumbai Central at 4.40pm and reaching Delhi at 8.35am the next day save him time, compared to a flight departing Mumbai at 6.30am and landing in Delhi at 8.40am the same day?

He explained that he views time as a commodity, and suddenly, it all made sense. To catch the flight, one would have to wake up at 3.30am at the latest, to be at the airport by 4.30am, ready to face queues and crowds. Then one is herded into an aircraft and shoehorned into a seat for 2.5 hours, before effectively “zombieing" through the day on caffeine.

“Instead, I arrive at the station at 4pm, settle into my AC first class cabin, hotspot my laptop to my phone and work until 8pm in quiet, cushioned comfort. Then a hot meal is served, after which I change into my nightwear and sleep on a comfortable, cushioned flat bed for a good 8 hours. The next morning, I wake up, stretch my legs and have a leisurely cup of tea. I alight in Delhi refreshed and ready to start a day full of meetings. I find this more convenient, cost effective and less tiring than air travel, especially since I do more than four trips a month between the two cities."

For Kannan, this approach to business travel brings another kind of joy—he has loved trains since he was a child, playing make-believe games and dreaming of being a locomotive driver. “I have been taking photos and videos of various trains and locomotives in India and on every trip abroad for the last 15 years," he says.

Like Kannan, Gaurav Pandey, a data engineer at Adobe in Delhi, has been smitten with trains since he was a boy, when his father used to carry him on his shoulders and take him trainspotting. Pandey’s interest was piqued by the power of locomotives moving masses and goods over large distances. Both he and Kannan can recognize locomotive models and reel off specifications just by hearing the sound.

Pandey tries to hop onto inaugural runs of new trains; he recently rode the Delhi Hazrat Nizamuddin to Khajuraho Vande Bharat express. His Instagram page, @trains.of.bharat, is a trainspotter’s delight, with videos of WDG-4Gs and WDS-6s thundering past platforms and the clickety-clack of wheels on tracks. To him, railway staff such as loco pilots and guards, who guide thousands of people to different destinations everyday, “are actually heroes similar to army jawans."

Kannan too describes memorable conversations with motormen and invitations to peek into the locomotive’s cabin. “Motormen are very friendly and will happily explain controls and dials. In 2006, I got to ride a WDM2 with two locomotive pilots, who taught me a lot about a diesel locomotive. That experience changed my life and I understood how hard and challenging their lives are. I would go a step further and say that a locomotive pilot’s job is harder than an airplane pilot’s job."

Childhood trips from Mumbai to Kolkata on trains started Arpan Mitra’s lifelong love affair. The officer in a private bank is particularly interested in the designs of locomotives, railway coaches and goods carriages, the different pantographs (the triangular connection to the overhead power lines), colour schemes and numbers. Mitra is now an active member of an Indian Railways fan club group on Facebook. He too can recognise locomotives by their sound. “Since I have watched trains for many years, I can recognize a locomotive model from its horn and generator sound, even at a distance," he says, explaining, “if it makes a humming sound like an aircraft, we can identify the locomotive as an electromotive diesel such as the WDP4 or WDG4. We can differentiate the sound of wheels on tracks and tell if it is a freight, passenger, mail or express train. For rail enthusiasts, the combination of loud blasts of the horn, the rhythmic clacking track sound and powerful hum of the generator is no less than music."

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Kannan adds, “Just like a car, every locomotive has a distinct engine sound and humming when it is idling. For example, the Indian Railways has the WDG3 series and now the flagship WDP4 series, both diesel locos. But the sound of the locos in gear and in neutral are distinct. Both also have distinct horns, so when the loco pilots honk, we know which loco is coming, and the closer we are to the humming sound, the easier it is to identify it."

Then there are others like Ishita Manek, who prefer trains to planes because of the environment. “95% of my travel in Mumbai is on public transport. It’s a combination of doing my bit for the planet plus being economical." Trains are her preferred mode of transport for longer trips too, including work trips. “Trains are certainly more fun and make travel more wholesome. There is so much to see, and every station the train stops at becomes a mini adventure," she says.

It can get lonesome at times, though. “I end up travelling alone by train because my peers prefer getting from point A to B in the shortest possible time." When she tries to talk about “slow and immersive travel" she’s usually shut down by declarations of “that’s a waste of time."

Trains are reminiscent of a time when humans discovered the joy of motorized transport. Trains have been around since the dawn of industrialization when on 27 September 1825, Locomotion No. 1,built by George Stephenson at his son Robert’s company, the Robert Stephenson and Company, became the world’s first steam locomotive to carry passengers on a public line. “For those of us born in the 20th century, trains represent childhood journeys and industrial beauty," says Kannan. Engines are huge and noisy, but represent human engineering excellence to rail fans, a symbol of human ability to create large machines for mass transit. “Trains represent a lot of things—freedom, movement, speed and progression."