Monday, January 07, 2013

Where do I start?..Choo Chuk Chuk!

It takes a degree of force to get out of a writer block. Of late it has been omnipresent, subsiding  briefly in moments when neither a laptop or a tablet is at hand to make a start. So than waiting for that divine moment of alignment, I make a start anyway. And in order to ease my block I will pick a topic that I like - Railways.

Lets take the case of British railways Vs the Indian railways Vs the Japanese railways. I have been fortunate enough to have had a good bit experience on the latter and a fair bit on the former two networks. I must admit on the whole whilst each system has its warts, on the whole I admire all the 3.

Bulk of my experience in Japan was with the Tokyo metro network, one journey on the Shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto and a few out of town journeys to places like Kawaguchiko and Nikko.The Tokyo network is remarkable in its punctuality, size, coverage and how it burrows deep layers under layers under the city, particularly one in a seismically active region. Obviously some big time engineering challenges have been won there. The inter city network comprising of Shinkansens is fast, clinical and frequent. The metro within Tokyo is very precise on timings and the branch lines have a charm of their own. Running through pretty towns and villages alongside sea and countryside. The 2 carriage train from Tokyo to Kawaguchiko felt very similar to that train that Chihihiro boards in 'Spirited away' (a must see Japanese animation for kids).

The British railways are strikingly comparable to Japanese rail. With the difference of speeds, rolling stock and a slightly more relaxed order of punctuality the modern British railways have broadly a similar footprint. London compares to Tokyo, the intercity networks compare well to the Great Western, East Coast and West coast lines. And the branch lines or smaller town to city networks compare well to franchises like the Chiltern, Transpennine express, London Midland, Northern and Capital connect. Indeed one of the charms of the British railways are the wide array of franchises, and their respective identities, liveries, rolling stock and landscapes. Of all the journeys in the UK to date I would rate my favourite in terms of charm as the Chiltern between London Paddington and Leamington Spa, East Coast between Kings Cross and Edinburgh and  the First Great Western between Paddington and Worcester. In terms of efficiency and value for money I would rate Virgin West Coast as the best. Only slight drawback their being their narrower than normal carriages. But that was part of the engineering to have them bend along curves.


Left to right - Great Western HSTs @Paddington station, Cross Country Voyager @ Manchester Piccadilly and the London DLR heading into Canary Wharf- few of the many varieties in British rail.

Coming to Indian railways then. Well, nothing small about them, the width or the length, the distances or the time you spend travelling. Indeed when I was just watching YouTube video recently, I was struck by the average number of carriages on Indian trains. 20-22 were a norm. In Japan I do not remember, but in England the longest I have seen are 10-12 carriages with most being between 4-6. The time dimension seems by far more relaxed compared to the British and Japanese counterparts My earliest journeys between Chandigarh, Delhi, Bombay, Pune are dotted with names like Ekta express which took 8 hours to cover 250 Km, Frontier mail which took about 31 hours to cover 1300 KM odd between Chandigarh and Bombay, Janata express which took 38 hours between Bombay and Delhi and stopped at virtually anything that could pass for a station. Of course there were the more elite versions like the Rajdhani and the Shatabdi, that had right of way an average 110-12 Km/h speed. Not too mention they could also leave you feeling spoilt and a few kilos extra by the time you reached your destination with the in car catering. My fondest memories would be 1) my Rajdhani trip between Delhi and Bangalore - what better post honeymoon trip home with one's better half in a nice cosy 1st class coupe! 2) Bangalore to Kottayam (for Kerala backwaters) in Bangalore - Kanyakumari express and 3) Shatabdi express between Chandigarh and Delhi.

There is the hall of notoriety as well comprising 1) a trip of a five engineering students with 2 reserved tickets aboard the Delhi to Bombay August Kranti Rajdhani. Imagine no seats for a 17 hour journey outside a none too pleasant toilet! and 2) a trip of a family of 4 back from Bangalore to Delhi with only 1.5 berth. Discomfort of decades old is a sweet memory now!

Indeed any Indian of my age or older would have a smattering of railway journeys to recount and fondly remember. The opening up of aviation sector and the no frills airlines, made air travel more attractive so by comparison the following generation would have had less of thrills by rail. Poor them!

So how would I rate amongst the 3
Speed and efficiency - Japan Rail, British Rail, Indian Railways
Frequency and ease of reservation - British rail, Japan Rail, Indian rail
Charm and adventure - Indian rail, British rail, Japan rail
Surprise - Indian rail

(I am not inclined to report on cleanliness on any having recently read a few reports on forensic examination of train carriages in London, knowing how it can be in India and not remembering much of Japan rail.)

So did I exit my writer's block. Not sure, but I did end up fondly remembering a lot about my travel, trains and the people I shared them with. Time to get a good nights sleep now!

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