As we travel to different countries across many continents, there’s one railway journey I always try to put in the itenary. UK, Egypt, Sri Lanka and recently Iran… we have travelled across many landscapes and sceneries but some remain etched in my mind. Developed and run by the British in most of its colonies, this source of travel across various altitudes gave us a immense insight into land and its people as we passed by.
Cairo to Luxor
Many years ago we did the railroad run in Egypt from Cairo to Luxor. It was a coupe for two which also had a small wash basin sink inside the coupe. This well-maintained big sleeper coach train took off from the Cairo station and like the rest of the country’s economy even the train tracks ran beside the Nile. So we could see the blue river run on one side and yellow sand desert on the other. Sometimes the broad highway will come between us and the river but that was smooth flat land journey that fascinated us.The continuous horizontal patch of Nile blue, green fields, yellow desert and finally the sky blue really fascinated us and still remains as a picture etched in my heart.
Kandy to Galle
Though we went to Kandy from Colombo by train but one of the most amusing till date has been the journey from Kandy to Galle via Colombo in Sri Lanka. The line which was destroyed by the deadly Tsunami in 2004 is back on its track and caters to a huge number of Lankans travelling on wooden coaches having wooden seats. No first class in here, no seat numbers so just hop-in and find a seat close to the window. Remember to take a seat on the right side to get the sea view.The hilly ride from Kandy to Colombo was slow and the train was stuffed with passengers heading to work in the capital city. To Galle there are multiple departures from Colombo between 06:35 to 18:50 and mostly are regular passenger trains.
After it leaves the Colombo Station, the train slowly paces its way to the south on a track touching the seashore.
We took a train direct from Kandy at an early hour of 5:00 and we got crushed by the early morning office going crowd. The train is a British era wooden body coach with only 4-5 bogies. With only a few trains on the hilly terrains of Kandy, an early morning rush in a passenger train in undeniable. Colombo, the business centre is halfway where the train emptied out and then only a few leisure travellers like us carried on to Galle. The rest of the journey was spent sticking our neck out of the window looking at the waves till we reached Galle. At some places it feels like a high tide can almost engulf the tracks anytime. And then sometimes a small settlement will come in between the tracks and the sea coast rocks. On the other side if you look you will see towns and villages passing by. Even there are some resorts where the tourist can be seen sunbathing or just standing by for the train to pass so that they can cross over and reach the beach on the other side of the tracks.
Shiraz to Tehran
On another journey from the beautiful poetic town of Shiraz in Iran to the northern capital city of Tehran, we discovered luxury of travelling in coupe trains. In a country with around 20 bus companies running 24 hrs across the vast web of highways, a slow train journey is almost a legacy of the past they still carry on. The Shiraz train station looked like an airport with sitting lounge on the first floor having wall-to-wall glass windows looking into the platforms below. Doors remain closed until a few minutes before departure. And suddenly we could see the driver walking in with a trolley bag in tow. He swipes his card and it opens up to allow him to walk towards his train cockpit.
As we lined up, the officials scan the barcodes in our tickets and allowed us to pass through the automatic door and we walk down the stairs to reach the platform. The train is semi luxury, with a ticket-checker standing on each door, just to make sure that you walk in to the right compartment. The trains have coupe system with four berths in each coupe. We booked all four berths so that we had the whole coupe to ourselves. Though I feel it would have been a little too tight space for 4 people with their luggage to fit in that space. These are much smaller coaches than the broad gauge trains but they are beautifully decorated in vibrant blue and red upholstery and neat carpets on the floor. Blankets neatly packed up in bags above the bunks, these trains are used by the well-heeled and the leisure class traveller. Also they don’t speed up much so it’s a slow leisurely ride. The landscape outside is pretty flat and dry sand or gravel hills with hardly one or two towns flashing by in a distance of about 900 kms that we travelled.
As we settle down, some snacks were served along with chai/coffee. One more round of ticket checking happened while we were seated and as the train left the station. And then came the butler/server who used his best possible sign language skills to inform that food can be served in our seat or else we will have to visit the pantry car to be served. We could understand nothing of the menu he explained so we ordered the safer chicken and rice and told them we will be at the pantry car at a certain time. When we walked into the pantry car the featured menu there turned to be quite a long and interesting one! We had to pay for our food which we had pre-ordered. It was not the best kebabs we have had in this country but the portions are huge. At the cost we bought our tickets and then pay separately for dinner, we calculated that trains are not a cheap affordable ride in this country. Hence the exclusive luxurious ambience prevails.
Mumbai to Goa
Back home in Mumbai we took the daily Shatabdi train that runs the distance from Mumbai to Goa (about 600 km) through numerous tunnels and high bridges running under the Western Ghat hills in about 8 hrs. Lush green on both sides, the valley is dotted with villages and terraced fields. A few big and small seasonal rivers pass by and then we are covered by the forest above us or sometimes several hundred feet below us.There was some of the longest tunnels on this route. There is no luxury of pantry car or butler service but only a few hawkers walking up and down with some of the crowd favourite Indian snacks. This intercity train runs daily stopping at only 5-6 stations filled to the capacity and about 10-12 coaches. And its one of the many trains that ferries passengers from Mumbai to Goa and while some others even go further down south to Kerala. This is a chair-car coach train. Due to yearend rush we could only manage seats in the non AC chair car. Considering its winter season and the ride starts at 5:30 am and ends by 1pm, it was a
Built one of the most difficult part of these landslide prone hills, the Konkan Railways had seen many accidents and loss of lives in its formative years. Even now the journey gets slowed down during monsoon since this is one of the most rain drenched areas of the country with slush sliding down the hills. And still its revered as one of the most scenic train journeys in India.
The more I take the train journeys across different lands, the more I learn to appreciate the Indian Rail network that takes us to places far and wide within this vast and varied landmass. The sheer volume of the travellers might not make it such a smooth and clean journey but it’s the best way to see the country’s natural beauty and diversity.