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Wonder what it's like to travel on India's fastest train?

April 14, 2016 10:40 IST

Rashme Sehgal took a ride on the Gatimaan Express for you.

Getting ready to board India's fastest train

IMAGE: Getting ready to board India's fastest train. Photograph: Sandeep Pal

The Gatimaan Express glides onto platform number five of the Hazrat Nizamuddin station in Delhi a trifle late. One door to the compartment is locked and this causes some inconvenience. But the passengers do not seem to mind the delay and eagerly clamber aboard India's fastest train with its smart velvet green and blue interiors.

Its new engine, painted blue and grey with a streak of bright yellow running through the middle, looks equally swanky and there is an obvious spirit of joi de vivre as passengers settle down in the reclining seats that have their own painted green trays and black arm rests.

The large windows are sparkling and the general air of cleanliness, combined with welcoming staff who are willing to escort passengers to their seat if need be, helps create a feeling of well-being which one no longer associates with our staid, rundown, Shatabdis.

Narendra Singh Rawat, a co-passenger who works for RITES, an engineering consultancy that specialises in transport infrastructure, has a word of caution: "It's all looking very nice, but the Railways will need to put in extra effort to maintain these standards."

The train starts three minutes late. No one minds because everyone is confident it will pick up speed and cover the 188 kilometre distance between Hazrat Nizamuddin and the Agra Cantonment railway station in its designated 100 minutes.

The powerful WAP-5 class locomotive picks up speed and in no time we are racing past the Okhla and Tughlaqabad stations. Much of this high speed has been achieved by strengthening the rail tracks and adding other safety features to the train so that it can cover this stretch in 100 minutes.

Welcoming staff are willing to escort passengers to their seats if required.

IMAGE: Welcoming staff are willing to escort passengers to their seats if required. Photograph: Sandeep Pal

The well turned out stewards, both male and female, are dressed in blue jackets and black trousers. They distribute newspapers followed by water bottles and tetrapacks of Real fruit juice.

The Gatimaan Express has 10 coaches with a total occupancy of 736 passengers (112 in the executive class and 624 in the chair car). A ticket for the chair car costs Rs 750 while the executive chair class charges Rs 1,500, inclusive of food.

Despite a longish wait, the food is served piping hot. In fact, the service is akin to food being served on an airline. The stewardess rolls a trolley to my seat and asks whether I want a vegetarian or non-vegetarian meal.

The vegetarian fare comprises two aloo paranthas and a dried chickpea curry along with packaged fresh fruit and two slices of brown bread, with butter and jam on the side (the brown bread deserves a special mention because the Rajdhanis and Shatabdis continue with their unhealthy habit of serving white bread).

The fruit turns out to be stale, probably because of the heat.

The coffee, too, comes after a long wait, but is served from a large black thermos that ensures the water remains hot unlike, excuse the comparison again, the Rajdhanis and Shatabdis where tepid tea and coffee have become the Railways's Achilles heel.

A glimpse of the executive class

IMAGE: A glimpse of the executive class. Photograph: Sandeep Pal

Young Saynatani Chatterjee, who was sitting next to me and is employed at a market research company, says, "I am going to Agra on office work. The train seemed a much better option than driving all the way."

Mukesh, who works at the Agra office of Alstom, a French multinational that specialises in the rail transport business, has missed his early morning's office transport. "I opted for this train because it would get me to office on time," he says, delighted he could pick up the ticket at the station itself.

Pradeep Rai, an advocate, has chosen the Gatimaan to save time. "Ever since I entered the compartment," he says, "I am feeling so good. There is no rush, no noise, none of the hustle bustle one associates with trains. Everything is so peaceful. I am feeling relaxed after a long time."

On the other hand, Birender Singh, who works in the power sector and hails from Punjab, is extremely disappointed that the on-board WiFi entertainment system is not working. He asks the ticket conductor, who is at a loss to help because he does not understand how WiFi works.

It finally turns out that passengers can access content on the MyFreeTv app and watch a mix of old Hindi movies and some comedy shows. But there is no access to the Internet.

A ticket for the chair car costs Rs 750

IMAGE: A ticket for the chair car costs Rs 750.

The return leg of the journey sees a much more packed train.

The Gatimaan leaves Agra Cantonment at 5.50 pm sharp from platform six, where I had disembarked in the morning. Platform six is adjacent to platform one, so this makes the entry and exit from the station much easier.

Once again, one door in the compartment is locked, but an attendant comes around to open it this time.

The packed executive class includes several foreigners.

An Australian family travelling with their daughter are delighted with the services. "The train has met our expectations. I think it is going to be very good for tourists. But I am disappointed that the WiFi is not working. We foreigners really look forward to being able to use it."

The family travelled from Australia to Kolkata and then to Bhopal from where they had taken the Bhopal Shatabdi to Agra. From Delhi, they plan to fly to Darjeeling to complete the last leg of their journey.

Bio-degradable washrooms

IMAGE: Bio-degradable washrooms. Photograph: Kind courtesy The Indian Railways

Manick Mehra, who works with a food and beverage company in Delhi, feels the timing of the train is perfect. "We want India to come up to our expectations. I was particularly happy that the bakery products and bread served were good, though the sandwich did not look so appetising."

Paul Berteus from Chile is also pleased with the service. "I had travelled from Varanasi to Agra and now plan to spend a few days in Delhi. I am happy that of the five trains I travelled in India, only one has got delayed; the other four kept time."

The food on the way back comprises cake, sandwich, cutlet (the chicken version for the non-vegetarians), barfi (Indian sweet), a namkeen (savoury) and nimboo pani (lime juice) along with the option of tea or coffee.

The biodegradable toilets are clean though it requires a great deal of strength to open the sliding doors connecting the compartments. However, the stewards are ever willing to help. Young and energetic, they say they have received on-the-job training and are paid Rs 15,000 per month plus food.

Agrawallahs, though, are not too happy with the introduction of the Gatimaan Express.

"We have three Agra specific trains including the Taj Express and the Shatabdi which bring tourists in the morning and take them back in the evening," says Rajiv Talwar, chairman of the Federation of the Travel Agents Association of India. "We want Agra to become a destination where people come and stay for at least three to four days and this is not happening."

But this is hardly the moment for criticism.

A warm welcome

IMAGE: A warm welcome. Photograph: Kind courtesy Indian Railways

M D Naushad, a Noida-based exporter who, along with his colleague Mohammad Ahsan, visited Agra to see the Taj Mahal, sums up the popular sentiment of passengers on the Gatimaan, "Bahut zabardast gaadi hai. Dil khush ho gaya hai. (It is a fantastic train. It's made us very happy.)"

The Gatimaan Express operates six days a week, except Friday. It leaves Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station at 8.10 am and reaches Agra Cantonment at 9.50 am.

On its return leg the same day, it departs from Agra at 5.50 pm and reaches Nizamuddin at 7.30 pm.

Although the Gatimaan is a far cry from a real high-speed train, the Indian Railways are now planning to roll out similar trains to Lucknow and Chandigarh.

Rashme Sehgal