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Will trains be loved again?

Video killed the radio star.

And... air travel killed train travel?

I’ve always loved and romanticized train travel. That I have a personal connection with the railways, and often profess my love for trains, didn’t help the case for train travel in my life. The last time I traveled in a train was in summer 2018, when we took the train from Stockholm to Copenhagen, and then from Copenhagen to Hamburg via Rødby and Puttgarden- the latter being THAT famous train that covers a part of its journey on a ferry! Interestingly, Hamburg was included in the plan for 2 reasons- to take this train, and to visit Miniatur Wunderland, for my father to see the world’s most famous model railway and miniature airport.

The last time I sat in an Indian train was in 2015, for what turned out to be a rare sort of experience. I solo train-traveled through Punjab. It really was epic (Do I sound enough like the millennial that I am?)

The first train ride between Delhi and Ludhiana (the early morning Amritsar Shatabdi) proved to be every reason train travel is romanticised by Indians. I ran into a sangat (Punjabi for ‘a religious group’ and Hindi for ‘company’) that were on a merry pilgrimage to the Harmandir Sahib, Golden Temple to the most of us. 2 train compartments were dressed up for the journey. There were videographers, microphones & loudspeakers, and an unending supply of fresh food and off-tune songs. However, this group pulled all stops when they set up a small ‘stage’ (you read it right!) for 3 ragis that joined us at the Rajpura station. Ragis chant shabads and kirtans (Sikh hymns) at Gurudwaras, the Sikh temples.

This is exactly why Indians love to travel in trains. We get to connect on train journeys. (Side note: highly recommend the 1985-86 Doordarshan TV series called Yatra- directed by Shyam Benegal, funded by the Indian Railways, and the perfect display of how India’s diversity can converge into a cross-country train journey).

Things changed in the last 2 decades, though. With the commoditisation of air travel, trains were relegated to those who couldn’t afford air travel. Of course there will always be enthusiasts, and I’d like to think of myself as one. But I haven’t seen the inside of an Indian train since 2015.

Will Covid now kill air travel, and make us reconsider trains?

While the increased accessibility of air travel is and should be counted as progress, there is a loss of opportunity in ignoring the immense potential of train tourism, and treating it as a valid demand generator. India, with one of the world’s largest rail network, has not been able to capitalise on its extensive rail infrastructure (route length of 67,956 km) to the extent it can. While we certainly have some interesting products to offer- luxury trains like the Palace on Wheels, the four mountain trains that earned the UNESCO World Heritage sites accreditation, and the Mahaparinirvan Express on the Buddhist Circuit, there’s a lot more work needed towards product development, circuit development and product marketing.

The pandemic and climate change just might shift things. Of course air travel is nowhere near dying, for its difficult to beat the considerable less time air travel requires compared to anything else available. But as the pandemic persists, it could nudge the market towards train travel, and it is imperative that the product rises up to the challenge.

Many of us are now more aware of our carbon footprints, and the pitfalls of long hauls and intercontinental flights. Starved for unique experiences, we are opening ourselves up to the joys of proximity-travel, and this is where train travel can fit in perfectly (once we have our masking and social distancing hygiene in order). This is precisely the time for destinations and authorities to seize the opportunity! I’m enthused by global recognition train travel is getting with the new Maya train in Mexico*, concepts like the $350 million ‘Palace on Rails’, Europe’s sleeper ‘Midnight Trains’, and closer home- developments like the recent Manipur train run and the Vista Dome.

It is time for India to step up, and bring back that charm of rail travel. I, for one, can’t wait to return to a train, ideally a fit-for-purpose product built with the needs of the current, pandemic-jaded and experience-starved traveler in mind.

*There’s always another side to the story


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