Novels and films set in India, travel guides, documentaries and Bollywood music videos often have one scene in common: the majestic Indian railroad. The Indian Railway is one the world’s largest and busiest train systems and connects the geographically diverse country through more than 7,500 stations on 45,000 miles of track. With 1.4 million employees, India Railways is one of India’s—and the world’s—largest commercial employers.
Approximately 23 million people ride the railways each day. If you think about it, Indian trains are in essence mobile microcosmic metropolises, transporting more people daily than the populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston combined. For the duration of the journey, the train cars become hustling social centers, marketplaces and momentary housing.
India’s railways system is state-owned, and management decisions are political. During his campaign earlier this year, prime minister-elect Narendra Modi promised to support a high-speed rail network and additional infrastructure renovations and improvements. In early July, the Indian government raised passenger ticket fares by 14 percent, sparking protests all over the country.
Last week I took a train from Udaipur to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. Whenever I travel abroad, I always attempt to travel the country by train. Besides being energy-efficient and (usually) a cheaper alternative, the most valuable experience of train travel, in my opinion, is the window-seat. My ticket was for the bottom bunk of a two-tier berth, and I laid down on my stomach to look out the window for the seven-hour journey.
Since the monsoons arrived two weeks ago, Rajasthan is green and the dust has settled. Herds of goats that had been sleeping on the tracks ran away in terror as the train approached, while children ran as fast as they could to catch up to the train, waving to passengers. Off in the distance I saw the skeletons of tall buildings under construction, a visual of India’s six percent growth rate (2013) and rapid urbanization. The train also snakes through India’s harsh realities: vast landfills, slums, garment factories and open-pit mines.
While my car had air-conditioning, people traveling in other cars adapted an effective, albeit precarious, cooling method: sticking faces and limbs outside the window and dangling outside the car doors. I had a bunk to myself, but some berths had entire families crammed into one bunk. At stops, chai-wallahs clumsily attempted to steer their carts through the narrow aisle, and vendors peeked into my berth selling everything from masala potato chips to bobble-head dogs.
I arrived in Jaipur after nightfall. Newly arrived passengers shouted into their cell phones trying to find their families or rides, men pulled out mats to sleep on the platform floor and entire families sat around portable stoves and rice cookers eating dinner. I had to briskly walk through the throngs of people to escape a persistent tout and find my pre-arranged taxi. As chaotic, noisy and overwhelming as Indian train stations are, there is an underlying sense of order: trains depart and arrive on time, and everyone finds their trains, families, luggage and rides.
Additional facts about Indian Railways:
- India Railways accounts for 2.5 percent of the country’s total electricity consumption. The United Nations Development Program is currently sponsoring a project focusing on implementing energy saving technologies and reducing overall GHG emissions.
- Three fully operational railways—the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway and the Kalka Shimla Railway—are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
- The Chenab Bridge, in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is the world’s highest rail bridge.
- The fastest India Railways train travels at 150 km/hr (93 m/hr).