For my second last day in India, I decided to take a trip aboard a preserved steam train which runs twice monthly to a town named Alwar, in Rajasthan. There were a number of tour options, including an overnight stay with tiger sanctuary safari in the morning. Unfortunately, I was leaving the day that the safari tour would return, and although it was due back 6 hours before my flight, I didn’t have sufficient faith in the Indian Railways to make a connection that tight. Instead I had decided to travel one way on the steam special and return that evening on the Ajmer Shatabdi express.
The journey started several days earlier at New Delhi station, when I visited the International Tourist Bureau booking office to see if I could get a seat on this train that ran once per month to. The Foreign Tourists Booking Office knew nothing about this train, but suggested I visit the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism and Corporation (IRCTC) booking office near platform 16.
I walked across the long footbridge which spanned the station, and walked into the station building on platform 16. I couldn’t see the IRCTC booking office, and spent about 15 minutes walking up and down stairs and around and around in circles. There was no information desk, and no one seemed willing to stop and help. In the end, I decided just to walk into a random office to ask for directions; that would get some attention! I opened a nondescript door on the ground floor and found myself in what resembled a cramped travel agency. A man behind a desk looked at me expectantly and I noticed faded posters of spectacular train views on the walls; I had inadvertently found the IRCTC booking office!
I was the only customer in the small office, and was offered a comfortable chair. The man asked if he could help me, and I explained that I wanted to go on the steam trip to Alwar on Sunday. I asked if there were any seats available, which there were. I purchased my one way ticket for ₹3,795 (about A$75), which was very expensive, given that an AC Chair Car seat on a regular train was about ₹370. All worth it though, to travel behind a WP class steam locomotive through the Indian Countryside!
After purchasing my ticket for the steam special, I went back across the station to the International Tourist Bureau near platform 1 to buy my return ticket to Delhi. My rail pass had run out, so I would have to pay for my return ticket. I told the booking clerk what my plans were, and he said “sorry, no trains available, all full”. My heart sank, and I showed him my booking for the steam special. He turned back to his computer and told me that he could book me a ticket from another station. He explained that each station had its allocation of tickets. If he booked me a ticket from a previous station, it would cost me more, but at least I would get a ticket. I thanked him and said “you’ve done this trick before?”. He said nothing, but inclined his head in agreement.
Having paid ₹800 for a ₹415 ticket (only about A$6 extra), I left smiling with a return ticket on the Ajmer Shatabdi. The train left just over 4 hours after my steam special was due to arrive, but I didn’t mind; it would give me a chance to grab something to eat and have a wander around the town.
The day of the tour came, and I had to make my way to Delhi Cant station. THere is no metro station near Delhi Cant, and very few direct trains, so I consulted Google maps, and found that there was a bus that would take me from near my hotel to within walking distance of the station. As I boarded the bus, I was ready for the inquisitive stares of my fellow passengers (a foreigner? On a local bus?) and found a seat. The conductor came and took my fare of ₹5 (about A$0.10), providing me with a crumpled ticket from his fare bag. The bus jerked into motion and began careening through the Delhi streets, running faster than anything else on the road.
About halfway through our journey, a group of 3 men in suits boarded the bus. As we pulled away from the stop, they pulled out badges and began checking tickets. One of them gave me a funny look (as if to say “why aren’t you in a taxi”) and in a heavy accent “ticket please”. I was curious as to why they would be checking tickets on a bus, where a conductor came around and collected fares. It all fell into place, when one of the suited men took the conductor’s bag and checked through it; the passengers weren’t being checked, the conductor was! I also noted that the Driver was going about 20 km/h slower with the suited visitors aboard.
After just over an hour travelling through the Delhi suburbs, I reached my stop and left the bus. I walked in the general direction of Delhi Cant station. It took about 10 minutes walking along narrow streets in a fairly well-to-do neighbourhood to reach the station, but on arrival, I was faced with a problem. I could see the trains over a 2m high stone wall, but there was no sign of a station entry. There was a footbridge, but that stopped short of the street I was on. I walked along the wall, and found a gap where many locals were entering. It took me into the railway yard next to the station, where I threaded my way through rolling stock until I finally reached the platforms.
I looked over and saw what I had come to see; Locomotive WP7161 steaming away at the platform. It was attached to a surprisingly short train of only 3 carriages, and I was wondering if more would be added later (there was still about 45 minutes until departure). There was already a crowd of people waiting on the platform; young, old, Indian, foreigner. A TV news crew were also doing a news piece in front of the loco. The scene had an atmosphere of expectancy and excitement, everyone was in high spirits.
The loco crew were atop the 50 year old locomotive, making some last minute adjustments. I spent my time before departure taking photos of the train, relishing the ability to take photographs from places I would never be able to access in Australia (trackside and in front of the locomotive). The crowd of people on the platform grew as departure time approached, and 10 minutes before departure time there were probably 200 people on the platform. I wondered how many would actually catch the train (which was still only 3 cars long). I looked more closely at the train and found that there was actually only one passenger car, the others being a generator/crew car and a pantry (food preparation) car.
5 Minutes before departure time, I boarded the train. The carriage was immaculately clean, and had plush royal blue carpet along a centre aisle. On each side of the aisle was 2+2 cushioned reclining seating, upholstered with a blue/silver/gold pattern. On each seat was a neck pillow bearing the logo of the long defunct East Indian Railway company. The carriage was not air conditioned, but the windows opened and there was a fan mounted above each pair of seats. At the front of the carriage was a lounge area with couches and decorative curtains. The most unusual thing about the carriage was that it was empty.
I presumed that the rest of the passengers were waiting for departure time before climbing aboard. Departure time came and went and a handful of passengers trickled on. Finally, 20 minutes after departure time, the whistle blew and we steamed sedately out of Delhi Cant station. There were 6 passengers on board.
We rumbled through the suburbs of Delhi, people staring and children waving at us as we passed. The smell of the soot and steam wafted in through the open windows as we chuffed along. About 15 minutes after departure, we were served morning tea; 2 boiled eggs, 2 pieces of bread and 2 vegetable patties with tomato sauce. We were also given a floral neck wreath and had a “Takala” (red dot) applied to our foreheads as a welcome. I introduced myself to the rest of the passengers; a Serbian couple in their 30s and a group of three Indians in their 30s. The Serbian man was a rail enthusiast, who was being accompanied by his wife who was taking his interest in good humour. One of the Indians was a tomboyish woman in her early 20s, who seemed to be enjoying the day more than the males accompanying her. Unusually (for India), the males seemed to be subservient to the young lady (who even more unusually was wearing a checked flannel shirt and jeans), which led me to presume that she was from wealthy family and the young men were her minders.
Our train was restricted to a maximum speed of 40 km/h, so our journey was sedate, but it gave us plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and wave back at the admirers of our train. After travelling for about 30 minutes, we stopped at Gurgaon station. This was not right, as we were scheduled to be express from Delhi Cant to Rewari. I stepped out onto the platform and saw one of the locomotive crew climbing up on top of the engine. He was carrying tools, and began making adjustments. I also noticed that pulling up behind us was a bright yellow and green WDS 6AD class locomotive that I had seen at Delhi Cant station before our departure; obviously there was no faith that our locomotive would complete the journey.
After about 20 minutes of tinkering, the whistle blew and we departed (under our own steam) and rumbled slowly through the outskirts of Delhi. We didn’t get far, stopping again at Garhi Harsaru only 10km further down the line. The station was insignificant, with only local trains serving it. There were 2 island platforms, each with 2 tracks (2 platforms for Delhi bound (up) trains and 2 for outbound (down) trains). Between the platform tracks was a pair of main line express tracks (up and down) without platforms. A goods siding ran behind the station with containers stacked high, waiting for a goods train to stop and take them to their destinations. The area around the station was flat, dusty and desolate and a hot wind blew along the deserted platform. The lurking WDS 6AD diesel locomotive pulled up behind us once again, as the steam loco crew tried desperately to coax our historic locomotive back to life.
We sat at Garhi Harsaru for over 45 minutes, before the crew of WP7161 admitted defeat and the WDS 6AD diesel was run around our train and attached to the front. Another 15 minutes later, we were off again. This time accompanied by the chugging of an Alco diesel, rather than the chuffing of our steam locomotive. Despite the change in locomotive, we were blowing roughly the same amount of smoke – and it was blacker (Alco diesels are notoriously dirty).
We were now running almost two hours late, and I was suddenly very glad that I had a four hour layover in Alwar before my return journey! We rumbled through towns and villages, still drawing inquisitive stares, but many less waves that before. As the WDS 6AD locomotives are limited to 50 km/h, our speed was not greatly increased by the newer locomotive.
We arrived in Rewari, where a large crowd gathered around the steam locomotive. It was still quite a sight, despite being relegated to second locomotive. Some workers at the station had brought more tools in a final attempt to provide running repairs to WP7161, but after another half hour worth of tinkering, it was apparent that it was all in vain. We departed Rewari just over two hours late.
After Rewari, the scenery changed, and we were passing through the Rajasthan countryside; through scrub and open plains with red soil that would not look out of place in the Australian outback. A gourmet lunch was served, and despite the locomotive chance, it was a very pleasant and stately journey. As I dined on excellent curry, fluffy aromatic rice and fresh roti bread (all prepared in the pantry car), I watched children playing cricket by the line and farmers working in the fields.
We finally arrived into Alwar, almost two and a half hours late. A large crowd had gathered to welcome us, including photographers and TV news cameras. We were asked to remain in our seats while promotional photos were taken. We were then paraded out past the TV cameras (all 6 of us) before I slipped quickly away.
My four hour layover had changed to ninety minutes, but I still had plenty of time to go for a walk around Alwar. It was a pleasant enough town of around 315,000 people with wide streets and several large parks. I dodged the many cows lounging around on the footpaths and walked randomly. I noticed that more people than normal were staring at me, before I realised that I was still wearing my Takala.
I arrived back at the station about 30 minutes before the Ajmer Shatabdi was due, and watched the organised chaos. There were regular departures from the opposite platform, and I observed people waiting trackside. I found that they had lined themselves up with the General (Unreserved second class) cars. When the trains arrived, they would push in from the track side, to avoid the passengers attempting to enter from the platform. It didn’t seem to matter, as these cars were all hopelessly overcrowded before they arrived anyway, that they were lucky even to squeeze on. I shuddered to think what the journey would be like as these trains plowed on through the night.
My Shatabdi express arrived on time, and I found my seat. The train was crowded, but comfortable and I settled in for the three hour journey back to Delhi. Dinner was served to me at my seat (part of the ticket price on a Shatabdi express) and I dined as we raced through the now dark countryside. The journey passed without incident, and we arrived back New Delhi station right on time.