A preferred travel option on long distance Indian trains is usually the air-conditioned sleeper (IInd or IIIrd tier). Undoubtedly 1st tier AC sleeper is a great luxury but often one would be tempted to simply fly instead. Also it’s not available on most trains. But the 2 or 4 sleeper cabin coupé with a personal attendant make it something that one should try at least once, particularly if you enjoy train travel. An added incentive – not widely known – is the availability of the shower facility that enables you to have a quick bath as well.
If people think of this with wonderment, imagine if I were to tell you that showers are nothing new on Indian trains. They existed in the premium First Class option earlier as well when AC was not widely available on Indian trains. The FC option is as good as gone nowadays except in few parts of South India – am sure that even a coupé, shower and personal attendant sans the AC can’t make it a popular choice when it is priced higher than the IIIrd tier AC option.
When I was a child school vacations were invariably marked by a standard holiday plan – my father would take the family to Chennai to spend time at our ancestral home with my cousins and relatives.
My father was a Central Government employee and entitled to be reimbursed the train ticket cost under an elaborate LTA scheme. And that meant that even though the finances were usually straitened, we could afford the luxury of travelling First Class. Air conditioned train travel had not yet arrived in India and so FC was the best experience on offer. Indeed I would eagerly await the journey though it did happen in the peak of the summer.
While the routine never varied – intricate planning happened in terms of the schedule. Usually we would travel along with family friends, so the journey would become even more pleasant. Indeed the FC coaches could accommodate about 28 passengers so a Group of 6-8 people made it an intimate affair. The coupé allotment was interesting as well – we were not provided reservations at the time of booking. Instead the allotment happened during charting and there was enough flexibility to ensure shuffling, whenever required.
The Mumbai-Chennai train route was about 1280 KMs and took about 30 hours to cover. It was an enchanting world in itself for a young kid. The coach would be relatively uncrowded and we would be only a handful of children on the train. The adults would be happy to get us of their hands as the coach was relatively secure and not disturbed by vendors or non-reserved passengers (typically travelling shorter stretches of our journey).
The coach was not air-conditioned and that meant we could feel the changing landscape. Unlike other routes, the section had been relatively underdeveloped – there was no double track in major stretches and even electrification had been done only in patches. So we would make a slow progress touching many stations on the way. This would provide a welcome relief from the tedium of being in a cloistered cabin.
The Mumbai-Pune stretch was a quick one and the Karjat-Lonavala section of scenic ghats would excite you. The Daund-Solapur section would see beefed up security and we would have to ensure that the door and windows were secured. Kadapa would bring to fore the mining activity – after all the city is famous from its black limestone i.e. Kadapa kallu.
Quite often our fellow friends would part company at Renigunta – a convenient stop for pilgrims planning to visit Tirupati. The train would make rapid pace on the electrified line again and I remember seeing the glowing fireflies in the gloaming light. The train would invariably stop around Basin Bridge station and I would enjoy looking at the looming image of the storage towers. It was time to collect our luggage and prepare to alight from the train. An end to a long journey with a feeling of sea legs but a smile as we looked forward to meet our family.