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Indian railways: The great makeover project.

The Indian railways has occupied our headspace for a while now with its makeover plans. Several railway stations are being revamped—from Samastipur in Bihar to Wardha in Maharashtra, Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh to Sabarmati in Gujarat. Swanky new waiting rooms, WiFi access, new-age signage, escalators, separate departures and arrival lounges, in fact the works. 

For those who have travelled by the railways in the past, this is seemingly as good as it gets. Yet, there is much more on the cards, assures India’s Minister of Railways Piyush Goyal. “Many more stations will be upgraded. Trains like the Deccan Queen—the fast express from Mumbai to Pune, the first long-distance electric-hauled train, the first vestibule train, and the first to feature a dining car—will be enhanced with German-designed Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches, which have better safety features and offer an improved travelling experience due to a superior suspension system. We are redesigning the livery of the train, from existing blue and white, in collaboration with the National Institute of Design.”

The last couple of years have been transformative for Indian railways. Despite the buzz, Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC)—the government institution which controls the entire management—is staring at a colossal loss of up to Rs 35,000 crore in 2020-2021. Goyal says this is one of the reasons why India needs to restructure the railways to create a model that works, one that finely balances welfare with private participation. “Changing perceptions of railways is also very important.”

We spoke to the ministry and railway experts to map the metamorphosis of Indian railways into a world-class system.

Eco-friendly kulhads back in the reckoning

India just re-introduced what everyone thought was a relic from the past, the kulhad. Once, at every railway station, tea was served in potter-made, eco-friendly, baked mud kulhads. At some point, it was discarded in favour of ugly plastic, the debris of which line railway stations and tracks across the country. Redolent with memories of a gentler era and an ode to the concept of slow living, biodegradable, craft-based kulhads have already begun displacing the plastic cups. 

Kulhad chai, once an indulgence on train journeys, has been reintroduced at 400 railways stations across India
Kulhad chai, once an indulgence on train journeys, has been reintroduced at 400 railways stations across India.

“Kulhads will not just help reduce the use of toxic plastic and save the environment, they will give employment and income to India’s 2 million potters,” says Goyal.

The challenge lies in the scale. Before the pandemic, Indian railways catered to 23 million passengers per day. Given the affinity Indians have for chai, it will be safe to assume a majority are consumers. Kulhads, even when made with the help of machines, need a robust, dedicated workforce that produces them constantly since they are single-use.

The Khadi and Village Industries Commission has started supplying 20,000 electric potting wheels and equipment, capable of producing 2million kulhads in a day, to more than 100,000 potters.

First look: E5 Series Shinkansen

The Japanese embassy in India released the first look of the rake that has been far more controversial than any before, attracting as much opposition as support. Yet, the Indian government is soldering on with the plan to introduce the bullet train in India. The Japanese embassy just released the first look of the E5 Series Shinkansen train that will connect Ahmedabad to Mumbai. 

E5 Series Shinkansen, India's first bullet train
E5 Series Shinkansen, India’s first bullet train, will streak between Ahmedabad and Mumbai in just about two hours.

On September 14, 2017, India launched the first bullet-train project, which will span a distance of over 500kms. Of the total distance, 21kms will pass through tunnels, of which 7kms will be under the sea. The bullet train will run at an average speed of 320 km per hour, with a maximum speed of 350 km per hour and is expected to cover the distance between the two cities in about two hours. The seating is luxurious, the windows large to allow an expansive view of the landscape it streaks through.

Luxury trains made affordable 

A journey aboard the poshest of Indian trains spells luxury, magic and adventure in equal measure
A journey aboard the poshest of Indian trains spells luxury, magic and adventure in equal measure.

Domestic travellers and train aficionados haven’t had it this good in a while, as journeys aboard some of India’s sumptuous trains just got economical. The offer goes like this: if two people or a couple book one of the Deluxe Cabins, only one pays the full fare. The second gets a 50% discount. This offer slashes the cost of four nights, three days travel by almost 30%. Discounted fares for twin sharing in these luxury trains start at ₹59,999. 

Not just that. Travellers can hire luxury saloons or inspection coaches with a two-bedroom carriage outfitted with a private lounge, kitchen and bath space. Once, these luxury facilities were granted to the President of India, the Prime Minister and top railway officials. Saloons are ideal for a family of six to eight to travel together.

Palace on Wheels was the personal train of the erstwhile rulers of India’s princely states and the viceroy of British India. It was restored and launched on the luxury train circuit in 1982. It comprises 14 coaches, named after former Rajput states. The train has a saloon in each compartment, besides deluxe coaches and two restaurants and a bar. 

Royal Rajasthan on Wheels traverses through three states and cities such as Jodhpur, Udaipur, Chittorgarh, Ranthambore National Park, Jaipur, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Sarnath and Agra, before ending its journey in New Delhi. It has 14 deluxe and super-deluxe suites, named after jewels, two dining cars, a ‘souvenir’ coach and a royal spa. The seven-day train journey 

Maharajas’ Express won the ‘World’s Leading Luxury Train’ award at the World Travel Awards almost four years in a row, beginning from 2012. Launched in 2010, the train boasts luxuriously appointed suites. What you also get is a personal valet for every car, en-suite bathrooms kitted out with the best amenities and state-of-art facilities. 

Golden Chariot, launched in 2008, takes you on an unforgettable journey through the southern states of Karnataka, Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry. The 44 cabins sprawl across 11 interconnected saloons, inspired by the intricate carvings on the 12th-century Hosalya temple. The lounge bar doubles up as a cigar lounge, with the Mysore Palace influence evident in the interiors.

Deccan Odyssey has 21 luxuriously appointed cabins, two multi-cuisine restaurants, a bar, a lounge, a spa and a conference car. Meals are catered to by The Taj Group of Hotels. Each coach is decked out in a different era from Deccan region’s history. The train has six circuits covering Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

Tiger Art Train
The Tiger Express is part of a series of semi-luxury trains that are far more affordable at Rs 25,000 to Rs 28,000 per person. 

The Tiger Express transports adventure-seekers and wildlife-lovers into the very heart of India’s tiger country: Bandhavgarh and Kanha National Parks in Madhya Pradesh, and Dhuandhar Waterfall in Bhedaghat, near Jabalpur. The Desert Circuit train is focused on heritage tourism in the cities of Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Jaipur. The Buddhist Circuit takes travellers through regions where Buddhism left a deep impact over 2,500 years ago. The train’s sacred journey includes rides to the important Buddhist pilgrimage sites such as Sarnath and Bodh Gaya, besides a stop in Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri.

Madhav Rathore spent several years managing the operations of India_s luxury trains
Madhav Rathore spent several years managing the operations of India’s luxury trains.

Madhav Rathore, Founder and CEO of The Indian Bucket, has spent the last 21 years leading a variety of projects throughout the Indian subcontinent, from special interest tours for Royal Academy of Arts, London to managing operations of India’s top luxury trains, The Deccan Odyssey and Maharajas’ Express.

Rathore explains why India’s luxury trains, with their tour to explore the splendid open countryside, coastal regions and fascinating cities, is the best journey a traveller can take. “Travelling on one of these trains on a week-long holiday is a wonderful way to see the vast Deccan area over a short period, the vast expanse of desert and the coastal regions you would never end up going to. You can’t see India in a better fashion.” 

Aboard the Vistadome 

Almost three years after India launched the first of several Vistadome rakes that are now operational, Indian railways is set to expand the portfolio. Vistadome coaches afford a 360-degree panoramic view of the landscape through large windows and glass roofs. Right now, IRCTC runs Vistadome trains on the Darjeeling Himalayan, Kalka-Shimla Railway, Kangra Valley Railway, Matheran Hill Railway, Visakhapatnam to Araku Valley, and the Nilgiri Mountain Railway routes. 

Now comes the news that all of India’s mountain railways will be kitted out with Vistadome coaches. “Given the positive feedback, an order for 100 Vistadome coaches have been given to the concerned production unit,” says Goyal. “They will help promote tourism in the country.”

All the seats in the Vistadome coaches are rotatable and pushback to allow spectacular panoramic views
All the seats in the Vistadome coaches are rotatable and pushback to allow spectacular panoramic views. 

The Kalka-Shimla Vistadome begins its journey at 640m above sea level and travels to the lofty heights of 2,060 metres. The railway is a 2ft, 6inch narrow gauge track famous for dramatic views. It was built between 1898 and 1903 and meanders through 102 tunnels, 864 bridges, 919 stunning curves and a landscape that spans deep ravines, a verdant forest of pine, deodar, oak and view of the mighty Shivaliks. In 2008, UNESCO added the Kalka–Shimla railway to the ‘Mountain Railways of India’ World Heritage Site, celebrating its cultural legacy.

Engineering marvel: The Chenab River Bridge

The Chenab River bridge is five times the height of Qutub Minar and 35m taller than Eiffel Tower
The Chenab River Bridge is five times the height of Qutub Minar and 35m taller than the Eiffel Tower.

One of IRCTC’s ambitious projects that will see fruition in 2021 is the Chenab Bridge, spanning a deep gorge of the turbulent Chenab River. It will connect Kashmir with the rest of the country. Said to be the world’s highest, the 1,315m-long bridge is being built at a height of 359m. The Rs 5.12bn ($92m) bridge is a part of the Jammu-Udhampur-Srinagar-Baramulla Rail Line (JUSBR). 

Chenab Bridge will form a massive steel arch over the river. Norway-based Force Technology Laboratory conducted several wind tunnel tests to understand the effects of wind speed, static force coefficients and gust buffeting. The bridge is designed to resist wind speeds of up to 260km/h. The seismic nature of the project zone was also considered during the design process.

The bridge will include 17 spans, the 469m main arch span across Chenab River, and viaducts on either side. The main span of the bridge will be built as a two-ribbed arch with steel trusses made of concrete-filled, sealed steel boxes. The structure will be supported by two 130m-long, 100m-high pylons on either end through cables. An amazing feat is the building of the curvilinear portion of the viaduct on the sharp curve of 2.74 degrees by pushing the segments using the launching nose. 

The reforms were long overdue. If they are pushed through, the world’s second largest rail network will be more than just a means to commute from one city to another. It will be transformed into a network that allows you to experience the Indian countryside from the comforts of a train journey.

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