It was a day or two prior to our Independence day, Aug 15 and I was busy thinking about how the social media would come alive with patriotic messages masking the true feelings of indifference from the keyboard warriors. I had a client presentation with a PSU and was busy promising the moon on a cloudy new moon evening. My phone was on silent and set to vibrate to avoid any disturbance during my smooth and typical technical salesman talk. A few minutes into the first break, sensing the break, the phone popped out the name PK and with no time for pleasantries the conversation went like this.
Me : What ?
PK : Dai, lets make a Gatimaan trip this month or first week of September. Preferably in Sep as I cannot get leaves this month.
Me : Machan, I am travelling to Udupi this weekend and another one close on its heels might be an issue.
PK : Fine. Check if possible and let me know.
Me : Ok, will call later.
Well now my smooth talk presentation is done for good, both literally and mentally. My mind was poisoned by this caller and now it is my turn to become a keyboard warrior and the next session of my presentation went in route analysis and optimization for the travel, if at all it would materialize. Incidentally, my part of the presentation was over and I have confused my clients well enough to stay out for the next couple of hours. Line clear. A good omen ? Maybe ?
The plan was quick and an attractive late night red eye flight to Delhi from Bangalore in the wee hours just past midnight on the last Saturday of Aug 2016 nailed the plan. Red eye to Delhi on 27 Aug morning. Metro to New Delhi. Freshen up at the IRCTC lounge. Cab to Nizamuddin. Train spotting and selfies with Gatimaan. High speed ride to Agra. Back to Nizamuddin somehow. Duronto to Chennai and the ever reliable Bangalore mail on 28 Aug from Chennai back home early 29 morning and get back to work as if nothing happened. Great plan with some fast and furious rides on some of the best trains of Indian Railways. That leaves me now with the task of convincing PK to push for an extra day of leave and work out the details at home. I guess my enthusiasm rubbed into everyone and the line was now all clear except that quite a lot of our such adhoc plans have a great tendency to slip between the cup and the lip. Tickets booked. Fingers crossed. Waiting now.
Two days prior to our travel, being a sincere and senior employee that he is, PK decided to make his presence felt at work and planned a half day visit to his workplace, but thankfully confirmed that the trip is on. Now I go drum beating all around about my impending half impromptu rides to the rest of my fraternity and eagerly await the beginning of the impending weekend.
Part 1 : Flight to the Capital
26-Aug-2017 1830 hrs. Bangalore traffic is not bad. It is extremely unpredictable and Mr.Murphy always has the last laugh. Looking back maybe he had the first one too. Well,moving on, I was supposed to be picked up en-route either in a cab or an airport bus around 2030 hrs and hoping Murphy does not strike again, present ourselves at the airport around 2200 to have enough time to eat, drink, unwind and prepare for an uncomfortable two and a half hour flight to Delhi. Thankfully, the flight was not delayed and an SMS dutifully confirmed that our flight was on schedule. I reach my pickup spot around 1930, an hour before planned. Being a Friday night, there were enough intercity buses and watching them haggle with the passengers kept me entertained for a while until impatience started kicking in. A minute seemed like a couple as I called up PK around 2030 to check his whereabouts. Surprise, or rather no surprise. He was still stuck at work and waiting for a colleague of his who had promised him to drop him off somewhere between me and the Airport. Unlike a few moments ago, time reversed its velocity and 5 minutes pass by in a minute. Finally close to 2115, I was picked up, introduced, pleasantries exchanged and decided to get off the moment we spot a radio cab less than 5 minutes away. Soon enough, we thank his colleague and find ourselves in a cab instructing the chauffeur to display his best F1 skills. Thankfully, with the traffic not heavy, we reach the airport with a good 2 hours to spare for our flight. Carrying just a hand baggage, we were in the boarding area and ordered a couple of drinks and food. A couple more of our friends and hunger strike would have saved us enough to buy off that chain store outside the terminal. Anyway, the flight fare was cheaper and we settled for that. The flight was uneventful, cramped, on time, bounced twice on landing and let us off at a ghost terminal at Delhi.
Save a pat for your back if you are to land at the domestic terminal in Delhi. There are no facilities for passengers landing during the wee hours like the 3AM bouncy landing we achieved. All airlines customer support desks and other outlets closed except for a couple of coffee joints, the cheapest of the coffee priced enough to feed a family of two for a day. Without wasting any time, we went over to the luggage carousel, dragged a few luggage trolleys and positioned ourselves for a convoluted new yoga position to rest for an hour before boarding a shuttle to the Aerocity metro station.
Morning 0420 hrs 27-Aug-2016. We await the shuttle to take us to Aerocity metro station outside the terminal building. The airport now no longer looks like an airport. The shuttle came in around 0430 hrs. The first half of the shuttle was filled with passengers. The second half was filled with luggage and for the next 10 minutes the first half kept pulling out the second half. We decided to help the first half in help achieving their objective purely from a selfish standpoint. The site and stench of the luggage was unbearable. 0445 hrs, we were rolling towards Aerocity station and find ourselves dumped in some abandoned location. Apparently, it was indeed the Aerocity station as I managed to identify the Metro logo in the glistening moonlight. We thanked the conductor for relieving us of the misery called Delhi Domestic Arrivals and quickly positioned ourselves in a queue waiting to get the tickets to board the metro. A metro worker is setting up the ticket vending machine. Impatience in the queue. The first metro towards New Delhi is due in 10 minutes and the next one is a good 20 minutes later. Just as we were about to explode, the metro worker with a weird queer look said, “Bhai, what are you waiting here for ?” . Now that we know he was not willing to take a selfie with us, we inquired about “tickets” and were guided elsewhere. Phew !!! 10 minutes later we were off towards New Delhi Railway Station after escaping from a suffocating and overheated nightmare of a place called “Aerocity Metro Station”. The metro crawled all the way taking almost 25 minutes instead of the advertised 15 mins to reach the station.
The plan was to freshen up at the IRCTC executive lounge and take either a cab or a local to Nizamuddin Railway Station. Our previous experience with the IRCTC lounge was terrific. Things have changed now. It is terrible. I don’t want to spoil the experience and hence just a conclusion. Get into the IRCTC lounge if you have some cash to waste. The station waiting room would provide you with the same facilities at probably a percent of the cost. I am getting a lot of bad vibes now. From the moment we landed in Delhi, things have not been going great.
Part 2 : The Ride
Pathetic airport, forgettable executive lounge and lack of sleep made the decision for us. We took a cab to Nizamuddin and reached the station around 0645 hrs. SR King, Tamilnadu express had just departed and the information boards directed us towards PF No 5 for the coveted Gatimaan ride. A light blue LHB rake with a leading P7 stationed on PF5 made us skip a beat as a P7 ride on Gatimaan would kindle all sorts of controversy and a heated debate on the rail fanning community. Unfortunately that was not going to be the case as the TAJ express bound for Jhansi was all set for its 0700 hrs departure from the Gatimaan Platform. Early morning activity at Nizamuddin was brisk with multiple arrivals and departures. Karnataka Sampark Kranti, Goa Sampark Kranti, Golden Temple mail, Thirukkural and a few other trains came and went not knowing what is in store for them. TAJ departed bang on time and soon enough Gatimaan graced PF No 5 brought in by a Ghaziabad WAP5 30020. Unlike any of the regular trains on Indian Railways, the loco and the entire rake was striped with reflectors for better night visibility.
Fares, set slightly higher than the Shatabdi’s, Gatimaan caters mainly to foreign tourists and last minute travelers. The regular chair car class was filled up while the executive chair car had an occupancy level just a notch above 50 percent. Apparently the train also caters as a new excursion activity for the kids. On the day we traveled, there were a group of around 70-90 kids accompanied by their teachers off for a high flying ride to Agra and probably will take the same train back as well. The excitement on their faces was contagious and I am sure they had one hell of a ride back and forth. We had decided to travel in style and had booked the executive chair car. It provided a spacious 2×2 seating arrangement with lots of legroom for unhindered movement and freedom. Executive chair car also provided us ample opportunities for playing musical chairs with close to half the coach being empty. Amazon ads adorned our headrests and the train hostesses were busy moving back and forth with their practiced smiles setting up for some express service. Post the customary clicks, selfies, train board snaps, coach exterior and interior snaps, setting up the phone charging, GPS, speedometers and other miscellaneous activities which had bloomed out of nowhere in the last decade, the LHB rake gifted us with is traditional jerk, albeit slightly softer and I set my watch to display 0810 hrs, while we leave behind a busy Nizamuddin station.
Right on dot at 0810 hrs as we leave Nizamuddin, an immediate crossing with none other than the King Mumbai Rajdhani reset the bad vibes and set the tone for the rest of the trip. The acceleration was brisk and we were cruising along at Okhla at a sedate 120kmph. Breakfast started off with branded Muesli & Milk soon followed with some Guava juice, Paratha, 2 slices of brown bread, a decent helping of fruit and vegetable salad. By now we are ready for the dessert, the 160kmph run, a piece of cake. The breakfast, going by IR standards was exceptional. With tea to indulge and a huge window to my right, it’s time to let go of all my accessories and enjoy the run. Asaoti vanished at 160kmph and there was no looking back now. Palwal, Rundhi, Sholaka, Ajhai and every other intermediate station was left behind at 160kmph. I would refrain from using any adjectives to describe the speed. You have to feel it. We slowed down a bit after Bhuteshwar and skipped Mathura around 50-60kmph around 9:20 AM. The impatient P5 was quick to accelerate and was back at 160kmph by the time we crossed Baad. Few TSR’s between Nizamuddin and Faridabad gave little time for Gatimaan to recover and we reached Agra’s dedicated Gatimaan Platform 5 minutes behind schedule. Karnataka Samaprk Kranti, Thirukkural, Goa Express, Taj Express and another 8-9 unknown express trains were looped mercilessly for scintillating overtakes. This was my first ride ever in a train where opening the doors on the run never crossed my mind. We set our foot down at 9:55 AM with nothing but broad smiles. The trip was also a reconnaissance for a good trainspotting location and Sholaka seemed perfect. The next time we have an encounter with the Gatimaan, it will be with our feet planted firmly on the ground near Sholaka. It is time to experience it from outside and that would be the next mission.
…to be continued…