We travel on India’s fastest train, the Gatimaan Express, and find a definite difference plus infinite promise
SPEED AND promises. Those were the two words that were closely associated with Gatimaan Express before its maiden trip. And, to a large extent, it managed to keep up with both, as it took off from Hazrat Nizamuddin to Agra on Tuesday morning. It wouldn’t beat Japan’s Bullet train, which runs at 320 kmph compared with Gatimaan Express’ 160 kmph top speed, and, if news reports are to be believed, it is only seven minutes faster than the Shatabdi Express on the same route. What it did instead during its 100-minute run to cover the 188-km distance between Hazrat Nizamuddin and Agra Cantt is that it propelled India into a league of nations aspiring for a high-speed train network.
My first date with the ‘semi high-speed’ train was set for its return leg the same evening.
It was a quarter past five on an unusually warm April evening and there was the normal cacophony of sounds at Agra Cantt railway station—passengers hurrying in and out of the station, hawkers selling their wares, train announcements at regular intervals and the chirping of birds every now and then.
After checking the electronic display board, I made my way to platform number six and there it stood in all its resplendent glory—painted in blue and grey with a streak of bright yellow running through the middle, decked up with marigold and tricolour balloons and a bright red sticker near one of the gates with swagatam (welcome) written on it—ready to welcome passengers onboard. The platform got transformed into a ‘selfie destination’ that evening in an otherwise not-so-crowded station.
Inside the AC chair car coach, the difference was quite obvious from regular trains. A crew of stewards, both male and female, dressed in blue jackets with beige Mandarin collars and black trousers, were at work, counting the number of items in a small pantry-like space by the door. The sliding door that led to the sitting area required some strength to open. The bright green, reclining seats were equipped with an arm rest, eating trays, seat pocket and reading lights at the top, like the Shatabdi coaches. Images of the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and other monuments adorned the walls of the coach.
There were still around 10-12 minutes to go before the train started, so I made my way to the engine from the platform. Not allowed to go inside, I beckoned to loco pilot Pankaj Garg to speak with me. Braving a sore throat and the blaring sound of the generators behind him, Garg shared with me his experience of driving India’s fastest train on its maiden trip. “It is exciting,” said 49-year-old Garg. “I have been driving on the same route for seven years. This is an exciting development for the Indian Railways and the country,” he said, adding, “I hope we introduce faster trains in the future.” Garg, who has been with the Indian Railways for 30 years now, has also handled the Duronto and Rajdhani trains on the same locomotive and similar speeds.
Gatimaan Express is powered by a 5,500 HP electric locomotive engine and has 10 coaches with a total occupancy of 736 passengers (112 in the executive class and 624 in chair car). A ticket for the chair car is priced at R750, while travelling in the executive chair car will cost you R1,500, inclusive of food charges.
The train started from Agra Cantt at 5.52 pm, two minutes behind schedule, and soon hit the 140 kmph mark, as people switched on their mobile phones to check the accelerometer. As part of the swanky experience, services included a multi-cuisine food menu, train hostesses, an on-board Wi-Fi entertainment system and cleaner, odour-free toilets.
The key factor was time though. And, as per some passengers, the train kept its promise in that department. “It was a perfect 100 (minutes) in the morning. The food was good too,” said New Delhi-based businessman Deepak Raj Sachdeva, a manufacturer of fitness equipment. “This train is a nice option for those who have regular business commitments in New Delhi or Agra… But the real question is whether they can maintain this quality.” Sachdeva, who was travelling with his wife and son, heard about the train only on the eve of its inaugural run. He promptly went ahead and got the tickets booked, as his son wanted to see the Taj Mahal.
Another family in the next compartment was satisfied with the services on offer, touted to be on a par with ‘in-flight’ experience. “You feel you are on a flight. There are a few problems and the service could be smoother, but that’s a minor thing,” said Joseph AJ, a doctor based out of Vellore, Tamil Nadu, who was travelling with his wife and children. “The important thing is that the train has friendly staff and that makes a lot of difference. It’s not just about the amenities.”
The quality of service was good, no doubt, but there were some major disappointments. The onboard Wi-Fi, for instance, was a damp squib. Passengers could access content only on the MyFreeTv app (downloaded using the Wi-Fi hotspot in the coach), which was a sad mix of old Bollywood movies and snippets from comedy shows by the likes of late Jaspal Bhatti.
The disappointment in the entertainment department was balanced, to some extent, by the satisfactory food. The evening non-vegetarian menu included two chicken rolls, potato wedges, a colourful slice of fruit cake and a pack of peanuts. It wasn’t excellent, but better than what you get on other trains. The food menu was similar for the executive coach. “The menu will include continental and Indian options—both south and north Indian. What you will experience in this train is a morning breakfast and an evening high-tea menu,” said Rituparn Sharma, general manager, Travel Food Services, a Mumbai-based food and beverages operator, which manages F&B outlets at major domestic airports in India. Travel Food Services will provide catering service on Gatimaan Express as well. They were also responsible for the training of stewards in the catering team. Along with three managers on the train, every coach had one male and one female host. “The hosts and hostesses have had on-the-job training. They have been trained in an airport environment,” Sharma added.
As I ventured into the executive chair car coaches, I could notice a lot of empty seats. TTE Devender Kumar told me that a significant number of the train’s clientele will be foreigners. On our way from Agra, the train had roughly 230 passengers. But the attendance will improve, Kumar, who has seen many a train undertake its maiden journey in his service of more than 24 years, told me optimistically.
Sitting in one of the executive chair car coaches was a couple from Toronto, Canada. Having taken the Bhopal Shatabdi to Agra a few days back with his wife Naomi Horrox, 43-year-old photographer Mark Dunsmuir said the only difference between the Shatabdi and Gatimaan Express was the schedule. “We took the Bhopal Shatabdi to Agra four days ago. This train is spacious and clean. It seems to be on time. It’s probably the schedule that makes this train a bit more convenient than the Shatabdi, which leaves Agra at around 9 pm. This one leaves a little after 5 pm,” said Dunsmuir, adding that the Gatimaan Express would be ideal for travellers who want to reach New Delhi at a decent time. “If someone has a flight, say, at 1 am, then this train is better, as the Bhopal Shatabdi reaches New Delhi around 11 pm. We have a flight to Bhutan at 2 am, so if we reach New Delhi by 7.30 pm on this train, it gives us ample time to rest and spend an extra few hours in Delhi.”
While speaking with him, I realised it was almost 7.20 pm and dark outside. In 10 minutes’ time, the train would reach its destination. Passengers started preparing to deboard. True to its promise, Gatimaan Express made it to platform number three at Hazrat Nizamuddin on time despite starting two minutes behind schedule. I got down from the train and, as I was making my way to the other side of the station, I could see a crowd admiring the train. Some porters sneaked inside the bogies and rested on the comfortable, reclining seats. Were they hoping that the changing speed of the railway network will one day translate into the speed at which their futures change? I wonder.
Gatimaan Express will operate six days a week except Friday. It will leave Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station at 8.10 am and reach Agra Cantt at 9.50 am. On its return leg the same day, it will depart from Agra at 5.50 pm and reach Nizamuddin at 7.30 pm