Indian trains, planes put mettle to test

April 26, 2005|By G. Jefferson Price III

LAST WEEK, I tried to describe the terrifying chaos of travel by road in the countries I visited in March and April: Angola, Madagascar and India.

There was not enough space to describe the alternatives to travel by car in India. Apart from walking the shorter distances - dashing, mostly - distant destinations are reached by air or by train. For these I have some recommendations and, with respect to trains in India, I must correct an earlier description.

Air travel in India can be dealt with quickly. If you can, do avoid Air India, the national airline. The national carrier seems to use older equipment and the flight service staff is indolent. Especially avoid Air India's domestic subsidiary, Alliance Air, whose equipment is dilapidated. I only flew twice on Alliance and the starboard jet pod seemed to have been taped together.

The art of soft landings seemed unknown to the pilot of each of my Alliance flights; the possibility that the engine would drop off seemed great. It may have been the same aircraft and the same pilot both times, but there are domestic alternatives to Air India and its subsidiary on most routes. I recommend them.

There is no alternative to the Indian national railway. The need for a correction arises from an article I wrote about rail travel in India in September. That article was based on a relatively short roundtrip from Delhi to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, after seeing a marvelous tourist train called the Palace on Wheels and having visited the railway museum in Delhi, a place that recalled the days of the Raj.

Seeing that my itinerary on this latest trip to India included three overnight sleepers, I was full of excitement. The earlier glimpse of the Palace on Wheels with its wood-paneled staterooms, attended by turbaned valets serving dinner and breakfast danced in my mind. Surely the regular overnight trains with names like the Sambalpur-Koraput Express would fulfill a large measure of my expectations.


The best obtainable accommodation on most overnight trains in India is known as "second class air-conditioned." This is a space with four bunks - two upper and two lower, with two other upper and lower bunks on the other side of the aisle. The bunks are hard. The "valet" - no uniform evocative of the Bengal Lancers - brings you two sheets, a small pillow and a blanket. You make your own bed.

The valet is the conductor of the car. He does not bring you dinner or breakfast. None of the trains I traveled on had food service cars. The only facilities, apart from the bunks, were two lavatories at the end of the car, each without sitting facility. Outside the lavatories, in a small vestibule next to the exit door, was a small sink. Smoking is banned on all trains in India, so these small basins fill quickly with cigarette butts from people sneaking smokes.

On my first overnight ride, the gentleman next to me snored so loudly, I did not sleep a wink. On my second ride, I was so exhausted I passed out. On the last ride I found myself bunking with three Indian women. The gentler sex will sleep quietly. But, no.

The woman next to me snored so loudly it sounded as if a rhinoceros was shaking beneath the folds of her sari.

So here's my advice. If you are traveling "second class air-conditioned" in India and you can afford it, buy all the seats in your compartment and bring your own valet, if you have one. Certainly, bring your own food and drink. In the case of the latter, conceal it in a thermos. Alcohol is also banned on Indian trains. It's banned on domestic flights too, possibly for fear that unhappy passengers will behave badly.

That makes sense.

G. Jefferson Price III is a former foreign correspondent and editor of The Sun.

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