Another railway budget has been introduced and there has been a flurry of reactions on what the Minister should or should not have done and about another missed opportunity for making the Indian Railways a world-class service.
Few, however, lamented the ministry’s failure to plan, leave alone launch, high-speed trains that would make it so much easier to travel in this vast subcontinent. China has done it. Why not us? Perhaps, the very thought is daunting because in a country where the so-called “super fast trains” are but an apology, to expect anything better would amount to day-dreaming.
I must recount the sheer joy, comfort and convenience of China’s high-speed trains. My wife and I travelled from Beijing to Shanghai by a high-speed train days after it was introduced two years ago. A week later, on our return journey from a holiday in the ‘Land of Dragons and Emperors,’ we took the Ernakulam-Coimbatore Inter-City Express. Both journeys were completed under five hours. The distance between Beijing and Shanghai is 1,318 km and between Ernakulam and Coimbatore: 178 km.
The coaches of the sleek-nosed, gleaming, white Chinese train could match the cabin of a commercial airplane, constantly cleaned by women attendants on the lookout for any litter.
“Mom, the train is dirty,” said a little girl with a distinct American twang, holding her nose tight as we boarded the Indian train. Her NRI mother and grandfather shushed the little one, lest some patriotic Indians consider her criticism blasphemous.
“She is only telling the truth,” said my outspoken wife as the girl looked at the elders triumphantly. A ticket examiner said apologetically, “We can’t do anything as cleaning has been handed over to a private party.”
The truism of the statement was amply evident during the few trips we made by the Duronto Express from Coimbatore to Chennai and back. We had the constant company of cockroaches, including in food trays, and the utter unhygienic conditions of the coaches.
The two trains are symbolic of the wide gap in the developmental graphs of the world’s two fastest growing economies and the way they are going about tackling various problems.
As the high-speed train, which was introduced on June 30, 2011 on the eve of the 90th birthday of the Communist Party of China, hurtles from the clean Beijing south railway station to the snazzy Shanghai, the country’s financial hub, at over 300 kmph, China seems to be dizzyingly zooming towards its single-hearted pursuit of first-world status.
“Why is that we are unable to do what the Chinese are doing?” my wife kept repeating as we took in the capital city with its impressive six-lane highways and eye-pleasing landscaping, the Forbidden City and other tourist spots, kept spectacularly clean, despite thousands of people visiting the sites every day.
I said China had a policy that controlled the migration of rural people to urban centres.
“What’s the population of Beijing?” she asked.
About 20 million, I said.
“That’s more than Delhi’s population. Still look at the difference,” my wife said pointedly.
If Beijing was a revelation, Shanghai was a confirmation that we have decades to catch up with our neighbour.
No one was seen urinating or defecating on the roadside or along the railway track, an ubiquitous part of the Indian scenery. The rea son was not difficult to find out. Not that the Chinese have stronger bladders but they have built lavatories across these cities, helping the people maintain their personal dignity. And these public conveniences are kept spotlessly clean.
The Chinese trains, however, are not without their share of glitches. Hours after we arrived in Shanghai, heavy rains and lightning brought the entire bullet train system on the sector to a halt. Local news reports said the passengers were stuck in the fully-sealed trains for over two hours and there was panic on board.
A collision between two high-speed trains a month later left over 35 people dead, underlining the need for improving safety measures. The speed of the Beijing-Shanghai train, which was initially planned to run at 350 kmph, was reduced to 300 due to these concerns.
“We have accidents almost daily even when our trains run at bullock-cart speed,” my wife underlined the irony.
You just can’t win some arguments!
(The writer is a senior journalist and Head of the Department of Amrita School of Communication, Coimbatore. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)