Thursday, September 10, 2009



Just five minutes after the Mysore Chennai Shatabdi Express pulled out
of Bangalore City towards Chennai, an excited Sweta, all of 6 years,
pulled out the Blackberry from her father's hip pouch and was on the
line to her grandparents. "Paati, they have given me a welcome drink,
a sandwich, chocolates, samosa and chocolate wafers", she shouted to
her paati unmindful of the glances thrown towards her. As her mother
reined her voice in, she continued her description about the train.

The Chennai Mysore Chennai Shatabdi Express retains the charm of the
days since its inauguration way back in the mid 1990s. In fact, this
train has an enhanced prestige over the last two years, getting the
ISO 9001 certification in February 2006. A slew of additional quality
control checks are in place and these really add some comfort to the
passenger, as Madrasplus checked out close to the second anniversary
of the certification.

The coaches are maintained well, though the age of around 15 years shows.
These coaches are hand-me-downs of the Shatabdi Expresses in the North
- those have been upgraded to newer technology coaches. The catering
service is courteous and the food is good. The menu changes almost on
a daily basis – regular travelers need not complain about eating the
same stuff on every journey. "We have a rotation system in place, and
ensure that items are not repeated more than twice a week", informs
Shammi Kumar, the on-board Manager of CKK Caterers who handle the

"This train runs full most of the days", informs the Train
Superintendent of the day. "There are days when people request us to
allow them in the train", he added. In fact, Shammi Kumar informed
that sometimes passengers stand near the service area, when the
waiting list is not cleared. "This train has retained its popularity
– in fact, this is seeing increased patronage and runs into waitlists
on many days", informs the Train Superintendent. The catering Manager
informs that they always have a buffer stock of extra food to meet

The train itself is maintained very well. The maintenance staff are
very active and go about their work in an unobtrusive way, spraying
air fresheners every hour or so, cleaning the toilets and swabbing
them clean every now and then besides attending to specific
complaints. The toilets are very clean – they contain all the
fittings like soap dispensers, tissue rolls, tissue dispensers and
quality taps. What is important is that these consumables are
replaced and never run out of stock. The flushing mechanism is
improvised to dispense a fixed amount of disinfectant during each
flush. The coaches and the toilets smell fresh, making the journey
that much more comfortable.

The run is good – the train pulls into Chennai mostly on time. This
is the much-preferred option for those who have a few hours of work at
Bangalore – an early morning departure and a late evening arrival
means that they are back home in the night. "This is what I do at
least once a week", says Venkataraman. "Taking a flight does not save
me much time – the transfers to and from the airport and the
additional cost involved puts me back", he adds. "And if it is
maintained as it is, I will never take a flight from Chennai to
Bangalore", he declares.

Southern Railways' initiative on the amenities front, at least for
this train has paid them back – and handsomely. It has brought in
praise from the passengers, dedicated service from the staff and more
importantly, converted at least a few flight seats into train


Vani Datta, all of 37 years now, was as excited as Sweta was today –
on a warm summer morning of early 1970s. She was to make her first
trip by the Brindavan Exp – the fastest train between Chennai and
Bangalore at that time. This was the first time that the Railways had
allowed pass holders to travel, and Vani's father had waited for
reservation from 2 am about a month before the journey. She lacked
the communication of these days, but her paati was equally excited
when she narrated the journey two days later at her native place.

"Paati, there is a canteen (sic) in the train where they cook and give
you food. You should not return the coffee cups, you can throw them
out!" were some of her excited stories of her memorable journey. "A
journey by the Brindavan Express today is still memorable", she says
on the phone from Mumbai, adding, "but for all the wrong reasons".
Once the most prestigious train of Southern Railways, this is the
story of how things can go horribly wrong in some cases.

"We are very well aware that this is almost a dead train", admits a
top Railway official – on the condition of anonymity. No official was
willing to come on record to speak about the negatives. "We are
really unable to figure out how to restore the train to its glory
days", says the same official very defensively. The train now takes
an hour more than it did in the early 1970s – and that is not what
technology improvement in the Railways had done to this train!

"Indiscriminate addition of stoppages has made this a pale shadow of
its hoary past", says one of the Railway ticket checking staff on
duty. "I remember that the train used to stop only at Katpadi,
Jolarpettai and Bangalore Cantonment earlier. Now Krishnarajapuram,
Bangarpet, Kuppam, Ambur, Walajah Road and Arakkonam have been added",
rues Ramachandran, a former Railway staffer.

"It is not about adding stops – it is about comfort", says the Ticket
Examiner of the day. There were many passengers standing in the
aisles and near the doors of all the compartments – almost a hundred
of them even in reserved compartments. "It seems this train is
reserved fully for unreserved passengers and the reserved passengers
cannot even use the wash basins and the toilets", remarks Cheyanna, a
Bank Manager from Coorg. There were at least a hundred hawkers,
beggars and eunuchs that made this trip 'memorable'.

"We are not able to do anything about this", admits the Travelling
Examiner. "At best, each one has to work three coaches – keeping
unreserved passengers out even if we have only one coach is nearly
impossible", he admits. "The hawkers and beggars cannot be
controlled, as the 'right' people have been taken care of by them', he

As if to add to all this, the Pantry Car has been handed over to a
private contractor – the breakfast was not ready even after an hour of
the train leaving Chennai. What was served later, though, was much
better than the departmental stuff that came our way until a few
months ago.

"If the train has to be restored to its glory days, there has to be
very strict - sometimes inhuman monitoring to prevent unreserved
passengers in reserved compartments is the only answer", adds another
Railway official. He also admits, "it is not the only measure that we
have to take – in fact we should try and work out a shadow train that
has more stops and more unreserved compartments, so that season ticket
holders find it difficult to reach offices on time by this prestigious

More shameful is that this train runs at more than 55kmph – the norm
to keep it superfast for additional charges. "We shell out more money
for abysmal comfort, harassment of reserved passengers, and to arrive
15-30 minutes late most of the days – this is the biggest mockery of a
glorious train", says Cheyanna.

Even if the Railway officials admit that there is nothing that can be
done, there is some hope – the Railway Minister has promised in one of
his budgets that there is a plan for upgradation of prestigious trains
and the Brindavan Exp is one of them. "I will surely come back to see
that great train on its rebirth", says Vani Datta. One only hopes
that it is revived from its deathbed sooner than later!


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