This is the story of a train service between Delhi and Kathgodam, of virtual reality and down-to-earth fact, of unfounded confidence and earthy, improvised solutions. It is also the story of a train that moved, but didn't.
August 16, 2004: I was visiting my sister, Ranjana, and brother-in-law, Naveen, at their farm in western Uttar Pradesh, 11 kms from the Uttaranchal border. Crossing the border from UP into Uttaranchal here, means entering into Udham Singh Nagar (USN), which is approximately 250 km from Delhi. To be back at work on the 18th, I intended to reach Delhi by the 17th evening.
"The Summer Special is still running," said Ranjana, "it leaves at 8:30 and you'll be in Delhi by 2 pm." This certainly appeared to be the best possible option, so she called her travel agent in USN. "Yesterday was the last day of this train," said the agent. Ranjana wasn't convinced; when this daily (Delhi-Kathgodam-Delhi) had been introduced in March 2004, she'd read that it would be regularized.
Next, we called the Rudrapur City railway station (in USN). "Chal rahee hai (it's running)," said S N Panday, the station manager. Suitably satisfied, we informed the travel agent; he said he would book a ticket and call us back.
A little later, Radhika, my niece in Delhi, called to say she was planning to travel to the farm on the 19th. We asked her to book her ticket on the Summer Special, scheduled to leave Delhi at 4 pm.
At about 3 pm Radhika called again. Her voice carried the breezy confidence of a typical Delhi person - "Listen, you're not going to reach Delhi by the Summer Special. There's no such train now, railway enquiries in Delhi just told me."
I'd better have a back-up plan, I thought to myself. But to her I said, "Rudrapur told us it's on. Did you access recorded information? Why don't you try the general enquiry service and talk to someone? Meanwhile, we'll check again at this end."
By this time, Ranjana, Naveen and I had begun having fun at the expense of Indian Railways, and at the general absurdity of the contradictory information we were getting. Somehow, Rudrapur's information seemed to carry immediacy. Delhi had probably got it wrong, but it couldn't be dismissed altogether could it?
So we phoned again. This time Panday was chatty - "Yeh train chal rahee hai, aur poore saal chalti rahegee. Aaj subah bhi gayee thi. (This train is running, it will continue to do so through the year, and it went this morning). Ranjana told him what Delhi said. "What's the number of the train?" I asked. "Has its name been changed?"
"It hasn't been fed into the computer, that's why Delhi is saying this. We're not issuing computerized tickets," Panday was saying, "you'll have to buy an ordinary ticket at the station in the morning and for the AC chair car, the TTE (train ticket examiner) will take the balance and give you a receipt on the train. The name of the train now is the Uttaranchal Sapt Kranti Express (USKE)." He didn't tell us the number of the train.
To us at the farm, Panday's earthy analysis made eminent sense, while Delhi somehow felt remote, almost "only virtual". But, the fact was that we still couldn't junk the information flowing from the capital. After all, I had to achieve the reality of boarding the morning train to Delhi and getting there!
So we kept at it, as did Radhika. She'd finally spoken to a staffer at the enquiry office in Delhi - "This train is not running; it's not, it's not, it's not," the attendant told her. In fact, Radhika said, the man thought she was talking to an illiterate or a simpleton in UP. He thought the Ruprapur station staff was taking me for a ride. "Get me the PNR number of
her ticket, and I'll tell you which 'wrong' train she'll be sitting in," he said cockily.
After filling her in, I told Radhika we'd call the Rudrapur station at 9 pm, just to confirm that the train from Delhi had arrived. She still sounded skeptical. But she would call again and, if I boarded the train in the morning, she'd book her ticket too.
True to Panday's word, the train chugged into Rudrapur at 9 pm, on August 16. On the morning of August 17, I bought an ordinary ticket and boarded train number 536 at 8:30 am. The TTE told me it was still operating as the summer special; it would be named USKE from September 5, when it would be declared a regular, daily service.
In the train's single AC chair car coach that accommodates 72 passengers, there were only 10. On the 15th and 16th, the TTE said there were only two or three. In the ordinary coaches too, passenger turnout was very low. The TTE said that since March 2004, this service had been operating as a temporary one. Every fortnight, the service is extended by 15 days. When I asked him about the loss of revenue this entailed, he merely shrugged.
Humor and absurdity apart, this entire episode provokes a lot of questions that need answering.
Scarcely anyone today would deny the usefulness of information technology, but what of the growing tribe of insular, "virtual reality prisoners" displayed by the Delhi booking office? It is unlikely that such a display of living in the virtual world is restricted to this one episode.
Who is responsible for the loss of revenue, month after month, on this train service? What does this episode say about the status of Indian Railways - the working status of the computerixed system, the lack of coordination between Delhi and Rudrapur, for instance, and the attitude of the staffers in Delhi?
Stretch the imagination and one can ask - What about the safety of passengers on a train service whose very existence is denied vehemently by Delhi? What if this train had met with an accident en route to Kathgodam: Indian Railways' Delhi offices would say it simply didn't happen!
In real terms, the Summer Special did bring me back to Delhi on August 17, at 2 pm. But the funny thing is, I feel inclined to doubt the existence of the Indian capital.