I write this post from Punjab - the land of white butter and warm alu parathas. Ludhiana is a 24 hour train journey from Bombay and whichever way I look at it, that's 24 hours too many. So I fly to Delhi - and even though the airfares available are cheaper now - it ends up more than twice as expensive as 2nd a/c.
That wasn't how it was supposed to be - budget airlines were supposed to make flying just a little more expensive than "luxury" train fare. Leave aside Air Deccan's few cheap tickets (which, like rail must be booked months in advance).
Flying within India remains an expensive proposition - and yet more of us are doing it today - not just for business, but pleasure and in fulfilment of social obligations
We're doing it because time is money. And time spent in trains watching the scenery go by is not just boring but wasteful.
But, more fundamentally, there is a new breed of Indians who just can't stand personal discomfort. Not to say that flying is absolutely stress-free - it's not, especially given the state of our airports. But the maximum you'll spend trapped with an irritating co-passenger is 2 hours.
Railways are a different story. You are trapped in a compartment with a medley of people. If you're travelling alone you'll invariably have to 'adjust' and excanhe seats so Bablu and family can all sit together. If you don't get there early you'll have to wage war to get suitcase space.
There are those who eat non-stop and those who talk non-stop (even after lights go off). Then there are kids who wail and uncles who snore. And of course using the loo in the morning...
The scene I am describing is of the Rajdhani - a train I have frequented all my life. A train with a 'better class of passenger'. And no hordes jumping in without reservation along the way.
Yet, I find in the last 2 years since I took the Great Mental Leap ('what the heck, let's fly') it's become increasingly difficult to contemplate a long distance train journey.
The 4 hour Shatabdi ride from Delhi to Ludhiana is as much as I can take.
The train --> plane shift is increasingly being made by customers in search of 'fluxury' or functional luxury. Which is different from those who buy something because it confers them 'status'.
I happily wear a cheap though funky plastic watch - not a Tag or Esprit - because a watch is a watch is a watch. The 300 buck one tells time as well as the 10,000 one - and you can throw it away and get a new one every 6 months,
Similarly, a 'fluxury' seeking customer will upgrade his or her mobile phone in search of certain features - like a PDA or megapixel camera. And not just for its 'flaunt' status - or cool looks. Moto Razr for example, would not do anything
I could be wrong, but it seems like much of young India is thinking this way. It's therefore harder to sell on the strength of 'labels' alone in this country.
Young people are happy to wear the cheaper substitute - and without embarassment. You see this particularly in the case of say, jeans. Yes, I need to own a couple of well known brand name pairs but beyond that junta shops for specific styles. Most important, if it fits well, it will sell.
The Road Ahead
Getting back to the question of train vs plane, the Railways have enough Indians still clamouring for tickets to miss my custom. And with our large population - will continue to do so.
But assuming the grand plans for more airports - and also better, high speed roads - actually bear fruit... As far as young and upwardly mobile India is concerned - 20 years from now - trans-India railway journeys will be romantic relics of the past.