Sunday, May 01, 2005

Train of thought

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

Why fly

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.

Attitude Shift
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
for me.

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.


  1. What u describe in your labels post is a purely Mumbai attitude.. which is the sole reason why places like Fashion Street etc flourish.. its better to buy cheaper clothes and recycle your style every two months than buy some label and wear it for 1 year.. makes complete sense to me, being a mumbaiite.. but i have'heard' that folks is Delhi are different.. and more label hungry/.. is that true?

  2. I just bought a rs.400/- watch for exactly the reasons you have given above.

    Also, I think the whole cellphone cultureis based on the mentality that everybody has one so why not me.nowadays, even Rickshaw drivers and Bus conductors have cellphones (hard to believe but i have seen more than one of them).I still don't have a cellphone because at this age, I think there is no need for one.

    And yeah, Delhi people are very very brand consious.

  3. Hats off to the average Indian consumer's psyche. Here the "Value for Money" rules over the "bells and whistles". No doubt Addidas/Reebok/Nike are facing such a hard time in this country.

    Train journeys were eagerly looked forward to, especially as a child. Still its lively atmosphere rules over the idea of taking an insular air journey except in case of emergencies...

  4. I love train journeys for almost ALL the reasons you've given...

    The crowd the kids, the chatter after lights out...

    Gimme some of that any day over the stifling boredom of looking sideways to see who's got the more expensive watch and eating food which tastes like the cardboard box it came in...

    The pleasures of Train travel are far to numerous to mention here but it's not like the whole of India is exactly rushing into the entire, Fly-Cheap-Book-Early thing now is it...

    Last I heard IR was making plans for it's own version of Frequent Flyer miles... Would go a long way in helping the cause of the impoverished Student IMO

  5. Nice post.

    I agree that people may start preferring flights to trains when they are pressed for time. But I hardly think that Indian rail journeys will be relics in 20 years. It may take a lot longer in a train to get from A to B, but the journey is a joy in itself. I know there are of course discomforts, but there is a certain color and life to it, unrivalled by whatever you will get on a flight. When I was a kid, I had the opportunity to travel a lot on Indian railways -I have had some of the best food at the hawkers at the rail stations. I have met the weirdest (and most unforgettable) people on trains. Some of my close friendships have been forged on trains (When you are stuck on the same coupe for abt 4 days, you cant help but really get to know the person next to you better). I have had the most adventures on trains - from a derailing trains to a bandh where all stands still in the middle of arid Andhra Pradesh to train thieves, you just cant predict what will happen next. I will take all that any day (whenever I can afford the luxury of time) over the cold inhuman nature of flights, where you have to be groped abt by security personnel before you enter every flight. Trains, to me, remain an integral part of India - and I for one certainly hope your prediction abt trains becoming ancient relics will not come true.

    And abt the second part of your post, sometimes people buy good brands because they are of higher quality. After you have put time and effort and lovingly picked out an outfit or shoe, you just don't want to see the colors run after one wash or the heels to break when you are running to catch your last bus. Maybe the labels are overpriced, but the quality does often make up for it, especially if you are not looking to 'upgrade' every now and then.

  6. I feel like an old fogey when I think "oh my daughter won't ever travel 24 hours in a train"

    But yes, life and economic growth will take their course

  7. Anonymous6:01 PM

    Hi Rashmi,
    Your views on trains vs planes made very good reading. I remember what a pain in the *** it was to travel from Mumbai to Kerala on Kanyakumari express (took about 36 hours)--I am a very finicky person when it comes to hygiene and I used to go to the loo only for No. 1. Such was the state(and I'm sure still is) of the latrines. Now with the Konkan railway, the journey time has been reduced to 24 hours.
    I think it's high time India had some genuine budget airlines like Easyjet(UK) and Ryanair(Ireland). I wouldn't call Dhakkan airways a budget airline at all.

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