I am riding the Mandovi Express, Indian Railways train number 10104, from Goa to Mumbai, a journey through the countryside of India’s south west that will cover the 765km in more than 12 hours at an average speed of 58km/h.
Clearly this is no bullet train. Nor is it comparable to any of the luxury trains that ply India’s 115,000km of rail track. I was advised to take the plane from Goa to Mumbai, a flight of about one hour, but with time to kill what better way to do it than sitting back and watching India’s pre-monsoon parched landscape slowly unfold.
Brown lakes, bird-filled wetlands, paddy fields, red dust and white churches overflowing with worshippers, as this is a Sunday. Sari-clad women toiling in fields of stubble, mango and coconut trees, and whole families alighting the train carrying sacks of rice on their heads. There is much to absorb.
The carriage attendant knows my name. He brings me hot and very sweet coffee, then a pillow, a blanket, clean sheets and soap. He asks if I want breakfast and when I decline he says lunch will be at 1.30pm sharp. “Spicy or non-spicy,” he asks. I opt for spicy.
There is a power point to charge my laptop, which I’m able to use comfortably because my new best friend the carriage attendant has brought me a small fold-up table to use as a desk. There’s even a mobile on-board shop selling discounted goods.
Even better, The AC1 (air-conditioned, first-class) ticket cost me all of 1402 rupees. Including tax, that’s less than $30. Roughly $2.20 for every hour of travel.
At Sawantwadi Road railway station, 111km from Madgaon, we have passed from Goa into the neighbouring State of Maharashtra. From here the Mandovi Express almost lives up to its name, streaking between the stations of Kudal, Sindhudurg, Kankavali and Vaibhavwadi Road, but the sudden spurt of speed is short-lived and we are soon chugging along at a less-than-express pace.
My departure point is the Goa terminus of Madgaon Junction, home of the Konkan Railway, the line that connects the port cities of Mangalore and Mumbai. Like most Indian railway stations, Madgaon is noisy, a bit grubby and overflowing with travellers. But there is a system that works well once you know how to penetrate its complexities.
Fortunately, I have help. Mark Smith, a former stationmaster at Charing Cross, London Bridge and Cannon Street, is the guru of global train travel — or in India, the rajah of the rails. His book and website, The Man in Seat 61, is an invaluable encyclopaedia of global train timetables, ticketing, rail etiquette, sleeper and ferry services, and other incidental information.
In the introduction to The Man in Seat 61, Smith says first of all he sets out to help people who already know they want to travel by train or ferry but who can’t find out about it through normal commercial websites or travel agencies.
He also aims to inspire people to do something more rewarding with their lives and their travel opportunities “than going to an airport, getting on a soulless globalised airliner and missing all the world has to offer”.
“There’s more to travel than the destination. It used to be called a journey,” Smith says.
I first attempted to book my ticket on the Mandovi Express with an international rail agent in Australia but the agent’s supplier in India insisted the train was fully booked. I went through a contact in India who was able to secure a last-minute seat even though my status was listed as WL5 — Waitlisted No 5 in the queue.
Indian Railways has a unique system: after a train becomes fully booked with passengers with confirmed reservations (CNF), a certain number of tickets in each class are sold as “Reservation Against Cancellation” (RAC). And after all the RAC places have been sold, further prospective passengers are “Waitlisted” (WL).
The Man in Seat 61 website guided me to Indian Railways, where I could check my waitlisted status online in the 24 hours before departure (that’s the time when reserved seating rosters are drawn up). I watched my status go from WL5 to WL1 and then, on the morning of travel, saw CNF against my name.
Finally, those with a confirmed seat or berth on the train will also see their name shown on the reservation list pinned on a notice board at the boarding station on the day of travel.
And sure enough, my name was on the list when I checked at Madgaon Junction.
In carriage HA1, seat B on the Mandovi Express, lunch is arriving, spot on 1.30pm. Chicken and rice with spicy gravy is surprisingly tasty.
At Ratnagiri, two other travellers, a man and woman, join me in the compartment. The woman — later she tells me she is “in HR” — lies flat on the sleeper seat opposite and disappears under a huge blanket. The man takes the top bunk and fidgets. He has one eye open which appears to be staring at me, rather disconcertingly.
I watch the countryside outside turning to dust. A pall hangs over a land that is being burnt off by farmers as they wait for the monsoon to arrive.
I study the messages posted around the carriage. One reads: “Do you care for co-passengers? If yes! Then always talk in a low voice on mobile phone, especially between 9pm and 6am.”
As the light fades, and we near the outskirts of Mumbai, my fellow passengers depart the train and the carriage attendants, eager to chat, join me. They tell me they are subcontracted to Indian Railways and work 24-hour shifts, sleeping in a small airless compartment on the train when they get the chance. Their pay is pitifully low, they say.
I alight at Dadar, the station closest to Mumbai’s new and rather grand Terminal 2 at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. A taxi tout spots me and guides me through hordes of street people to a vehicle whose roadworthiness looks suspect. I agree a fare of 650 rupees but the tout then asks for 500 rupees more for walking me 10m from the platform to the street.
I argue briefly but I don’t push it too far with the Mumbai mafia.
After all, my journey is over and I have a plane to catch.
THE MAN IN SEAT 61
Mark Smith writes in his book The Man in Seat 61 that he’s “a career railwayman who ran away from Oxford to join the circus (or as it was then called, British Rail) as soon as he could”.
He explains the title of his rail travel guide was inspired by Zaharoff, the notorious arms dealer, who would always book compartment seven on the Orient Express to or from Istanbul.
“When treating myself to Eurostar’s first class, I would always request seat 61 (in cars 7, 8, 11 or 12) to make sure my seat lined up with the window, one of a cosy pair of seats facing each other across a table complete with table lamp, rather like those in an old Pullman car.”
Smith said this became something of a tradition, and he has left London in seat 61 en route to destinations such as Spain, Italy, Greece, Malta, Albania, Tunisia (via Lille and Marseille), Marrakech (via Paris, Madrid and Algeciras), Istanbul (via Vienna, Budapest and Transylvania), Ukraine and the Crimea, Aleppo, Damascus, Petra and Aqaba, and even Moscow, Vladivostok, Tokyo and Nagasaki via the Trans-Siberian Railway.