The first Shatabdi experience

I saw the first Shatabdi express in my life, way back in 1998. That was the Coimbatore - Chennai Shatabdi Express, and I still remember the distinct livery and the soft music inside the coach. Shatabdi expresses trace their roots back to 1988. These trains were introduced on the Centenary year of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (the first Prime Minister of India). (Shatabdi, in Sanskrit, means Centenary). Shatabdi Expresses, like their long distance counterparts - Rajdhani - have all-inclusive fares, and meals are served on board the train.

The First Shatabdi Express in India ran between New Delhi and Jhansi, which was later extended to Bhopal. The Bhopal Shatabdi (numbered 2001/2002) is the fastest in the country and is also the longest (in terms of distance covered). Shatabdi expresses have only sitting accomodation, and all coaches are airconditioned. There are two classes, viz, Second Chair Car and Executive Chair Car. While the former has a 2x3 seating arrangement, the latter has 2x2 seating. As on date, the railways operate about 12 pairs of such services. Of the 12, 8 operate out of New Delhi (the single largest operator of Shatabdi Expresses).

My first journey on a Shatabdi express was scheduled to happen on July 16, 2009. The excitement on traveling on a Shatabdi had left me sleepless the previous night. I woke up at around 0500 in the morning. An autorickshaw was arranged to drop up (myself and my dad) at the Railway Station in time for us to get into the 2006 Kalka-New Delhi Shatabdi Express. The Auto was to pick us from our place of stay (in Sector 31D of Chandigarh) at 0545 in the morning - but the blue-coloured smoke-spitting contraption managed to reach our place only around 0600. The diesel-powered engine (which emitted more smell of Kerosene than Diesel) had just two gears, and it couldn't manage more than 40kmph. While I am not fan of speed, this journey was agonisingly slow and irritating. Quite a few radio taxis overtook us on the way. We soon passed the CTU bus depots and turned towards the railway station.

The railway station was crowded at the time, and it should be noted that the only departure at that hour was that of my train. Traffic cops standing outside had a tough time making vehicles move away from the "drop-off" area of the station. We paid the rickshaw driver and walked into the railway station. There were no trains on any of the platforms, while Gonda's WDM2 #16726 was seen roaming around the station for some odd reason. After roaming around the platform for a while, I decided to take some snaps of the station building. After a couple of snaps, I was back on the platform.

The coach position indicators were busy displaying "NR", and there was no sign of any coach position being displayed. The PA system came on often with the characteristic Windows start-up chime, and a lady voice announced, "Train Number Two Zero Zero Six, Kalka Shatabdi from Kalka to New Delhi via Ambala would arrive on Platform Number one at its scheduled arrival time.. six.. hours and... forty eight... minutes". The same announcement kept repeating itself every three minutes. Even as the digital clocks on the platform went past 0640, there were no sign of the coach positions being displayed. I checked up with a guy manning a refreshment stall on the platform, and he provided some hints about the coach position.

The platform was getting filled by the moment, and this Shatabdi surely had most of its patrons joining from Chandigarh. The clientele varied from weary looking passengers (intending to connect to other trains from New Delhi) to well dressed business executives. A short toot was heard a while before 0644, and a while loco appeared from the horizon at around 0645. I was high on hopes about getting an LHB rake (The newer generation high-speed coaches, manufactured on a Transfer of Technology agreement signed by the Indian Railways with the German coach maker Linke Hoffman Busch). However, the loco slowly moved across the points to reveal a tired looking ICF Generator Car. That conveyed to me that my first LHB ride is still away.

My 2006 Shatabdi snaking across points, into Chandigarh Railway Station...

The train slowly crawled past the points, and painfully progressed towards the starter. On judging the speed and the arrangement of the first coach, I guessed that my coach would stop pretty far from where I was standing. I signalled my dad to start moving ahead, and what ensued was a mad dash on the platform, with almost all passengers running towards the loco. The train came to a dead halt at 0649, about a minute delayed on its scheduled arrival time. My coach - C11 - was almost entirely booked from Chandigarh, and so was most of the coaches at the front end of the train. To make matters comfortable to the boarding passengers, the coach attendants decided to keep only one of the doors open. There are another stampede resembling rush at the door, and it took agonisingly long for the 68 passengers in that particular coach to get on board.

WAP7 #30222 of Ghaziabad, that worked my train, at New Delhi

The train showed no signs of movement even as the clock ticked past its scheduled departure time. The loco gave off a short toot, and inched forward sharp at 0656, late by 3 minutes now. The loco incharge of my train was WAP7 #30222 of Ghaziabad, and my coach was NR 15854 (appeared to be on the early 90s). My coach was the 5th in the 16 coach rake. A while after the train moved back on to the main line, a feeble sound from the PA system announced "Indian Railways welcomes all passengers joined from Chandigarh on board the Shatabdi Express". The train sped up to about 110kmph by now. The waiter onboard came around, shoving off a tray on my table. The tray had a packet of Marie biscuits, two eclairs toffees, one stainless steel spoon and a paper packet, aptly named tea kit, containing a packet of dairy whitener, two packets of sugar and two tea bags (of some local unheard of brand).

The waiter then came around distributing thermos-flasks containing hot water. Then began the tea-making exercise. The real challenge came as the cup filled to 80% its capacity, and the train sped to 110kmph. The horizontal oscillations were too high for those speeds and I managed to finish the circus called tea-making, not before spilling a few drops of tea on the tray. I managed to gulp down the tea, and settled down to read the newspaper that the waiter had distributed. An RPF officer came around asking each passenger to identify their baggage (kept on the overhead rack), and a small red sticker was pasted on each bag, conveying a message that the bags have been 'checked'. By now, the train slowed down and we were soon approaching Ambala Cantonment railway station. I headed straight to the door for a couple of photos. The Train Superintendent objected to me standing at the door, and I decided to move to the next coach. Ambala welcomed us in with a WDP1 working an unknown passenger, and the celebrated WDP4B working another passenger train.

We stopped at Ambala, at 0733, perfectly on time. Very little passengers joined us at this station. The train started from here at 0739, late by a minute. The PA system came alive yet again to welcome passengers, this time for those boarding from Ambala. Soon after the train cleared Ambala station limits, the waiter came around distributing Welcome drinks (Yeah! We were welcomed into the train a long 43 minutes after I was on board). A small tetra-pack of Jumpin Mango Punch was our welcome drink. A while after our trays were cleared, the waiter came around throwing another tray at each seat. This tray had our breakfast.

The Breakfast comprised of two slices of bread, one small butter chiplet, a small packet of Jam, a packet of tomato sauce, two miniature pieces of Veg Cutlet, some boiled green peas, two rectangular pieces of potato (which was affectionately called by the caterers as French Fries) and some odd pieces of boiled vegetable. The entire serving would equal what is consumed as a normal adult with evening tea. The overall serving was disappointing, and no normal person would have alighted the train without being hungry. Another tea was distributed, helping a lot of us wash down the disappointment of the abysmally small serving of breakfast. Another Tea@110kmph exercise followed, and I got the better of this one by preparing tea without spilling even a drop outside!

Interiors of my coach, after all passengers had alighted at New Delhi

We had a steady stream of crossings, and a very good number of trains crossed us on the Ambala-New Delhi Run. The list of crossings also included two LHB Shatabdis. Needless to say, each LHB rake did add salt to my injury. My coach, although chilling cold, appeared to be pretty badly kept. The seats had old rexine upholstery, and the seating was very uncomfortable. I headed to the door as the train crossed Naya Azadpur. The speed to a crawl as we crossed Subzi Mandi. The signals lined up showing up amber and double ambers. A couple of EMUs overtook us on the other line(s) as we crawled past the coaching yard. The loco trip sheds were filled to the brim as usual, and my train made a very slow progress towards New Delhi railway station.

My Shatabdi crawling amidst EMU trains near New Delhi...

The train slowly crawled on to Platform 1. Another mad rush ensued at the doorways now. Me and my dad remained seated at our places till most of the crowd made its way to the platform. After most passengers alighted, we unloaded our baggage, and my dad slowly walked outside. I took some snaps of my coach before I alighted. Platform 1 was now crowded to the brim. The exit gate was packed. Since we were connecting to a different train from New Delhi, I had to find information about the platform from where my train would leave. I went out to the common area to find a huge board displaying details of trains departing later in the day. I found that my train would depart from Platform 3, and we lugged our baggage to the platform. Later, WDS4 #19651 of Shakurbasti came around, and pushed the rake to the yard... ending a long awaited journey on the Shatabdi Express.

While Shatabdi expresses are a good alternative to airlines on short routes, the service on board these trains leave a lot to be desired. The basic problem is the attitude of the staff on board, and more importantly the quality and quantity of food served on board. While the train scores well in terms of speed, passenger comfort is bad in old coaches. I look forward for a ride on a Shatabdi running with the newer LHB coaches.


Slogan Murugan said…
My only Shatabdi ride was between Chennai and Bangalore and I can remember being fed uninterrupted from start to finish! Burrrp.
Unknown said…
My one n only Shatabdi journey was on august 1st 2009, when I travelled along with my parents from Chennai to Mysore on the 2007 MAS/MYS Shatabdi Express. The rakes were greyish in colour (I suppose these are the new ones you are referring to) as compared to the violet yellow colour scheme I had seen earlier. The interiors including the seats and upholstery were extremely attractive. Even the windscreen design has been re-designed on the lines of keralaSRTC busses !!! The music inside the coach was pleasant n soothing.

The journey began at sharp 6 am n we reached mysore by 1305 hrs (a delay of 5 min) I for one was thrilled to reach mysore from bangalore in just 1hr 55min !!! (conventional journey takes approx. 3 hrs) The catering staff were clean,courteous all along the journey n conversant in english n hindi (I believe that it was outsourced)

Coming to the in-coach service, I honestly feel short of praises for the quality of service offered. All throughout the journey we were being served with food n beverages at regular intervals. The service started with the staff giving us the bottle of mineral water & the morning English newspaper. The good thing was that they were providing The HINDU,NEW INDIAN EXPRESS & DECCAN CHRONICLE on board n we (at least some of us) could get to choose one between them. Then we were served with Tea/Coffee (based on our choice), toffees n marie biscuits. Sometime later a 2nd round of Tea/Coffee was served. Breakfast was served at around 8 am, by the time we reached katpadi jn (near vellore) The veg. breakfast was sumptuous n consisted of pongal vada with chutney n sambar; 2 slices of bread with amul butter n jam sachets. The catering staff asked each n every passenger about their preference (veg or non-veg) before serving the breakfast. Soon after the breakfast I dozed off for about an hour. When I woke up, I found a pack of Frooti kept on my table by the staff !!!

We reached bangalore at sharp 10:40 am, where the engine is changed to the Diesel version for the b'lore/mys run (i dont know the engine specs, but i know that its the most powerful diesel one around that is used to pull other superfast trains also) Although many people got down here, I was pleasantly surprised to see around 30-40% people still bound towards mysore... (Mysore DOES deserve a shatabdi service !!!)

Normally, in all long distance trains bound for mysore; the service n security is almost non-existent on the b'lore-mys leg (as if the train is run to mysore just for shunting purposes) But I was proved wrong again... We were served with very good quality tomato soup with pepper sachets n some crisp biscuits. But the icing moment was when we were served lunch by noon (I didn't expect lunch on the MAS->MYS run)the veg. lunch consisted of veg.biriyani n curd rice along with a raitha which was truly top-class... I truly felt proud of being a Indian then in the presence of some foreign tourists !!! Needless to say that we were again asked about our meal preference...

Overall, I found the service extremely good in terms of both quality n quantity... In fact it was better than many low cost airlines that I had flown earlier... My parents remarked that this food tasted far better than most of the so-called good restaurants in chennai !!! (I couldn't help but agreeing)

Overall, I feel that this was a wonderful n memorable journey. I look forward to takin a trip again... I strongly believe that more no. of shatabdi's should be run b/w b'lore n chennai,coimbatore,kochi,hyderabad... I wish that after the mys-b'lore line doublin is over; they extend the 2027/2028 shatabdi exp to mysore...