Prefixing anything with 'semi' makes it seem less impressive. That being the case, I was unnaturally excited about riding the Gatimaan Express - India's first semi-high-speed train. Not just because of the speed factor, but because of how well the Indian Railways sold it.
From Spanish omelettes and other delicacies to in-ride entertainment, train attendants and free Wi-Fi, it was marketed as a positively revolutionary achievement in Indian rail. But, as it turns out, I was barely semi-impressed when I rode India's first semi-high speed train because Indian Railways was only being semi-honest when they were advertising it.
I get that advertising is almost always hyperbolic, but I still felt a deep sense of disappointment from the moment I laid eyes on the train. At first glance it seemed like just another Shatabdi. The only things that betrayed any sense of newness were the balloons and flowers tacked on to the train.
But, if people judged books by their covers, I'd never land a job. So, instead of being my usual cynical self, I decided to go forward with an open mind. After all, the train attendants lined-up outside seemed legit, so maybe everything the Railways' was saying could also be true, right?
On entering the regular AC coach, I felt a sense of deja vu. Not because I often dream about the future of India's trains, but because I've travelled in a Shatabdi AC seater coach before, and this was it. Everything, from the layout to the legroom was the same.
Incidentally, the railways had gone to great lengths to market the Gatimaan as a flight-like experience. But, as it turns out, that part was more a flight of fancy. The Gatimaan's only really discernible flight-like features were the attendants uniforms and the reading lights added to the overhead baggage rack.
Still, at least everything was new and functional, right? Well, mostly. The wooden tables in the centre of the coach were more than a little worn. The seats were fine, but we saw more than one passenger struggling with jammed armrests desperately in need of some oil.
But let's not get caught up in the basics. After all, there's more to life than armrests and new tables. Good food could make me forgive my worst enemy and Suresh Prabhu was hard selling the Gatimaan khana. He needn't have. Yes, it's marginally better than what you'd receive in a Rajdhani or a Shatabdi but barely.
In the regular AC coach the vegetarian option was an inoffensive upma, some offensive uthappams, a congealed sambhar(?) and the usual suspects - sliced fruit, veggies, jam, butter and pickle. The fanciest thing was probably the bread, which had the crusts lovingly cut off.
The non-vegetarians get a supposedly spanish omlette, but only Spanish in the sense that General Franco would have had it shot. Comparing it to airline food is about as insulting to airlines as calling Indian Airlines an airline is.
Just to make sure, though, we snuck into the executive coach on the ride back. The incompetence of the service staff meant a number of people weren't served anything beyond juice and tea/coffee. Luckily, we're meticulous journalists (and have no shame), so we sampled food off of the plates of fellow journalists. The chicken in red sauce was fine, but the bland boiled potatoes and sour paneer on offer for vegetarians were definitely nothing to write home about.
Which bring us to the toilets.
The only thing that didn't raise a stink, funnily enough, were the toilets. The toilets, special bio-toilets, were actually a breath of fresh air, which is remarkable because 'fresh air' and 'Indian train toilets', have never been used in the same sentence before (unless, of course, that sentence is, 'I passed out from the lack of fresh air in the Indian train toilet').
But even here the glory was shortlived, the flushes were out of order in two different toilets on two different coaches, meaning the toilets had to endure a baptism by fire.
That's a supposedly brand new toilet after just 100 minutes of use. One imagines they'll go the way of all toilets in Indian trains and will soon be more bio-hazard than bio-toilets.
At least there was WiFi to keep us distracted. Or so we thought. Even the train attendants thought so. But there was no internet, just a sad collection of prehistoric videos and movies for anyone unfortunate enough to get the MyFreeTV service to work. Here's a thought Indian Railways, maybe keep a library of movies that don't run longer than the actual duration of the journey.
But if the service was underwhelming, at least it existed, something we only found out on our way back because our train attendant didn't even know how to get it to work. Or what exactly it was. Neither did his supervisor. Luckily the train was chockablock with railway officials who did. We imagine future passengers won't be as lucky.
Nothing we experienced justified the inflated fares. The slightly extra legroom on offer and the pictures of tourism hubs in the executive coach may pique the fancy of some, but not with the coach full of mosquitos that came with it on the ride back.
The only saving grace is the time saved, a (whopping?) 20-odd minutes. Even here the time saved is more to do with the train having no stops and starting from Nizamuddin rather than the New Delhi railway station.
The engine, a WAP-5, is the same as used on most Rajdhanis and Shatabdis. The train itself only hits 160 kmph, just 10 more than the previous fastest train. Even worse, for a train travelling at this speed, the safety fencing required hasn't even been completed. But fencing isn't going to stop Achche Din, so the show rolled on.
To be fair, none of this dampened the spirits of my fellow travellers. The journalists sang paeans and one of our co-passengers handed out laddoos. One man even claimed he'd travelled from Mumbai for just this. It was enough to make anyone believe. But the fact is that at the price point and after the promoting done by Suresh Prabhu and co. it was deeply disappointing.
The return journey even proved that the marketing hadn't actually translated to people buying tickets. The majority of people returning on the Gatimaan Express were either journalists or Indian Rail employees. The train was so empty that journalists actually invaded the executive coaches and no one minded because it was just that empty.
Which is not to say people weren't excited. They were excited enough to take selfies with the train and gush about it... just not enough to actually buy a ticket. Marketing will only get you so far. If the Indian Railways are hoping this train could generate some serious revenue, they have a lot of work on their hands to stop the Gatimaan Express from becoming a trainwreck.
Edited by Payal Puri