A 'special' train

Trip Start Aug 14, 2007
Trip End May 23, 2008

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India
GMT +5:30hrs

'Travelling across India by rail is likely to yield some of the most memorable moments of your trip. Open around the clock, the stations themselves are often great places to watch the world go by, with hundreds of people from all walks of life eating, sleeping, buying and selling, regardless of the hour'
- The Rough Guide to India, 6th edition

7 and a half hours... and counting
It is 1am, March 20th 2008. We should be on the 4005a train from Varanasi to Delhi right now, but we're not. We should be 7 and a half hours into the 14 hour journey, but we're not. We should be asleep in our 3rd class air-conditioned bunks, but, you've guessed it, we're not. Instead of all that we're sitting in the stationmaster's control room of Varanasi's Cantonment train station. It's a dingy, rectangular room, dusty (as always) with a front wall, looking out onto the main concourse, of meshed glass through which, via a tiny circular opening, an endless line of Indians question train departure times and platform numbers to the indifferent Indian Rail staff members we're sharing the room with. We feel like goldfish in an aquarium. Once the Indians get to the front of the queue and are about to deliver their question they spot something totally unexpected - westerners frowning out at them. It's a sight that invariably surprises them, the 'what-are-they-doing-there?' look on their faces unmistakable.

'special' train
We're here because the 4005a train, with a scheduled departure time of 5:35pm, is delayed. Royally delayed. 7 and a half hours and counting.

"What platform is train 4005a going from?" we asked shortly after arriving in the station from our guest house thanks to another trip on one of Varanasi's auto-rickshaws.

"That train is delayed Sir. Departure at 7:30pm." we were told.

An inconvenience but no big deal. We saw the delay as an opportunity to go out for something to eat and to check our e-mail, both of which we duly did. We were back at 7pm.

"8:30 departure Sir... it's a 'special' train and sometimes they are delayed," was the latest reply we got to our latest 'when-will-the-train-be-here' query.

It certainly didn't feel 'special' to us. We sat around, reading a newspaper, getting stared at and taking in the madness around us.

"10pm Sir"

By this stage we had been invited into the stationmaster's control room as the station concourse was turning into a bit of a mass camp out, minus tents, by the lowest rungs of Varanasi society.

"Will the train be here soon?"

That was at 9:50pm and was the last time we asked of the train; by then we were just resigned to our fate - when it comes it comes (for the record the stationmaster's reply was "maybe").

So we had learnt earlier in the evening from the then stationmaster (we've sat through a few changes of stationmaster shift) that our train is a "special" train. 'Special' in this context obviously means it doesn't follow any particular timetable and that no one, not even the stationmaster, whose job it is to know this stuff, knows where it is and nobody, again not even the stationmaster, knows when it's liable to actually arrive, if at all. While they, the stationmaster's, may not know too much about the trains due to arrive at their train station they at least seem to know a bit about segregation, getting us safely away from the mass camp out of Indians presently taking place on the other side of the glass wall. Of course segregation brings its own problems, assuming you mind being stared at incessantly by the dozens of Indians who are presently peering at us through the glass wall. We don't mind, mainly because they seem more interested with the other two westerners in the room with us... two girls from... well, we don't actually know from where. Somewhere in Europe is our best guess based on their language. We'd know for sure where they were from if we actually drummed up a 'fellow-westerner-stuck-in-a-Varanasi-train-station-control-room-waiting-on-a-special-train-to-arrive' conversation. But I think we're all too tired for that, and of course preoccupied with wondering when this damn 'special' train will come, if at all. According to the same guidebook I quoted from to begin this entry the Indian Rail system, which has 60,000km of track, 14,000 locomotives, transports 12 million passengers a day and with 1.6million employees is the biggest employer in the world,

'looks like chaos, but works, and works well. Trains are often late of course, sometimes by hours rather than minutes, but they do run, and with amazing efficiency too'

Good. Then we're expecting to see a train at some stage tonight/this morning and when it does arrive we're expecting 'amazing efficiency' all the way from here to Delhi. I can't quite remember Indian trains being that efficient, but I can't recall them being this inefficient either.

Day 220 Observations (so far) (March 20th 2008)

Don't do it
If you ever find yourself in India organising train tickets and you are offered a berth on a 'special' train, don't take it. Oh, and 'special' train or not, if you ever find yourself waiting for a delayed train in an India train station don't hassle the stationmaster's as they'll have no idea when your train will be arriving.
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Where I stayed
Varanasi train station!
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