The Indian Railways which took birth on 8 May 1845, when the Madras Railway Company was created, recently completed 186 years. It has been chugging along connecting humanity with joy in all parts of India.
This pandemic has taught us an important lesson of valuing the things that you take for granted. In that spirit, I thought of sharing my experiences with the Indian Railways, celebrating this great mode of transport, as well as look at how it can strengthen its brand value.
Even in this horrible and devastating pandemic, the Railways is playing a crucial role by running many “Oxygen Express” trains ferrying the lifesaving element, and creating enormous goodwill.
Hence, I thought it imperative to pay a humble tribute for all that it has done for humanity during its existence.
Romancing the Railways
My romance with the Indian Railways dates back to the mid-sixties. Summer vacation trips to your native home in Thrissur, Kerala were a normal phenomenon and initially it was from Pune as my father was posted at the Armed Forces Medical College, and then from the seventies it was Delhi to Thrissur every year, without fail. It would start with the good old black and yellow Ambassador taxi from Vinay Nagar to the New Delhi Railway station. As we reached the station, the initial haggling with the porter would start and once the price was fixed to load everything on the train, it was cool.
The first thing that struck you about the station was the smell and hustle and bustle of the people rushing around purposefully. Then there were the AH Wheeler book stores, the snack shops and the guys going around with a metal chain and choice of locks to ensure that you got off with the luggage you boarded. It was customary to buy these and chain the all-important metal trunks inside the train. We would get a first class cabin which had four berths and a door to lock and ensure privacy. A standard compartment had about eight or nine such cabins. The train that we mostly took was the Grand Trunk Express which reached Madras Central after two nights and then we had a long halt before we changed trains. We enjoyed the luxury of a waiting room with high ceilings at the colonial era station with the smell of sambar and filter coffee wafting by.
Food and dining
Railway journeys have bequeathed a bundle of knowledge and wisdom across disciplines in me. Take food. I had never heard of soup, leave alone tomato soup. Served in paper cups, the soup was unforgettable. The vegetable cutlets and the aloo bondas were our constant companions. Since the trip took more than two nights it was obvious that we would get very well acquainted with the waiters serving us. A couple of such waiters would get friendly and would suggest the other delicacies on the train that would not reach passengers in the first-class compartment, which was at one end of the train. Hence the visit to the “Dining Car” and the excitement of sitting and ordering your food. The chicken curry with rice or the unique Railway mutton curry was a must to sample. There always was Fish fry with Russian salad which was a revelation to me. Surprising though it may sound, the Dining Car was where I picked up table manners – learning to tie the napkin around my neck, use the knife, fork, and eat without appearing to be munching.
The conversation pieces
Every family travelling would carry a “Time Table” with them to match if the train was chugging into a junction on time. It always was late. This was the first ice breaker between families as we met in the common passage. Once a conversation started, it was normal for co-passengers to drop in and exchange goodies from their food basket. It was imperative for all families to carry tasty snacks for the journey.
Conversations were about what parents did, the schools that kids go to, the home town, ancestral house, and of course routine politics and cricket. This bonding was unique to the Railways and by the end of the trip co-ordinates were exchanged to communicate further. In those days the telephone was a rarity and hence post cards or inland letters were exchanged about the two months you spent in your ancestral home with your grandparents. Youngsters today would not even have seen a post card or an Inland letter. These joys have gone forever.
Junction and their significance
There were some 15-16 big railway junctions between Delhi and Thrissur. Junctions are important in the railway network. Initially, we used to travel by the GT Express, then came the Jayanti Janata Express and the KK (Karnataka-Kerala) Express. Each Junction in the railway network had its traits and specialities.
The first one after Delhi was Agra where the Pethas and the Pedas , and the miniatures of Taj Mahal would sell like hot cakes. Then came Nagpur and the smell of fresh oranges could not be ignored. They were inexpensive and people would buy a “Tokri” (basket). It usually was a half hour halt and the compartment would be flooded with all sorts of vendors hawking their wares, but oranges ruled. As the train left Maharashtra it chugged into Andhra and the legendary Vijayawada junction. It was famous in the seventies for two things – mutton biryani packets and black grape juice. Both made you attain Nirvana, and the taste lasted in your senses for quite a while. I once got clipped between by ears as my father was furious as I stepped on to the platform from the train to get my second glass of grape juice. These memories will stay with me forever.
As the train chugged out of Vijaywada, it would suddenly slow down as we were crossing the mighty Krishna river. The windows would open and we all would excitedly see the swirling waters below and the shaking iron bridge. My mother would give us a fistful of small denomination coins. We were supposed to close our eyes and pray for what we wished in life and then slowly throw the coins, one by one into the river. The crossing took about 5-6 minutes , sometimes more. After the river as the train picked speed, we would discuss what we wished for. No one would say the actual facts as it was between them and the river. Folklore had it that if you reveal, it shall not come true. That’s how naïve and gullible train journeys made you, but it was bliss.
Work-life and luxury travel
In the 2000s, I worked on the Malayala Manorama account, leading to frequent work trips between Delhi where I was based to Kottayam where the client was. I would take a flight to Chennai and from there take the “Madras Mail” or the “Alleppey Express” to Kottayam and back.
It involved First Class AC travel and I had only heard of it from my Madras Branch Manager Ashok Prasad. The first time you travel in the coupe of two berths it totally impresses you. A traditionally dressed waiter would wait outside for orders. As the train chugged out of Madras Central, you would sit with your feet up, sipping the spirited beverage of your choice along with steaming hot snacks, relishing the scenery outside. The hospitality of these southern trains stay in your memories for a long time.
Will the Railways ever be privatized? We keep hearing the Government has no business to be in Business. Certainly, it has vast potential for increasing its revenues.
Let me share a small example to illustrate this. In 2008-09 I was involved in a project to create an “infotainment and entertainment system” for select trains. Four of us were involved - a former chairman of the Railway Board, a software engineer from the US, a Chartered Accountant and me. My role was to conceptualize the advertising, marketing and the business revenue potential of the entertainment system. The idea was simple: A tablet of 10 inch screen size with head phones would be given to all passengers. The passenger had to switch it on and enter the train name and his PNR number and it would flash his picture, welcoming him on board with all details of his journey. It ran on an Intranet system, called “Rail Tel” . He could connect with the outside world as well as with any other passenger on board as well as surf for content. Once the prototype was ready it was tested on the Delhi to Amritsar Shatabdi Express. It worked without a problem and the project was forwarded to the ministry for clearance.
This is where the hiccups began. The concept had immense potential as you could get data on millions of train travellers and their consumption patterns. The revenue potential from advertising on this rail entertainment network was projected at over Rs 1,000 crore. Just visualize this: Over 1000 trains journeying up and down meant 2000 media vehicles of entertainment and infotainment. You could give the advertisers the geographical flexibility, and the receptivity of viewing. A viewership monitoring system could easily be put in place. Based on four weeks of data viewership patterns, we could figure out the top viewership generating trains and put a different price structures for advertising. It had the potential to become the largest media network in India.
We tried for close to two years to get this rolling before giving up. It still can be done today, and in a better way, as technology has made giant leaps in the intervening years. The Indian Railways as a brand has the potential to become as valuable as the IPL. But this would need complete delegation of authority and responsibility to the executor and implementer. Not easy in today’s times but not impossible either.
The writer has spent over three decades in advertising and media at the top advertising agencies of India