Catching the Pushpak

Pushpak is not a bird, but a train. I almost successfully ruined my record of never having missed a train despite trying to do so each time I have travelled alone. In the story ahead, I will try to narrate you the sequence of events that led to me almost missing yet just managing to get on board the Pushpak Express. Enjoy…   🙂

Date: 26th February 2010

7:24am: After snoozing my morning alarm twice in a subconscious state, I finally heard and registered that it was my mobile phone’s ring and not the Nokia tune I composed in my brain. “Haan main uth gaya hu… nai yaar… I was about to enter the bathroom… Yes I will… cya.” That was me lying to my wife. Actually I had to. She is aware of my ‘almost missed the train’ stories and was righteously worried.

8:00am: The spring in me had to function really well. Exactly 28 min after my wife’s call (yes I slept another 5 min after she called), I was all ready and about to leave my home. 5 minutes to go down, 25 min to go to Thane station, 5 min to punch the coupon, another 5 min to catch the local and then 30 min to Kalyan station. Meaning exactly at 9:10 am, I’d have been standing at the platform No. 4 of Kalyan station, waiting for Pushpak express. The scheduled arrival of the train was 9:12am. I had also called my friend to drop me to the station on a bike to save those additional precious few minutes. The plan was perfectly in order and, what you say as a slang, “Cut to Cut”.

8:35am: Let me remind you, you are on Mayur’s Blog and reading about MY story. So every thing here IS INDEED cut to cut. But I cant say the same thing about my life. Meaning we met traffic on our way to station. Forget saving, we ended up losing 3 minutes. Add to that, the coupon counter was crowded. So it took me another 5 minutes to punch the coupons. In the process, I lost the 8:35 slow local to Kalyan, which I was originally scheduled to catch. Since I had to recover the lost time, I thought if I could catch the fast local to Badlapur from platform 5 instead of the next slow Kalyan local at 8:40 from platform 2. Par wo Kehte hai na, jab gidhad ki maut aati hai to sheher ki taraf bhagta hai. Aur main bhaga bheed ki taraf. The foot over bridge was so over crowded, I ended up being caught on it, in the middle of the two platforms, haplessly watching both trains depart. I cant describe you the agony here. I can only laugh.

8:45am: 10 minutes lost. Crucial 10 minutes lost!!! The next fast local on platform number 5 was 9:03am fast train to Ambarnath. There was no way I could hope that it ran ahead of Pushpak (since they were supposed to run on the same track). The fastest a slow train could ply between Thane and Kalyan was 25 min. I still had 2 minutes safety margin. Considering this and hoping that there was a next train from Platform 2, I muscled my way back only to read the next train was at 8:48am AND going only to Dombivli. And then I looked up… and then down… and then sideways. Gosh! I was sure to miss my train. (For those people who dont know, Dombivli is 2 stations before Kalyan. Meaning now there was no way I could reach Kalyan before Pushpak express reached there.)

8:48am: I called my wife, “Shayad meri train chhutne wali hai… arre nai yaar… naaaa! Sab thik ho jata agar… forget it. Dont worry, I’ll be there.” Another 2 minutes went off and there was no sign of the Dombivli local train. I was now getting increasingly nervous. I had no idea if I was going to make it. If I managed to miss the train, I had two option, one was to take a flight (at INR 10,000 it was a very costly option) or to board the next train (at 1:30pm) and travel in an unreserved compartment. I just prayed for a miracle.

9:10am: Getting out of a terminating local in Dombivli in the morning rush hour is like fighting the old British rulers in their own backyard. It is THAT difficult. But I could not afford to lose time and energy both. “Jai Bajarang Bali” I decided to jump and cross tracks from the wrong way and get to the adjoining platform. Within seconds I was standing below the indicator. It read the “9:16, A, F12” meaning the next local was a fast local train to Ambarnath departing at 9:16am. And Pushpak’s departure timing in Kalyan was 9:15am. “Cut to Cut”, is what you call it?

9:13am: I called my wife again. I have always found it very soothing to talk to her when my a** is on fire. Because she starts laughing, whose intensity becomes the indicator of my performance. Anyway, in the background the lady was announcing the commuters on Platform number 4 to stand away from the border line as a fast train was about to pass. We both uselessly prayed, I dont know for what. May be we were hoping that the train was not Pushpak. And a train approached with vehemence & ferocity.  And it WAS Pushpak Express. Sigh! How does it feel when the train you want to catch actually rumbles in front of your eyes while you hopelessly watch? Ask me.

9:16am: I was now feeling like a tail ender batsman on whom lied India’s world cup hopes. I had to hit a six of the last ball, whereas I was not even confident of connecting with the ball. And I was hopelessly hoping for the guy to bowl 6 no or wide balls. But what option did I have? I decided to take a chance and board the Ambarnath local train. My circus had come to an end. Now only god could help. No doubt I had my favourite Ganapati Bappa on my finger tips, my lips, in my brain and all over the body.

9:21am: Still in the train, I was getting desperate. The equation was tough. Pushpak had to stop for 10, or at least 8 minutes on Kalyan station for me to have a real chance. The probability was very low, since the scheduled halt was never more than 4 minutes. Moreover there was one more catch. The express and fast local trains normally travel on the same track, and so take the same platform most of the times. By this time the train would have reached the platform4, I thought. So I hoped that if at all Pushpak had not departed, my local train had to take a different platform (possibly platform 5) for me to have a real chance. It all became the game of probabilities.

9:25am: My local train slowly chugged on to Kalyan station. Since it was crowded, I couldn’t figure out which platform it was taking. The relative ease of the driver was very disturbing for me. Had Pushpak left? Were we going on platform 4 or 5? I didn’t want to think. Who would want to take a choice between spending big money and be saved from the beating down from wife and mother OR take a 13 hrs journey in an unreserved compartment and then face an angry wife? The choice was difficult to make, especially when I was standing on the foot board with my haver sack tugged behind and eager to jump down.

9:26am: I got down amidst the chaos not knowing which platform it was, only to realise that the local had parked itself on platform no. 5. That was a good news, meaning there might be a train standing on the other side. I swiftly squeezed myself between some people ahead and bulldozed the others who refused to acknowledge the courtesy to reach platform no. 4. I could see a train standing from distance. It had started moving slowly, very slowly. I ran towards it. I could slightly imagine what was written on the instruction board. “2533 Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus to Lucknow Pu… PUSHPAKKKKK!!!” Yessss! I made it!

9:28am: My wife got a call on her mobile. “Hello… Mil gayi train. Haan haan mil gayi… ufff! Ya ya… achha baba I’ll be careful… Pata nahi S9 ya S10 hai aur muze S4 mein jana hai. Dont worry I’ll go…” I finally caught the Pushpak and made it to Bhopal. Holi was great.

Hope you enjoyed reading.  🙂

Railway catering is a lucrative business story

Travel has been very frequent these days, mostly after my marriage. Its so much at times that we are on the wheels almost every alternate weekend. Indian railways should be paying me some rewards back for being so loyal to them. Not that I like them too much, I’m not denying the fact that almost all the recent journeys have been an enjoyable experience. In my earlier post I had written about the eventful journey in a crowded train. This one highlights one more facets of the Laloo Yadav army, the railway catering (or food they serve).

I boarded Lashkar Express, which travels between LTT (in Mumbai) and Agra Cant, last Friday afternoon. As most of us would expect from Indian Railways, it got delayed. We were just about 2 hours away from Mumbai and the train took an abrupt halt at a very small station. It was just about time for the sun to set. Being alone and with no body else on my adjoining seat, I had nothing to do. So I decided to take a walk to the door and get down on the low platform on the station. On the door I met this guy Sundar Prasad (I read from his name plate). From the dress he looked like a waiter in the catering services and from the partially grey hair he looked like a man in his mid forties. He was taking orders for dinner. I registered mine as he went inside our coach to ask if anybody else wanted the dinner as well. He returned in 5 minutes with a dejected face. On my enquiry, he said since the train was not running to the capacity, there were very few orders for dinner tonight, about 15 in our compartment. 15 is a pretty good figure, I said to myself, considering the quality of food they serve. 🙂

“So how much do you normally sell each night?’ I asked. “At least 20-25 per compartment. That too when we are not serving the one’s on waiting ticket.” Oh, cool. Thats a pretty big number. Considering that on an average an express train has about 10-12 second class coaches and 4 air conditioned coaches. So as a sales guy, there are 15 coaches as Sundar’s target. meaning about 1000 passengers to aim at. And he manages to sell 300 dinners at Rs. 40 each, an income of 12,000. My brain had already started doing the math. I prodded him more on other things, say what else do they do, where they earn more and how do they manage. He said they manage to sell about 200 lunches and 300 dinners every day (add another 8000). They could sell more but are not allowed to give to those on a wait listed ticket. Apart from that, they also serve snacks, about 800-1000 plates every day priced any thing between Rs. 10 to 20 (15 was the obvious average. It makes the income to further up by 13,500). Not forgetting the tea, it alone adds to a major portion of the total earning. Besides you also have the wafers, namkeen, cold drinks, mineral water bottles on the menu. Add the income from every thing I mentioned and you could be earning a whooping 50,000 per day per train if you were a railway contractor. Wow! That too without maintaining a proper restaurant and/or spending on over heads.

But of course, there are some obvious problems associated with it as well. Sundar rightly pointed out that the biggest problem was maintaining and replenishing fresh inventory. They had to depend on vendors that we outside their perview. For example, the caterer Sunder was working for was from Ghaziabad. So when the train came to Mumbai, they had to depend on the local supplier for fresh stocks of food. They had cold storages, however it was not always reliable. Moreover the apathy of Indian government in managing a decent kitchen often makes the contractor face the public wrath. Moreover the train delays only add to the wows. Another bad thing is to go through the hell hole of the Indian railway’s tendering process. Even though your performance was good or bad, the contract expires after an year and you need to bid again. Plus, as an owner there is no monitoring your team. SO this is subjected to lot of frauds unless you are a company and have deployed your employee in every train.

Anyway, the train halted for almost 40min on that small deserted platform. It was almost dark by the time we ended our conversation. I told him that I edit a forum with 23,000 members and said I’m going to write about him. Thankfully, he was pleased despite the low orders and the waste of time we did (rather I did). But it gave me a story to write here and a new (read yet another) business idea. May be I’m not going to bid for it, but railway catering is surely a lucrative business.

Second Class Waiting

My journey to Nagpur last weekend was no less than eventful. The festival of Rakshabandhan fell on the long weekend. Moreover some people also had a leave on 19th August. So taking advantage of the leaves and spacious Indian Railway bogies, most of the home going enthusiasts thronged Vidarbha Express (It runs between Mumbai CST and Gondia via Nagpur). I was one of them 🙂

I couldn’t muster a confirm reservation for myself in the Third AC compartment. So I asked my friend who apparently knew an agent to book a tatkal ticket for me. Promptly he helped me with the bogey and the seat number. However there were two others who had sought his help and one of them was handed the ticket. So my first task was to locate them once I enter the compartment. All I knew was his first name. Anyway, so the train romped its way to Dadar station. I was in no hurry to get inside assuming since I had a confirm ticket, there was no way some one else could occupy my seat. I was proved wrong later. Even before the train could halt, the riotous mob was already inside. I some how managed to save my bag and made my way inside through a herd of wise men, large suitcases, crying children and seething ladies already occupying their places. I was up for another surprise… and frustration.

Although I managed to find my accomplices, there were 15 other people trying to occupy the cabin that could only hold 6 of them. Sweating profusely and grinning sarcastically, I pushed, shoved, chided and planted my bum on the whatever available space I could occupy. Beating Mumbai humidity in an extremely crowded train, that too when you have every right to occupy your seat is very difficult. I at least had a right to ask for my place. But imagine my situation if I had been traveling on a second class waiting ticket.

My anger subsided pretty quickly though, I was awed by the comfort and cheerfulness of people around me. They were ecstatic, warm and surprisingly at ease. With hot cups of tea, the communication broke out and the group started discussing Abhinav Bindra, Indian Cricket team, Nuclear deal, Nagpur, Manmohan Singh, IT industry, jobs etc. One of the families also offered us some food to eat. They had a small daughter who was very naughty. She made sure no body slept till midnight. And when I got a chance, I slept on half of the berth with remaining half occupied by the luggage. My generous mates shared a berth and gave the other one to a lady and her son. They were traveling on a waiting ticket.

I could hardly realise when it was dawn already. I reached Nagpur with happy memories. I called up my wife to tell he I was safe and sound and at home. She said, “Honey the train must have been very crowded. How did you manage?” How do I tell her, Second Class waiting was indeed fun.