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Planes, trains, and automobiles

July 20, 2011

Riding on a train allowed me to see a part of India that I never would have otherwise.  I mean this in terms of location, but also of the transportation system itself and the people that use it.

So first outside of the train: yes I saw some great scenery.  The train at many points was right by the coast of India so I could see the beaches and the tributaries that fed the sea.  Also, the states that I went through:  Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu are the three largest coconut producing states in India.  This means there were lots of coconut trees.  In Kerala the trees were very unorganized and they would be planted every which way and mostly were in people’s back yards.  In Tamil Nadu, there were coconut plantations, meaning all of the coconut trees were spaced evenly and were very close together.  I was also able to see the whole range of houses in India.  There were what looked to be colonial type houses—painted white, sometimes with some columns—and then there were houses that were made entirely of dried coconut leaves and palm fronds, even the roof—and then there were the more normal house of cement with the typical red tile roof.

Inside the train we were in the AC three tier car.  There are at least six different types of cars: AC/non AC three tier sleeper, AC/non AC two tier sleeper, AC first class which is bus seating, non AC second class which is bus seating.  The train has no closed compartments; the whole car is open.  In each compartment there would be six bunks, two tier would have four, all about 6 feet by 3 feet with about 4 feet in between the right side and left side bunks.  It was a little tight, but it was manageable.

The most interesting parts though were the stations.  Every station was extremely crowded with people from all walks of life.  There were the beggars who were carrying their babies and asking for money.  There were the yogi-type villagers who wore the traditional dress and brought only a laundry bag of luggage and sat down Indian style on the cement.  There were the businessmen whose ears were glued to their cell phones—and they talked as loud as Americans, quite a feat.  There were also Indian tourists who brought twice the luggage I did to India.  There were Hindus, Muslims, and Christians—though it is hardest to tell who is Christian.  All these people were catered to by a hundred little stores offering American like snacks like popcorn, Lays original potato chips, and cokes or the Indian snacks of ground nuts, Lays masala chips, and fruit and fruit juices.  There were also places selling tea, coffee, or just warm milk.  For a dinner they had plenty of biryanis, my favorite.

I have to temper all this because I think the transportation system is one of the things holding India back.  As I’ve told you before the roads are crazy, but also not very wide in most places and usually full of potholes.  The top speed they reach on their highway is around 45mph.  The train is about the same speed. They have no high speed rails and the express trains only go marginally higher.  The transportation costs within India are extremely high in terms of time and money, which has hindered growth in many of the cities not near ports.  That’s why on the business trip we went almost exclusively to port cities—that’s where all the manufacturing is also.  So to develop India has to continue to develop infrastructure-something they are not doing so well at right now.  Anyways, the trip on train was delightful and insightful and I hope my retelling has been so as well.

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