Kashmir train has provided a cheaper faster more reliable alternative to travel in Kashmir. Saima Riyaz takes a trip on a sunny March day.
A shriek horn marks the arrival of the train. It causes quite a commotion on the station when it reaches it. In winter, beautiful snow clad mountain peaks, in the pathway of one hour journey from Srinagar to Qazigund, present a breathtaking view. The train rushes through the rice fields, with hay stakes forming a beautiful mosaic in the fields.
The journey is quite comfortable. One can easily fall asleep though whenever it crosses an iron bridge it makes large noise. Being a small distance local train service, the seats are not reserved and passengers take any available seats. At peak hours the train is usually crowded and some passengers can’t find a seat.
Our train is almost empty but the one coming from other direction, which we meet at a station on the single track route, is heavily overcrowded.
The other passengers travelling in the compartment seem to be regular or at least frequent commuters and are busy talking, listening to loud music from their cell phones or taking pictures of the scenery outside. Enjoying the journey in their own way. However, many people seated close by, playing different music very loudly in a small area makes it cacophony of sounds.
Two compartments are reserved for women and the disabled. The rest are open to all commuters. The train can accommodate around 700 people. The fare between Srinagar and Qazigund is Rs 13 and for children it is Rs 7, quite cheap as compared to bus fares.
The seats are arranged in rows of two and three with a walkway in between. Each seat has a three-pin electrical socket which passengers can use to charge laptops or mobile phones. Heater and fans are present above every seat to give warmth in winter and cool air in summers.
In the train disfigured chairs, broken window handles, uprooted communication cords can be seen in all the compartments showing a complete absence of maintenance. Some naughty travelers have scribbled phone numbers, addresses etc. all over the backs of the chairs.
All the seats of the train cars face the same direction, when the train moves in the same direction the journey is quite comfortable. But when the train moves in opposite direction, as it does, the travel can be nauseating for some.
Next to my seat, a girl accompanied by her friend, tossing grapes into her mouth, was boasting about her music collection. Others were playing music or surfing the internet. Some ‘vagabonds’ apparently travelling to pass time, indulge in inappropriate behavior giving tough time to other travellers. The train is mostly used by students, employees, labourers and other people travelling for work.
People are happy because it saves money as well as time. One of the benefits of the rail service is that any regular traveler – an employee, student or labourer, can get a monthly, quarterly or seasonal pass from any station to any other station, on nominal charges. A pass holder can travel any number of times on the stretch it is taken for.
Though it is a short journey yet people buy snacks from the hawkers travelling in the train. Hawkers, local and non-local ones, selling peanuts, coconut, namkeens, bhel puri and French fries, do good business. These vendors travel free of charge.
Aadil Hussain, a post-graduate student, from Bijbehara, travels regularly on the train. “I prefer travelling by train over sumo as it saves money and time,” he says. The train halts for a minute or so at every station which appear at ten minute intervals. At every station a few passengers wait on the platform to board the train.
There are no hotels or restaurants at the stations. However, a refreshments counter is present in every station but the commuters say that nothing is available there. “Advertisements on canteen counters invite for Tea/Coffee but the reality is the counters neither offer tea nor coffee,” says Aadil.
Unlike typical railway stations, the stations on the track are neither overcrowded nor noisy but quite serene. The major railway stations of Srinagar and Budgam are spacious than other stations on the route.
On every station, there are residential quarters for Railway Police and the railway employees. Railway police patrols the train from one compartment to another all the time.
“Tickets are checked when the train is overloaded, otherwise it is not checked. Train Ticket Examiner (TTE) checks tickets and anybody travelling without a ticket is fined Rs200,” says Aadil.
The sign boards on railway stations are written in Urdu, English and relatively prominent in Hindi. The Urdu in the sign boards stands out for the frequent mistakes in it.
“The signs boards claim that the railway stations are fully maintained and advertise the services available at the stations but the water taps are running dry, restrooms are not properly cleaned, in fact restrooms for ladies are used by gents and those for gents are not in a usable condition,” says another commuter.
At Qazigund the last southern station on the track, people board the train as soon as it hit the station. The same train will be making the return journey within five minutes.
The train does not move at express speed. The driver says that the train has to be slow as it has to stop frequently as distance between stations is not much.
Despite its slow speed there have been a few accidents in which some people have been hit by the train. Sharing such an incident Aadil Hussain says, “That day I was in the train when it stopped for few minutes. I thought there was some signal problem but then we came to know that a woman had been hit.”
Surprisingly, as soon as the train reaches Srinagar station at Nowgam, people jostle to disembark. The crowd almost runs to the waiting Lal Chowk-bound busses and Sumo vehicles, which are filled up in no time.
A middle aged person travelling from Qazigund said, “The rail network of the valley should be strengthened which will take away some pressure from overloaded busses and reduce long traffic jams besides bringing relief to the common people”.
The train services in Kashmir were run between Baramulla and Qazigund. However, during the 2010 Summer unrest the services were suspended for some months. Though the service between Qazigund and Nowgam Srinagar has been restarted, the Srinagar Baramulla section is yet to be restored.