Memories of last year’s train collision that killed 40 and injured almost 200, haunted this diarist as the high-speed train she was in zipped through the rainy dark night. But the occasional jolts and jerks seemed to disturb no one else in the half-occupied compartment. A government investigation into the crash had found faults in the design of the control centre equipment, as well as in its inspection. Fifty-four officials had been indicted. But had things been set right? The fears of high-speed trains haven’t gone away, but are often overridden by the temptation of saving an hour of travel, especially if it’s a day trip. However, the fare, almost four times that of a normal fast train, is a deterrent. While the morning train was almost full, the return train at night was almost empty, so passengers who had reservations for the last train could catch the earlier one.
No public commemoration of the first anniversary of the Wenzhou crash between two high-speed trains has been allowed; critical internet posts have also been removed. Online reports say that three persons who turned up at the site of the crash on July 23 were arrested. At first glance, train travel seems much more orderly than in India. Only passengers are allowed inside stations. You sit in the departure hall upstairs, and file through a narrow exit when your train is announced. Getting that seat in the hall is important, for your train may well be an hour late. Unlike in India, the announcer doesn’t say how late the train is running, so you keep standing, hoping it will come any minute.
Inside the train, though, you could be back in India, seated amid the cacophony of children, mothers, vendors. The latter (normally women) come with cooked meals which they serve on thermocol plates —rice, meat, vegetables; or with cellophane packed fruit; or the ubiquitous instant flavoured noodles. Families nonchalantly occupy adjacent seats and reluctantly make way when the rightful claimants of those seats turn up. Dining shelves are heaped with steel plates full of bones from earlier meals, and mounds of sunflower seed-shells. Like Indians, the Chinese seem to never stop eating in trains. But unlike Indians, who pack dry meals on long trips, the Chinese prefer their meals in semi-liquid form and very, very hot.
A box of instant noodles constitutes every traveller’s meal. They come with plastic forks, used to pierce open the foil cover. Running hot water is available at every station and on every train. You sprinkle the seasoning onto the dry noodles, fill the noodles box with hot water, remove the foil cover after 10 minutes — presto, your meal is done. Although this diarist looked on with apprehension as the little girl next to her tried to manoeuvre the piping hot noodle soup with a fork, rarely does anyone spill this staple meal. However, disaster did strike when a boy dropped his tinned corn soup all over his neighbour. While his mother, seated a few seats away, remained blissfully unaware, another passenger quietly cleaned up the mess. A child peed on the compartment floor; his mother simply got up, brought a long-handled mop from somewhere in the train, and mopped the floor.
It was school vacation time; many kids were being taken back to their villages by their grandfathers, probably because their parents — migrant labour — couldn’t get away from work. Almost invariably, while the little grandsons pestered their grandfathers, their elder sisters, themselves not more than six or eight years old, quietly took out their drawing books and started sketching.
All this excitement was in the normal, long-distance “hard-seat’’ train, which resembled our AC chair cars. The high-speed train, as befits its status, was quieter, and infinitely more boring.