India is heaven for classic train fans. The country’s railways are still an important part of the transportation infrastructure, and many domestic travelers move around the country by train instead of flying. Some tourists try to tap into this locomotive culture by taking special luxury trains like the Maharajas Express. More adventurous tourists ride the rails in second or third class because they think it is the best way to see “the real India.”
And while the rails are an iconic part of Indian travel, they are hardly a speedy way to get around. With the rise of domestic low-cost airlines, tourists can get to the next place on their itinerary much quicker by flying.
Speeding up India’s highest profile rail route
Some trains in India are about to get faster, however. Though it wouldn’t win a race with the bullet trains in Japan or Europe, the New Delhi Habibganj Shatabdi Express is the current speed king in India. This service, between the capital and the city of Bhopal, reaches a top speed of around 96 miles per hour. A new train, dubbed the Gatimaan Express, will serve the popular tourist route between New Delhi and Agra, where the Taj Mahal is located. In tests, the Gatimaan reached speed just shy of 100 mph.
These are not as impressive as the train velocities seen elsewhere in the world, obviously. Indian railway spokespeople have been quick to quash dreams of Japan-like bullet trains. Officials have been carefully referring to the Gatimaan as a “semi-high-speed train.”
The start of a semi-high-speed revolution?
Even so, this is a major move for India’s railways. The plan is to launch regular service on the new train between Delhi and Agra by March of 2016. If everything goes well, the Gatimaan could expand its route offerings in the future and other semi-high-speed trains could come online.
Actually, the aforementioned Shatabdi Express already serves the Delhi-Agra route. Before moving on to Bhopal, it stops at the station near the Taj Mahal approximately two hours and six minutes after departing from the capital. Without stops, the Gatimaan completed the trip in one hour and 25 minutes during a recent test run. With stops, it will make the journey in one hour and 45 minutes.
A cheap, safe way to get around India
Railway officials have already settled on the fares for the trip. A standard seat on the new train will cost 690 rupees, which is about $10.50. First class fares will run about $20.80 (or 1,365 rupees). That is slightly more expensive than the current rates for travel between the capital and Agra on the Shatabdi Express (1,000 rupees for first class and 540 for a standard seat).
The Gatimaan’s planners are being very transparent about safety tests, even saying that they will be putting engineers through rigorous screening and training before they get to take the controls. Derailments and accidents do occasionally occur on Indian railways, but an accident here, on a service aimed at tourists, could be catastrophic for the country’s image as a whole and its train travel industry in particular.
A rivalry with airlines
Faster trains are needed to compete with the rapidly developing domestic air travel industry. The government has announced that it wants to make air travel more affordable for the masses by setting fare maximums and renovating regional airports. This could put a dent in the railway economy. People would still ride the rails, but those who are willing to spend more for first or second class seats would be able to afford flights instead. This would leave the trains without valuable income.
Next March, tourists will be able to get to the Taj a little bit earlier in the day, and they will also be able to say that they took a ride on the fastest train in India.