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The Lessons of Long-Distance Train Rides

Buzz Poole
02/07/2012 - 00:00

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m a sucker for train travel. Across the globe, the development of rail systems is so intertwined with national histories and cultural developments that it is hard not to appreciate and admire trains and their roles in changing how we think of distance and mobility.

This Economist article, “All Aboard the Vivek Express,” details a new “weekly service, for the first time it connects directly, by rail, the far north-east of the subcontinent . . . through ‘mainland’ India and down to its southernmost tip, at Kanyakumari.” Starting in Dibrugarh, from where the Himalayan foothills are visible, the four-day, 4,200 kilometer trip seems to do more than get passengers from Point A to Point B. Cutting across this sizeable, albeit narrow, swathe of the country, what the author brings into focus are the economic disparities and cultural differences between those whom live in the north and those whom live in the south.

Not only does this train originate in a region that abuts disputed borders, the region, according to the author, comprises “the seven poor and neglected states stuck on the wrong side of Bangladesh.” As the train travels south, however, India’s prosperity is more visible, both in terms of the passing scenery and the passengers. Just the fact that this route now exists demonstrates how dramatically India is changing. If it is for the better or worse is a more complex question, and one with no clear-cut, simple answer, but this rail journey certainly gives some indications that favor both sides of the debate.

Just take a look at the reporter’s list of items being sold on the train: “samosas, biryanis, newspapers, paperback novels, SIM cards, memory sticks and a great deal more.” Only in the twenty-first century would such an eclectic collection of goods make perfect sense. The older passengers stare out the windows, drink chai and whiskey (which is against the rules) as younger riders watch movies on laptops and use their phones (which impressively never lose reception along the entirety of the route). The author sums up the people riding with him thusly: “Mostly they are educated and rich enough to need to travel long distances—some to study, others to trade or find work—they yet cannot afford the cost of flying.”

So, in fact, for many of those riding this railway from end to end, this is really just a long commute. Of course, it is good that jobs and opportunities exist. Though wouldn’t it be better if they existed closer to home for many of these people? There is no doubt that the Vivek Express is an impressive feat of national infrastructure, but what about more localized improvements? It’s no secret that in most countries, whether India, China or Brazil, the agrarian and rural regions are being abandoned by locals hungry for work in the big cities where access to jobs, education, better equipped hospitals and all of the other trappings of the globalized world is much easier.

How these countries, and the world as a whole, deal with these significant shifts will be revealed as the years continue to pass. Countries like India certainly serve as a forecast of how the future might pan out, as the Economist article and its comments indicate.

I’d certainly be game for taking this trip!

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