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Saturday, October 07, 2017

Reliving Younger Days on India’s Longest Train Journey

Vivek express india's longest train going through the lush forests of Assam

A huge food basket with theplas, chappatis, idlis, namkeen, savouries and a lot of other delicious food, a big Milton jug to store cold water for the entire family, a pack of cards, some Jeffrey Archer, Robert Ludlum, Tinkle, Chandamama and other books, a twinkle in my eye, a joy in my stride and oodles of curiosity…that’s how I remember my childhood train sojourns when my family and I would travel by train from the Eastern part of the country (Jamshedpur) to the Southern part (Kallidaikurichi, Tirunelveli district of Tamil Nadu).

India's longest train Vivek Express chugs on

This journey made in the peak summer months would take somewhere close to 55 hours. Even though, we traveled by the sleeper class, I don’t remember it ever being inconvenient, though I do remember smelling like the train and feeling the rocking of the train in my body for days after the train trip. All I remember is the game of cards with family, the tunes of Antakshari with other train travelers, the umpteen number of books I read, getting down at every station to fill water from the taps at each station, digging into fresh lip smacking savouries at different stations (Puri Bhaji for breakfast at Rourkela, Jhaal Muri and Chanachur on the train especially in Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Orissa, Mango delicacies at Rajahmundry, Bananas at Anakapelle and hot piping Idli Vada Sambar in the South), standing next to the train doors at every major bridge (the highlight was always the Godavari river bridge crossing near Rajahmundry) and so many other delightful childhood train memories.

Jhaal muri vendor inside Vivek Express train

I am sure many of us Indians have similar memories of travel travel in India. I think it was an integral part of my childhood and my passage into adulthood. Unfortunately, now, we don’t travel by trains as much as we prefer air travel. While air travel is very effective, both in terms of cost and time these days, it doesn’t offer the romance that Indian railways does. Which is why I had wanted to go on a long train journey in India for a bloody long while. And what better train journey than India’s longest train journey and one of the best train journeys the world over to feel the romance of train travel once more.

Lush Indian countryside and Vivek Express train

This train, called the Vivek Express, starts at Kanyakumari, the Southern tip of India and travels all the way to Dibrugarh in the far North eastern part of India. I had booked myself tickets on this train on four different occasions and ended up cancelling the first three due to various reasons. Thankfully, I somehow managed to board this train the fourth time around and ended up completing the entire journey.

Railway Track Maintenance Staff taking a break, Assam, India

Covering a distance of 4,233 kilometers, this Vivek Express train traverses through eight Indian states – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Bihar, Nagaland and Assam. I spent 4 nights and 5 days in this India’s longest train and if I remember right the journey took close to 90 hours. In terms of absolute numbers, the Vivek Express holds the record for the longest route in the Indian subcontinent, both in terms of distance as well as time.

Railway workers keeping southern railways clean

For me, it wasn’t the record status that egged me on, but the fact that I would get to experience a long Indian train journey after close to 18 years. I traveled on the train in a 2nd AC compartment as I could not garner enough courage to travel by sleeper class in the warm weather. Especially for such a long journey! May be, I should have realized then itself that I had changed, but didn’t and had to actually experience the entire journey to realize that I am the not same person that I was 20 years ago.

Tea Gardens of Assam as seen from Vivek Express, India;s longest train

Well, don’t get me wrong, I was supremely excited to be on board the train and really enjoyed the entire train journey. And didn’t find it tiring too. But, those card games, antakshari sessions and that childlike sparkle for train journeys wasn’t there. I had to experience India’s longest train ride to realize that. May be, somewhere in the past two decades, I had grown older in my head and may be evolved differently in how I perceive travel.

The AC Coach Attendants - Vivek Express train, India

Indian Railways still has the charm, the facilities are definitely better, but, us people, we have changed. The connection with gadgets has robbed us of those interesting train companions. Such companionship still does exist, but only in parts and that too once you cross the Northern stretches of West Bengal coz until that point, India is fairly well developed and people have lots to do and are definitely occupied in their head.

Vivek express - India's longest train ride

Food served on the train is simple and good, but I so wished that they served something aside from potatoes and dal every day. Food served on the train stations is sub standard and so is the water. That is one definite change from my childhood days when both food and water served on the train stations were of good quality. These days, people don’t necessarily travel with huge food baskets and instead live on the offerings of the train’s pantry car and the food stalls at the stations. Today, there is more packaged food and bottled water, which I consider the bane of today’s world. Somewhere in between, there is this vendor from the countryside who prepares lip smacking Jhaal Muri that instantly teleports you to those train journeys of the eighties and the nineties and may be, the juicy mangoes of Andhra Pradesh that haven’t lost their deliciousness. But, apart from that, there wasn’t any food related aspect of the train journey that made my memory jog to my younger days. Even a good ‘ol cup of tea has lost its zing in today’s world and I see that as a huge change in our country over the past 20 years.

Vivek express India's longest train crossing a railway bridge

The highlight of the train journey is the lush greenery, dense forests, tea estates, gorgeous countryside and a true connection with India’s yesteryear roots when the train traverses from New Jalpaiguri (West Bengal) on the 4th day to Dibrugarh (Assam) on the 5th day via Alipur Duar, Guwahati and Dimapur. These two days set a fantastic precedent to a holiday in India’s amazing North East. I am pretty sure that the views would be similar when the train traverses in Kerala, but unfortunately, this travel takes places in the night. Likewise with the iconic Godavari bridge, which again passes by in the late hours of the night. The Mahanadi river, Bhubaneshwar and Cuttack come by during the day, but for some reason, the landscapes look bleak. Some parts before and after Malda are also extremely beautiful and this is also the area where the train starts getting delayed.

Vivek Express Train and lush green Indian countryside during the monsoons

Like I mentioned before, some amount of charm and romance is still intact in an Indian train journey, but things are very different otherwise. May be, it is because, we have evolved as different travelers! Or may be, India has vastly changed in the past 20 years. The local food and drinks is definitely a low point. But, some high points still exist and which is why train travel in India will continue to mesmerize one and all. And like me, you will have stories and possibly share those memories with the world! India’s longest train journey was definitely a special experience for me and it certainly help me relive my younger days.

Vivek express train entering Hasimara jungle, Assam, India

About the Train


Vivek express train standing on a railway station in Assam, India

The train that I am talking in this article is called the Vivek Express. It carries the train number 15905 for the one traveling from Kanyakumari to Dibrugarh and 15906 for the return journey. It travels only once a week for either direction.



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