As it has been so thoughtfully taught to us by everyone from James Cameron to Vijay Mallya, winners travel First Class while economy is for weiners (It does not matter that both these “First Classes” have since gone under). And when it comes to traveling in style over long distances in India, nothing beats the Air Conditioned First Class of the Indian Railways. Why? First AC as it is popularly known, is the only class which offers closed coupe/cabin accommodation with complete privacy and lots of luxury. There might be airline first classes which offer even more luxury, but those journeys get over way to soon and who shells out thrice the money for a two-hour journey? Anyway, I am happy to announce that I have fulfilled my lifelong ambition of joining the league of extraordinary gentlemen who have traveled in the celebrated H1 coaches of the Indian Railways!
First Class coaches on Indian trains are rare with less than 10% of all trains possessing one. And in my case I did not have much choice as well, since the only train with a First Class AC coach between Bangalore and Kerala is SWR’s new 16561 Yeshwantpur – Kochuveli AC Express which leaves YPR on Thursdays. This train uses the lie-over rakes of the 12114 Yeshwatpur – Delhi Sarai Rohilla Duronto Express which fortunately consists of LHB coaches with CBC coupling. LHB coaches are lighter, airier and more pleasant than the age old bumbling, heavy ICF coaches running on the Indian Railways. I wouldn’t dream of wasting money on a ICF First Class coach! So the decision was made, the first hallowed H coach I would be parking my rear in would be the one on the 16561, no matter how pathetic the reviews of the trains seemed to suggest. IRCTC was smooth and the confirmed ticket cost me Rs.2045 from Krishnarajapuram to Kottayam. I would be traveling in a Duronto that isn’t a Duronto 🙂
Timetable, Ticket Cost between stations, Seat Availability for
Review of the 16561 AC Express and its AC First Class Coupe.
And so the journey began. On October 03 2013, The 16561 Bangalore Yeshwantpur – Trivandrum Kochuveli AC Express reached its second scheduled stop at Bangalore Krishnarajapuram (KJM) platform 3 at 1618, late by 5 minutes. Arakkonam (AJJ) shed’s old timer WAP1 #22009, all resplendent in faded red and yellow was doing the honors. At the same time the Marikuppam – Bangalore Swarna Passenger was pulling into platform 2 led by ED WAP4 #22218. Our rake had a mix of Duronto and Rajdhani liveried coaches, some of the even belonged to SCR! The H1 coach was second from the loco after the EOG car. My PNR status SMS showed H1 E, and I had looked it up before to learn that E was a coupe with two berths as opposed to a cabin which has four berths. I walked down the long corridor and found Coupe E, pulled opened the stunningly quality sliding door and stepped inside just as the train was pulling out of KJM, my heart gladdening in wonderous amazement!
The First Class AC Coupe for two people, popularly known as the “Honeymoon Coupe” (wink wink) is a big room with a lockable door, a tad smaller in size than a Sleeper coach bay. Its quality is stunning by Indian Railways standards. There is no crude metal, cheap paint, accumulated dirt or blue color anywhere. The interior of the coupe is all white, refreshing, bright and airy. The berths are of high quality (brown) rexine, wide enough for two teenagers to sleep on. The lower berth when converted into a seat is as comfortable as any sofa. The window that runs the width of the coupe is big, almost square and clear and lets in lots of light while offering an excellent view outside. The door also has a huge one-way view window on it. There is a huge mirror on the wall opposite the berths and a small one above the window. The coupe has its own AC wind control knob, night light and alarm chain. You can keep things on a tray table near the window (not foldable) with bottle hangers beneath it and on a flat surface next to the lower berth. Both berths get their own LED reading lights. The coupe also has an alarm switch which will alert the coach attendant in his room. A small ladder gives access to the upper berth which has a railing to prevent somnambulists from plummeting to the ground below. Though there are the obvious “Indian style” overlooked niggles like panel gaps, dirt in the corners etc., those are easily forgivable. Oh and there are two foldaway tables too. You can find these under the berth. In short, a small little space, all your own, your own house on wheels for as long as your ticket is valid. The coach had exceptionally clean biotoilets, a huge sink and a health faucet. The only big problem were the jerks when the train started and stopped, thanks to the CBC coupling.
Trip Report of the 16561’s Run
As I sat watching the world pass by my First Class window, the WAP1 was sailing smooth as butter with consistent speeds of 90 kph. We left Bangarpet at 1710 and by the time we passed Kamasamudram, hunger struck (not related to the station name). My search for First Class food led me to the Pantry Car (next coach) only to find it empty! When inquired, a figure under a blanket on a berth next to the kitchen informed me “Pantry service wonly on Dorontoo, saar!” Would my first First Class journey be on an empty stomach? We reached the Jolarpettai bypass before time and waited for a couple of minutes to allow the slightly late running Sanghamitra Superfast past us. We halted again at the MAS – ED mainline for some time, after which the WAP1 made good time with its light load. Then we were sided at Bommidi for 20 minutes to let some train overtake us! Here, a Chicken Biriyani seller found his way into our coach, which helped forget the unpleasantness of being sided and overtaken and also saving me the dash for Chappaaathi Biriyaaaneee at Salem.
We reached and left Salem 21 min late and then had a spectacular MPS run to reach Erode in just 50 min! The Erode – Chennai Yercaud Express was just leaving behind a WAP4 as we were entering ED. Soon the Dadar – Tirunelveli Express led by ED’s WDG3A #11307R arrived next to us. This train seemed empty with berths lying vacant everywhere. We departed ED after halting for 12 minutes, again late by 20 minutes. Sleep beckoned and I fell asleep sprawling on the very wide upper berth as soon as we left TUP at 2200. We would depart Coimbatore at 2254 just 9 min late and Palakkad at 0013, just 8 min late. But then we again got stalled somewhere, probably at Shoranur link and left Trissur 35 min late. I woke up at 0300 and found the train speeding past Idapalli, reaching Ernakulam Town at 0308. At 0325 we were still crawling past Ernakulam Yard and I estimated arrival at Kottayam around 0440. But the old WAP1 belied her age and literally flew all the way to Kottayam KTYM, covering the 80% single track territory in under an hour, arriving at 0423, because the 12695 Chennai – Trivandrum Superfast was snapping at our heels since TCR, running a mere 10 minutes behind us! I said goodbye to the H1 coach at KTYM and sent the 16561 on its way. It would continue its blistering run with the TVC Super close on its tail. It would close its late running down to just 9 minutes by the time it reached Kollam, thanks to a sizzling run between CGNR and QLN, covering the 60 km in just 55 minutes! And of course, it reached Trivandrum Kochuveli bang on time at 0650. Here is the entire running status history.
The Verdict and the Experience
The privilege was not in the size of the room, it was in the exclusivity you get. My first First AC journey was memorable in its own right and I loved every bit of it! I felt really pampered during the course of the journey, so much so that I stayed inside the cabin for most of the journey rather than standing at the door, which being a railfan is what I usually do! Sitting in the cabin at night with the lights out gives such an ethereal feeling. I would like to believe that the experience would be at par on any train in the World as IR has given serious though into designing its H! cabins. The only sore point was the unavailability of food and the unpleasant jerks from the CBC coupling. But overall, a refreshing journey that unfortunately I cannot undertake everyday. The 16561/2 is a classy service with a spirited run, but sadly runs empty on most of its days thanks to odd timings and days of service. But it is very convenient if you wanted to reach Trivandrum in the early hours of the day, the train also provides for a sensible overnight connectivity from Salem, Erode, Tiruppur and Coimbatore to Trivandrum and from Coimbatore to Bangalore. If only it ran on a Friday! But if wishes were AC Expresses, then Bangalore techies would fly.