India by luxury train: Mobbed by angry commuters

Look, I admit it wasn't quite The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, the '70s Hollywood flick about the hijacking of a urban commuter train starring the craggy bloke from The Odd Couple movie. However, my non-singing, non-dancing Bollywood version was, in parts, as scary and all the more real.

It began with an announcement aboard my chartered luxury train between Delhi and Mumbai. A railway signal box had caught fire in the latter mega-city, paralysing the electric commuter train system.

It would mean that our arrival at the end of our gloriously pampered journey through India would be somewhat delayed. Que sera sera and all that, I thought. More time for more pampering.

However, it soon became abundantly clear the railway signal box failure had grown into the sort of fearfully chaotic and threatening event that only an at times fearfully chaotic and threatening place like India and its masses can conjure.

As I walked through the lounge car, our diesel train crawling through the outskirts of Mumbai, I noticed that station platforms were crowded by tens of thousands of stranded, and increasingly irate commuters, most of them male.

Further along, I was soon staring at some, nay, many, of the same commuters directly in the face through the windows of the carriage. They had, after all, begun to attach themselves to the sides of our moving train – human Velcro – as they attempted to hitch a ride to their respective destinations. Gosh, they may have even taken, India-style, to the roof, I thought. Walter Matthau, where the hell are you?

Aside from the odd freight train, our train, feeling like a fully clothed person at a naturist convention, seemed to be the only one still on the tracks, right across this massive metropolis.

Suddenly, a couple of heretofore unseen, khaki-clad, moustached and armed security guards appeared in the lounge car. In full view of passengers, they hauled in several of the interlopers, loudly remonstrating with them and rendering each with a fierce slap across the back of their heads. I'm reminded of the Paul Theroux line that, luxury train or not, the view from a train carriage is always the same.

Then, with an obvious nod to the escalating mob-like atmosphere on the platforms through which we gingerly passed, train staff, unannounced, raced through the lounge and dining cars closing Venetian blinds and drawing curtains. Clearly they feared that our train was going to be stoned or torched.


The train manager devised a plan to de-train, as they say, the passengers at a suburban railway station where a hastily arranged truck would collect our large cargo of luggage and a fleet of (black and yellow Fiat) taxis would convey us to the safety of hotels.

But the train manager and my turbaned carriage attendant hadn't counted on the train driver receiving a must-obey green light signal (maybe that signal box had been repaired).

Obediently, the train took off, with the train manager racing frantically, clipboard under one arm, vainly attempting to leap back on. It meant that both he and the attendant were left stranded on the platform, along with my two pieces of luggage, but sans passengers.

Eventually, I was reunited with my bags. My jangled nerves found their way back sometime the following day.

Read more of our travel writers' disaster stories here

See also: The 10 coolest train journeys in the world

See also: Luxury train lets you travel exactly like a 19th-Century royal