The Signalís Red


When we tell him we plan to spend the night at the station with the stranded passengers of Purushottam Express, Agrawala smiles. "You are welcome to do that but the train is about half-an-hour late, so you will have to wait," he says. 'Wait' is the word of the evening and, as we were to discover later, would hang over the station for the rest of the night, stretching endlessly.

8 p.m.

An ominous silence descends on platform number four. The electronic display boards start flashing 'Pursuhottam Express'. The tea-stall owner fiddles with an empty paper cup. Isn't he bracing for a night of roaring business? Surely, there will be an army of bored-therefore-hungry passengers to cater to? "Business isn't that great. Most people bring their own food," says Ram Kumar Mishra, who has manned the stall here for about two years.

At the tail end of the platform, struggling with a backpack and a stroller, is Subhankar Sarkar, a resident of Jamshedpur who is heading for Bhubaneshwar. "I was not aware of this," he says accusingly. "When I bought my tickets, I was not told about the night halt. Now I have to cancel my meetings in Bhubaneshwar. How come they don't inform us beforehand," asks the Larsen & Toubro employee before walking out of the station in a huff, his stroller lumbering along noisily. Information, it seems, is one of the many things that slip through the gaping cracks of the Indian Railways' system.

9.30 p.m.

The public announcement system crackles to life: "Train No. 2802, Purushottam Express, from New Delhi to Puri, will arrive on platform number 4 shortly". A piercing horn and the train pulls in; it's an hour late. "That's a boon in disguise for the passengers," says the tea-stall owner.

The dust-covered, rain-splattered engine, an overwhelming presence, comes to a halt. J Appa Rao, the driver of the train ("the correct term", he says, "is loco-pilot") climbs down from the engine and patiently addresses a group of confused passengers. "We will have to stay here tonight...No, I have nothing to do with the decision...The train will leave early morning tomorrow...Yes, I know Kharagpur is only an hour-and-a-half away, but we still can't move tonight," he says patiently.

... contd.

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