Rajni wakes up at 4am. She makes tea for herself, freshens up and begins a routine that offers her little rest before 10 in the night.
She cooks for her two school-going children, packs her breakfast and lunch, washes clothes by hand, tidies up the house and irons her children’s school uniforms.
A house-help arrives just when she starts to get ready for work, to clean the utensils and mop the floors. She and the house-help leave the house around the same time - 6am.
She then takes a shared autorickshaw to reach the Modinagar railway station to board the Saharanpur-New Delhi Express Special. The train is usually late by 10-15 minutes from its scheduled time of 6.24am.
In the train, she buys a cup of tea for Rs 10 and dips in it the two paranthas she has packed. That is her breakfast.
She alights at the New Delhi station a little before 9, almost 40 minutes past its scheduled time. From there, she walks about 10 minutes to reach her office.
Until a year ago, Rajni was a stay-at-home mother. After sudden death of her husband due to a heart attack, she became an office-goer.
Her husband was in a government job. After his demise, she landed a job in the same department on humanitarian grounds.
In the evening, she targets the Rewari-Meerut Express that leaves the New Delhi station at 6.10pm. However, unless the train is running 15-20 minutes late, she misses it and boards the next train which is scheduled to arrive at 6.45pm but often arrives past 7pm.
When she reaches home around 9.30pm, she hurriedly cooks a sabzi and makes chapatis for dinner. After spending some time with her children, she is off to sleep around 11pm.
Rajni has been following this schedule for five days a week for more than a year. She had made her peace with the realisation that this was going to be her life for the next 24 years till she retired at 60, but a piece of information her colleagues shared with her some months ago has made her hopeful of a less grilling routine.
Rajni is looking forward to the ‘Rapid rail’ that is being built to connect Delhi and western Uttar Pradesh’s industrial city Meerut. The train promises to cut down the travelling time between the two cities from the current two hours (official duration, which stretches to more than 2.5 hours in reality) to 50 minutes.
From Rajni’s station, Modinagar, the journey to her destination would be about 45 minutes.
The Delhi–Meerut Regional Rapid Transit System, as it is called, is expected to be complete by 2025 but a 17-kilometre priority section from Sahibabad and Duhai is expected to be open for public use within the next two months.
In a recent announcement, the National Capital Region Transport Corporation (NCRTC) which is building it, has named the system 'RAPIDX'.
Rajni currently pays Rs 10 a day for her to-and-fro journey as the monthly railway pass costs her Rs 300. The pass allows unlimited travel on the route on either side. However, she is willing to spend 20 times the amount on the Rapid rail.
“The current fare is negligible. It’s almost free,” she says. “So practically, a new travel cost is being added to my budget, which would be around Rs 6,000. But I will happily spend that much."
Rajni explains her reasons. Her son is 12 and her daughter is 10. The elder child locks the house before the two leave for school an hour after Rajni. He leaves the keys with the neighbouring family.
The children return home around 3pm. A private home tutor comes around 6pm and leaves after an hour-and-a-half. When the children feel hungry or bored, they eat dry snacks or make instant noodles. Then they wait for their mother.
“I hardly get time to be with them. I want to pack their tiffin boxes, see them when they leave for school and wave at them. In the evening, I want to look at their notebooks,” she says.
Rajni is one of the lakhs of daily commuters between Uttar Pradesh and the national capital city. The Rapid train is reportedly expected to transport eight lakh commuters daily when it is up and running in 2025.
This correspondent boarded the train from New Delhi to Meerut twice in this week to learn if the daily railway passengers would switch to the Rapid rail. Like Rajni, most people I talked to were willing to make the shift, even if it adds a significant expense to their budget.
Aashish Shah follows the same train schedule as Rani, except that he wakes up an hour later as he does not have to do the cooking and packing. His mother does it for him. His house, though, is a little farther from the railway station than Rajni’s.
Luckily for him, the RAPIDX station in Modinagar is coming up at walking distance from his house. He currently spends about five hours in daily commute to Delhi's Anand Vihar station, but expects this time to go down to 1.5 hours with the new system.
His eyes shine when he makes the calculation.
What will he do with the extra time he is likely to get? Ashish has planned it all.
“Of the 3.5 hours that I am not travelling daily, I will use two hours to just sleep. In the remaining time, I will catch up with friends or spend time with the family,” he beams.
The railway pass he presently uses costs him only Rs 185 per month, but Aashish says he is ready to spend a few thousands on the new rail system. A friend quips, "He earns more than Rs 40,000 a month. Why will he not?". Aashish blushes.
His train friend, Abhay Kashyap, is pursuing a vocational course in Delhi after he cleared Class 12 last year. Though he begins his day before 6am, more sleep is not what he wants.
He wants constant Internet on his mobile phone to watch films or Instagram reels. This is his prime reason for wanting to switch.
“In Metro, there is always Internet network. So it will be there in Rapid too. Train travels in outskirts,” he says.
Asked about the higher cost, he says, “I will give up on my daily chowmein and momos and use that money to travel. It will be better for my health too.”
Abhay is travelling with a group of friends from his hometown Muradnagar; they giggle and give him high-fives.
In the same train, Sharad Gupta, who lives in Meerut, is not as excited about the new rail system.
“There are advantages in the railways that, say, the Metro does not provide. We can eat in the train and stretch our legs and even doze off. Since I travel between stations from where this train starts and stops, there is no concern of not getting a seat or missing my destination,” he says. Some fellow passengers nod in approval.
He gets up at 4am and reaches home by 11pm. He brings bread toast for breakfast, a full meal of roti, sabzi and dal for lunch, a box of biscuits and dry snacks for evening, and a box of vegetable salad for the journey home. He has followed this routine since he joined a private firm in their administrative team in 2012.
His wife packs his meals. Gupta married in January. “My packed meals have become more elaborate after my marriage,” he smiles.
He clarifies that his unwillingness to switch to the Rapid rail is not to do with the cost.
Asked if we would like to improve his travel in any way if not the Rapid rail, he says he wishes that the system of stopping the train arbitrarily through chain pulling is ended.
“In my opinion, that is the prime reason for delays. The government must end it,” he says. “Stick to the scheduled journey time and I am happy with the railways.”
Gupta’s fellow traveller, however, cannot wait for Rapid rail to start operations. Ankit Pandey works in the marketing team of a reputed English newspaper. His duty hours start later than other passengers at 10am, and his work is usually wrapped up by 5pm. However, he still takes the Saharanpur-New Delhi train from Meerut in the morning which starts around 6.
He explains, “I have no option but to reach office more than an hour earlier than required. If I take the next train, which is around 7am, there is no guarantee that it sticks to the scheduled time of reaching New Delhi at 9. More often than not, it is delayed by 40-45 minutes. That makes me late."
When Rapid rail starts, Pandey would sleep two hours more, waking up after 7.30am, he announces while others giggle. “I will do nothing with the extra time but sleep. That’s what I want to do,” he says while his fellow passengers laugh some more.
I met many commuters in the train who spend more than six hours in commuting every day, and complete some of their crucial tasks during the travel.
Jyoti Rana, who travels from Meerut and joined a government job after death of her husband five years ago, buys vegetables before taking the evening train back home and peels and chops those on the way. “I wash my hands and immediately put the vegetables in the pan to cook. By the time I freshen up, the vegetables are cooked,” she says.
Deepika Singh, a lawyer who does independent practice at Patiala House Courts in Delhi, pores over her documents to prepare for the next day.
Ritu is a street hawker who sells women’s footwear. Every second or third day, she boards the morning train from Modinagar and alights at Delhi Sadar Bazaar station past 9am.
On the way, she buys a cup of tea and dips in it a packet of Parle-G biscuits for breakfast. Then she buys her stock of footwear from the Bazaar and ties those up in a knot in a discarded bedsheet. Before proceeding to take an afternoon train to Modinagar, she makes a stop for lunch.
From a roadside food kiosk, she buys a plate of rajma or kadhi and eats it with the rotis she has brought. On the day this correspondent met her, she was late in doing her footwear purchase and hence boarded an evening train.
Ritu was a housewife till her husband died during the Coronavirus wave two years ago. After his death, she took over his footwear-selling work.
Back at her house, her elder daughter, who is 18, cooks for herself and her younger brother, cleans the house and keeps the dinner ready.
Due to financial stress, neither Jyoti nor Ritu would switch to the faster-but-more-expensive train system. They, however, prod me for more information about it, and sigh in disbelief that people are actually planning to switch.
On the other hand, there is Mamta Rani, who is scheduled to retire from her government job in six months and is thus indifferent to the new transport.
However, she says she would have happily switched to the faster system.
Like most women I talked to in the women's coach, Mamta, too, got the job on humanitarian ground after death of her husband. In the initial years, she saved every penny to make ends meet. Over the years, her financial situation improved significantly. Her two sons started earning, and then she got two earning daughters-in-law as well.
She says she could have very well afforded the new system, only that she has no use for it anymore.
“I will not step in Delhi after my retirement at all,” she says and bursts into a laughter. “I have done this for 15 years. After my retirement, I will only sit at home in Meerut and spend time with my grandchildren."
(Mayur Bhosale contributed to the reporting)
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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