“Our train does not seem to be a priority for anyone… Look, it’s late again today,” said Kalu Ram as he stared out of the window of the Delhi Express Special train on an early October morning.
The train – on its way to Delhi – had unceremoniously halted at New Ghaziabad at 6.53am for ten minutes, delaying Kalu Ram and hundreds of other passengers by a few minutes, yet again.
The 50-year-old is a safai karamchari, who lives in Meerut and works in Delhi, and has been taking the Delhi Express Special train for 20 years. Each morning, he leaves home at 5am and gets to work in Delhi’s Mandawali by 9am.
There are seven trains from Meerut to Delhi, three of which leave in the morning, serving as a lifeline for those working in the capital.
Of the ₹15,000 Kalu Ram earns each month, he spends ₹359 monthly on the train commute and spends over four hours on the train, and another hour on the road. “I lost out on so much time with my children when they were growing up because of the commute,” he recalled.
The swanky RapidX train, launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on October 20, however, is set to change this. For now, the train, which started operating on October 21, covers 17 km, from Sahibabad to Duhai Depot at a speed of 160 km/hr. According to the National Capital Region Transport Corporation (NCRTC), the total footfall for the day on RapidX was close to 10,000 on October 21.
By 2025, the full stretch of the 82.15 km – from Meerut to Delhi – will be covered by the rapid train. This is expected to reduce travel time for Kalu Ram to less than an hour, but it is likely to cost him over three times more money than what he pays for a ticket on the current route.
“I want to take a faster train, but I also want to save money so that I can buy my grandchildren some goodies,” said the 50-year-old.
Kalu Ram has not yet taken the RapidX train from Duhai to Sahibabad.
According to a Northern Railways official, approximately 5000 people board the train daily from Meerut to Delhi, many of whom are employed in the Capital.
Before the crack of dawn one October morning, HT boarded the Delhi Express Special train and spoke to commuters – an 18-year-old college student, a stenographer, an electrician, an employee at an NGO, a domestic help, and government employees – to understand whether the RapidX train on the new route will make life easier.
The Delhi Express Special departs from Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur at 3.55am and is scheduled to reach the Tilak Bridge station around 8 am – though it often only reaches by 9am.
It stops in Meerut at 6.55am for two minutes. In all, there are 26 stations between Delhi and Saharanpur. A ticket costs ₹45 from Meerut to Delhi but most commuters have a monthly pass that costs a nominal ₹355.
The train – with its rusty seats, unkempt floors, and a toilet stench that runs through it – is the cheapest and fastest way for many to reach Delhi.
Earlier, HT had reported that as per the detailed project report of the Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS), it proposed an initial fare of ₹2 per kilometre, taking the fare for the entire trip to around ₹165.
An NCRTC official, however, said that there may be some variation in the prices based on inflation and other costs. An NCRTC official said, “The report was approved in 2009. There will be some changes to the final fares that will be approved, but these have been rationalised keeping other existing public transport options in mind to make RapidX a viable alternative.”
The 17-kilometre stretch passes through five stations – Sahibabad, Ghaziabad, Guldhar, Duhai, and Duhai Depot – and the 82 km Delhi-Ghaziabad-Meerut corridor is expected to be operational by June 2025.
The new train also boasts swanky doors with emergency door opening mechanisms, Wi-Fi, mobile and laptop charging facilities, and ticket vending machines at platforms.
As of now, it takes Kalu Ram a little over three hours in all (depending on the delays) to get from Meerut to Delhi. When the new corridor is ready, it will take half the time – and perhaps over three times the cost.
Arjun Pal, a 30-year-old electrician, who takes the train daily, said that the general assumption is that the ticket for the new RapidX will cost over ₹100 for the full distance.
“Right now, I pay ₹359 monthly for this train. If the new train from Duhai to Sahibabad, which only covers 17 km, costs ₹50, then the ticket price for the entire 82 km stretch from Meerut to Delhi will be over ₹100,” said Pal, who added that unless there is a concessional pass, the tickets will be out of reach for him.
The new train has a coach with 72 seats reserved for women, in addition to two seats in the other five coaches – and CCTVs. This last bit has slightly tempted 18-year-old Deepti (who goes by her first name), a second-year student at Delhi University’s Lady Irwin College, who takes the train from Ghaziabad at 7am.
She quickly averts her gaze when an inebriated man stumbles inside the women’s compartment. “I feel safer when I am surrounded by older women on the train… Hopefully, the new train will be safer, and if it is reasonable, I will give it a shot,” she told HT.
Likewise, Versha Sharma, a 26-year-old who works as a stenographer in central Delhi, clings to the older women on the train. “I started taking this train recently and have befriended some older women here. I feel comfortable knowing they are around but if the new train is safer, I don’t mind changing my route,” she said.
Lata Kumari, another commuter, said that while both time and safety are of paramount importance to her, the shift to the rapid train seems difficult. “If it’s double the cost, we will continue taking this train and nothing will change,” said the 42-year-old.
Kumari, a resident of UP’s Ghaziabad, began taking this train around 17 years ago, when she first travelled to Delhi to toil at a construction site, followed by a stint at a call centre, and then a bank – before the pandemic threw her out of the job market temporarily. She is now employed as a domestic help in the capital, starts her day at 5am, and returns home at 7pm.
“Time is money, time is money,” she quipped.
Another coach was a group of nine government employees, posted in the Delhi government’s Public Works Department (PWD) or the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD).
“It’s tough to answer now if we will take the new train once the corridor is completed. It all depends on how far the new stations are from our homes. Also, it should be reasonable or at least there should be a concessional pass,” said Tara Chand, 58, a government employee.
Chand and his friends – who he commutes with daily – said that the prospect of travelling by the new train is exciting and worth twice the sum they spend monthly now.
“Right now, I pay ₹350. For this new train, I will happily pay ₹700 a month but not a rupee more. Right now, it appears that the monthly cost will turn out to be over ₹4,000 – beyond my spending capacity,” said Chand.