I live in the suburbs of Calcutta and trains are a big part of my life. I take a commuter train every day to reach Howrah station, a very busy terminal where commuters like me jostle with travelers from all parts of the country to make their way across the iconic bridge and into the city. Each day, as I wind my way through the crowd, I hear announcements for different trains: the fast and slow passenger trains to nearby destinations, the Superfast Expresses that traverse the length and breadth of India, the Express trains that make way for them, the swanky Shatabdis and Rajdhanis that can speed up to 150 kilometers an hour. There is a whole class system, a hierarchy, to these trains.
And then there are trains that don’t even make it to the bottom rung. The one‐off passenger trains that operate on the main network’s little branches. Maybe the terrain they cross is difficult, or the route less traveled, or maybe the railway system has just forgotten about them. The tracks on these routes haven’t been updated to broad gauge like the rest of the network. They still run on rails that are a meter apart (meter gauge) or just two feet apart (narrow gauge). Some time ago I had the opportunity to travel on a narrow gauge route from Katwa to Balgona in my home state of West Bengal. I was struck by how different the experience was from my regular commute.