Watch this video, it’s quite incredible.
The answer, in this case, is evidently: “negative one foot”.
We had an overnight train journey, from Giza (near Cairo, in the north) to Aswan (in the south), and had, of course, the chance to see an Egyptian railways station, and some trains, from up close.
There are two parts to the story here. The first is as a bystander, as trains presumably along the local routes came and went. Well, they could be long distance trains; just that they didn’t seem to be so. These trains were… in terrible shape. On the outside, they were dirty, on the inside they didn’t seem much better; We later saw one of these trains after sundown, they didn’t have lights on the inside either. Didn’t seem in good shape at all, and we were worried about how our own transport would be like.
The other part to the story is as a passenger, on the overnight train from Giza to Aswan. An air conditioned train, clean on the outside, prim on the inside; but what we really liked was how well planned and well thought the design is.
If you talk about the Indian Railways, what’s the one thing that you usually don’t like (I know, we love almost everything about it, but still :P)? The toilets, yes? Not very clean at best, water everywhere, having to touch things and places that others may have touched with hands that may have been far from clean… not usually a very pleasant experience.
Guess what the Egyptians did. They made every button foot operated. Press a button, the toilet drains itself. Press it further, the flush kicks in. Press another button, the washbasin tap turns on. All with the foot. No ickyness involved. (Also the toilet was clean and dry, but that’s because 1. I think this train was more in the ‘expensive’ category and hence the passengers were probably more familiar with the word ‘hygiene’ than what you would find in the cheapest travel modes; and 2. Here the toilet paper is a viable and practical option; not so in India. But even take out these two factors, and you still have a better planned system.)
There were other small elements that were extremely well thought out, but I won’t compare those with India: the Indian rail system is the de facto mode of long distance travel for a huge number of people, and making it efficient and cost effective while keeping prices down bring their own design constraints.
There was the small compartment cut out in the wall to keep personal items when you sleep (in India no one would use them for fear of theft), the coups had doors that you could lock (not cost effective unless it’s 1st class, in which case in India people would nowadays rather fly), the sleeping arrangements were better and more comfortable (again the cost effectiveness comes into the question; also the ‘beds’ could only be made by an attendant assigned: for the Indian Railways, this brings huge logistical issues).
The only (mild) hiccup that we had was in the food that we were served. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t too great, but hey: what’s travel in foreign lands if there isn’t weird food once in a while? All in all, a very pleasant train experience.
(Although note that this may not be the general case as I think our train was a 1st Class train. I’m not sure ‘cheap’ and ‘affordable’ will be much better than what I described at the beginning of this post. :P)
P.S.: I have a question. Have we, as an independent nation, made any major improvements over the British rail system that we inherited? I know, I know, we put in better lights, better berths, more comfortable bogies, and we also made progress engineering-wise in the engines that drive the trains. But have we made significant changes to what facilities the passengers get when they board a train? Not upgrades, but changes?