The Kolkata Metro was the first underground railway system in India, opening in 1984. It has just one line, running from Dum Dum in the north to Tollygunge in the south, but this is expected to be extended beyond Tollygunge by some time around 2010, and a new east-to-west line, connecting to Howrah - the city's main national rail station - has been approved by the central government.
We finally get to ride on it when we get a day to ourselves to be tourists. As we wait in a longish but extremely efficient line to buy amazingly cheap tickets (6 rupees to get half-way across town - that's less than 8 pence), I read the regulations prominently posted on a pillar and I am disturbed to note that the authorities have felt the need to specifically prohibit the carrying of dead bodies on the underground system.
Our train arrives soon after we get there, though it takes a while to leave, ours being the first stop on the line. The train is noticeably wider and taller than one on London's Tube (and hence much bigger than one on the Glasgow Metro), with much less curved walls, making it possible even for someone my height to stand upright by the doors. I have to do this on our return journey during the afternoon rush hour, and find it means that even when the train packs a lot more people than one of London's rush-hour Tube trains, it is far more comfortable to stand up in.
What is more, the whole system has air conditioning and the train's windows stay open, making it amazingly - embarrassingly - much cooler than the Tube during Britain's relatively feeble Summer. All in all the ride is vastly more comfortable than the average crowded Tube ride, the only down-side on the comfort front being that rather than individual cushioned seats, each side of the train has a sort of bench running down it. We immediately sit down when we first board a train, and by the time it pulls out it already seems unfeasibly packed. It is not uncomfortable, though, and I can appreciate the efficiency advantage.
The trains and to a lesser extent the stations both tend towards the grey, and the lighting has that very faintly blueish, curiously colour-draining quality which seems oddly characteristic of public interiors in Kolkata. I don't know if the fluorescent lighting uses a different gas here, or if it's all the dust, or just the contrast with a city which is otherwise so colourful, but it seems quite striking to me - especially when I think of the 70s-tinted orangey-yellow light of Glasgow's underground trains. Many of the stations have attractive decorations along the platforms, so for instance the two stations named after Bengal's national poet Rabinbdranath Tagore feature his illustrations and poems along their walls. At our destination, Park Street, there is a little museum display at the side of the platform, and the tunnels leading us to the surface are adorned with square spirals every few feet.
As we leave the train in streams of dozens, a cheerful tune starts to play, and it seems as if the whole thing has been carefully choreographed like a scene from a transport montage, but it turns out it's an advert playing on one of the televisions dotted along the platform. I'm intrigued, because I've never seen TVs on a train system...
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