Was it landing at New Delhi airport and being driven across that crowded, colourful, noisy city? Was it arriving, a few days later, in the bleak squalor and bustle of Howrah, the area surrounding Calcutta’s main railway station? Or was it the 19-hour train journey between those two great cities?
So many images from that trip remain imprinted in my mind’s eye, though nearly all the photos I took have since sadly been lost. And India will have changed in the intervening 34 years – half as long as the country has had its independence. The whole world has changed, and India probably more than most of it.
In those years I’ve ridden the rails in a dozen European countries. It’s always been highly enjoyable, if you discount the constant irritations of commuting. I’d love to cross America and Russia by train.
Of course, flying is quicker. And, preposterously, on many routes it’s cheaper too. Sometimes a lot cheaper.
Teenager Jordon Cox found it worked out cheaper to get from Sheffield to Shenfield, Essex, if he went via Berlin. More than 1,200 miles in the air to go 175 miles. Madness. And not, in that particular instance, a time-saver.
The bonus, for Jordon, was a seven-hour stop-over in Berlin. As he said: “I know flying is not environmentally friendly and I won’t do this every time I travel, but this was the cheapest way for me to get home. And I got to enjoy a mini-holiday to a city I’ve always wanted to visit.”
Unusual. But in most cases the quick hop by air cuts out what is surely one of the chief points of travel. The journey itself.
To fly direct to your destination without experiencing the intervening landscape on the ground is like zapping straight from the opening credits to the final scene. Yet we have become obsessed with speed. With reducing, even by mere minutes, the time it takes us to get wherever we’re going.
How much dosh is the government committing, in this supposed age of austerity, to its flagship High Speed 2 rail project? The Department for Transport says £43billion, the Institute of Economic Affairs estimates the final bill at £80bn.
That’s a big discrepancy. Either way, it’s an awful lot to cut 30 minutes off the trip from London to Leeds. The money and expertise would be far better spent on maintaining and improving the existing rail network.
Take the train almost anywhere in Europe and you’ll realise how badly served British passengers are by comparison – and how much we pay for the privilege (see Fare Comparison panel, right).
But the craze for fast trains is not just here. In fact, we’re rather late in catching up.
Even in India, the government recently signed a deal with Japan – where high-speed rail is long established – for a bullet-train link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad.
In a country where most people are still mired in poverty and a plan for universal health care was scrapped for lack of funds, the £10.2bn budget for the line is controversial. To say the least.
India loves its trains. Quite rightly. The rail network is the country’s skeleton. Or, if you prefer, its arteries and veins. And we all know train travel is more efficient, better for the environment, than air or road.
But bullet trains, however glamorous they may be, aren’t the right sort of trains.
The Man in Seat 61, my first online stop for all things rail-related, has cast doubt on the claim that fares in Britain are higher than elsewhere. So to check, I looked up how much it would cost me to travel tomorrow from London to Edinburgh, and compared it with journeys of a similar distance – and a couple of rather longer ones.
London-Edinburgh (332 miles) £140.50
Paris-Bordeaux (310m) £62
Madrid-Barcelona (314m) £66.50
Warsaw-Bratislava (331m) £72
Rome-Turin (326m) £70.50
Moscow-St Petersburg (395m) £31.30
New Delhi-Kolkata (809m) £6
To be fair to UK operators, booking ahead changes the picture radically – London-Edinburgh can be as little as £41, while Paris-Bordeaux comes down to £52, Madrid-Barcelona £52.50, Rome-Turin £53. The other prices remain unchanged.
And no, that's not a typing error, Delhi to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) really is just £6 standard class for an 800-mile journey across north India – less than a single from Norwich to Great Yarmouth.
Trains that do 200mph use four times as much energy per passenger mile as trains doing 100mph. They require far more expensive track and you can get fewer of them per day on the line because they have to be so much further apart.
In India, the number of people who will be able to afford to go by bullet train can’t possibly justify the huge capital expenditure. It’s a moot point whether the same applies to HS2.