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Fit for Kings

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It’s not everyday that a luxury train earns itself the right to be christened the Maharajas’ Express.

This proud boast by operators of the just-introduced ultra-luxe train reverberates richly through its carpeted, wood-panelled corridors. It’s certainly the most hi-tech train in India, and a journey on it is also the most expensive in the world. At $2,500 (Rs 113,954) a night, the train’s premier presidential suite is costlier than the top suites on even the Orient Express, South Africa’s Rovos Rail or UK’s The Royal Scotsman, considered the world’s most luxurious trains. The Maharajas’ Express, flagged off by Rail Minister Mamata Banerjee from Kolkata last weekend, happens to be the first train in India to be run on a public-private partnership model by Royale Indian Rail Tours Ltd (RIRTL), a joint venture between Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) and the 252-year-old travel house Cox & Kings.

Maharajas’ Express has a lot of firsts to its credit. “It is the first luxury train that offers a pan-Indian experience. Others, like the Palace on Wheels or Deccan Odyssey, take visitors around one or two states only. Maharajas’ Express has four separate itineraries that take guests to a number of destinations across many states and offer them a varied Indian experience from wildlife to religious places and forts and palaces,” Arup Sen, director, RIRTL, tells Open. The 23 carriages that make up Maharajas’ Express have state-of-the-art pneumatic and hydraulic suspension systems for completely smooth rides, are equipped with microprocessor-based climatic control devices, and have environment-friendly toilets. Advanced electronics ensure that all cabins have live television, Wi-Fi, communication devices, and direct-dialing facilities. Attention has been paid to the last detail: large panoramic windows, the biggest on any train in India, cut out heat and radiation and are shatter-proof.

But more than technology, it is the sheer opulence on board that makes this train fit for royalty. An eminent design house was engaged to make blueprints for the interiors. Cutlery, tableware, linen, furnishings, mattresses and many other items were imported. Railway officials tell Open that the furniture on the train is made of teak and mahogany. The entire train is wood-panelled. “Master craftsmen and carpenters were employed to make the furniture. Many fittings and fixtures on the train, including those in the washrooms, are imported, and from the best brands in the world. The porcelain is all gold-plated,” gushes a senior officer of the Eastern Railways. Miniature crowns embellish all items on the train, including its deep red exteriors. Fourteen of the 23 carriages house suites and deluxe cabins.

Sen claims that the carriage housing the presidential suite—a living room and two double-bedded cabins with attached baths—is the only one of its kind in the world: “No other luxury train has one whole carriage for a single guest and his family.” Next in royal hierarchy are the two-suite carriages that have two cabins each, comprising a living room and a twin-bedded room with attached baths. Six carriages housing ‘junior suites’ follow, with each having three twin-bedded cabins with a sitting area and attached baths.

Deluxe cabins—four in each of the five carriages—are the most inexpensive on this train, but at $600 (Rs 27,344) per person per night, can be afforded by only the most well-heeled. Junior suites cost $800 (Rs 36,460) and suites $1,400 (Rs 63,805) per person per night. Thus, for the entire ‘Celestial India’ journey stretching over eight days, a guest in a ‘deluxe cabin’ would have to shell out Rs 2.18 lakh and the super-rich in the presidential suite would be poorer by Rs 9.11 lakh. Not that it would matter to them, of course.

And Sen says bookings are pouring in. Compare these fares to that of, say, the Orient Express’ Paris to Istanbul trip over eight days: a twin cabin for the entire journey costs £4,075 (Rs 2.79 lakh), or Rs 1.39 lakh per head for the trip, while its premier suites, in which four persons can travel, can be had for £7,035 (Rs 4.81 lakh) or just Rs 1.2 lakh per head. This is what a person travelling in the Maharajas’ presidential suite would have to pay for just one night! South Africa’s Rovos Rail, which claims to run the most luxurious train in the world, offers its ‘royal suite’ for $15,950 (Rs 7.28 lakh) for a 14-day safari across the continent, or a little less than Rs 52,000 a night. That’s half the price of the Maharajas’ presidential suite. Of course, all cabins and suites on Maharajas’ Express are far more spacious than those in the other luxury trains. The presidential suite stretches over 465 sq ft, compared to Rovos Rail’s 172 sq ft royal suites. Rovos’ least expensive—the Pullman suites—are just 76 sq ft as against the 110 sq ft deluxe cabins on Maharajas’.

The space, luxury and facilities in Maharajas’ far outstrip those in its Indian cousins—the Palace on Wheels, Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, Golden Chariot and Deccan Odyssey.

Maharajas’ has two fine dining restaurants in two carriages, a carriage housing a bar and another serving as a lounge and observatory with its own bar. “Each restaurant can seat 44 guests at a time, so that all guests on board can dine together at one go. Gourmet-quality Indian and continental cuisine specially designed by renowned chefs is served on board,” says the railway official. Sen tells Open that many recipes have been collected from erstwhile royal families.

Each carriage has two butlers trained to cater to the whims and needs of high-paying guests. “The facilities that guests are pampered with on board—like internet access and direct telephone dialing in each cabin, DVDs on demand and satellite-based live entertainment—are unique to Maharajas’ and don’t feature in any other luxury train. It has every modern amenity and comfort that money can buy or science can create,” claims Sen. Constructing, fitting and furnishing the carriages took nearly the whole of last year, after RIRTL was formed in December 2008.

The four itineraries of this train have been dubbed Celestial India, Classical India, Princely India and Royal India. The Celestial India trip starts from Kolkata and covers Gaya, Varanasi, Bandhavgarh, Khajuraho, Agra and Gwalior, before ending in Delhi, and Classical India is the same trip backwards. Princely India starts in Mumbai and traverses Vadodara, Udaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Jaipur, Ranthambore and Agra, before ending in Delhi, and Royal India is the journey back from Delhi to Mumbai covering the very same places.

“The tariff for these tours is an all-inclusive package covering food, beverages, alcohol, off-board travel to visit the places of interest at the various stopovers, guides, sightseeing and cultural shows,” says Sen, adding that Maharajas’ is aimed primarily at high-end inbound tourists. The train has been christened Maharajas’ Express to give foreign tourists a feel of the ultra-luxurious lifestyles of Indian royalty, who always had a special fondness for rail travel. Incidentally, Maharaja Yeshwant Rao Holkar of Indore commissioned what was said to be the world’s most luxurious railway carriage of those times in 1936—its art deco interiors used sycamore wood, had an intercom and a special device that blew air over ice slabs to keep the carriage cool!

Maharajas’ Express, inspired by such extravagance, thus claims to be the ultimate in luxury rail travel in the world.