Lord of the tracks
India's most expensive luxury train flags off in January next year. Will there be enough takers?
“What a joy it would be, to live the life of a Maharaja!”
This gushing and over-punctuated prose is part of a marketing brochure for the latest entrant to the Indian luxury train market: The Maharajas’ Express, promoted by Royale Indian Rail Tours Ltd (RIRTL), a 50:50 joint venture between veteran tour operator Cox and Kings and Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC).
When it flags off from Mumbai on its inaugural trip to Delhi on January 9 next year, a few months ahead of the Commonwealth Games, it will be India’s most expensive luxury train. It starts at $800 a night per person — twice the fare on the 27-year-old warhorse Palace on Wheels — rising to $2,500 a night per person for the Presidential Carriage.
“We do not count any of the existing products as a luxury train in the true sense of the term,” said Arup Sen, director of RIRTL, adding, “We consider our train way above what is offered by trains in India.”
The “existing products” include the Palace on Wheels, the joint venture between the government of Rajasthan and the central government, which started in 1982 just ahead of the Asian Games. That train takes a week-long route from Delhi through the top tourist towns of Rajasthan and Agra.
Other state-run luxury trains followed, likewise with a regional itinerary. For instance, the Deccan Odyssey takes a week to cover destinations across Maharashtra, northern Karnataka and Goa, at a base tariff of $320 a night (triple occupancy) to a maximum of $950 per night per person (Presidential Suite) in the peak season, from October 2009 to March 2010. Off-season fares are about 25 per cent lower.
Then there is the Golden Chariot, promoted by the Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation, which visits, again over a week, tourist places across Karnataka and Goa.
The question is whether such uber-luxury will find takers. Vinay Luthra, managing director of the Karnataka State Tourism Development Corporation, was recently quoted as having said that the Golden Chariot was running at 35 per cent occupancy, with mainly foreign tourists from the US, western Europe and Japan.
But that is counted a success and new, two-week itineraries which take the train into Kerala and Tamil Nadu will be rolled out in October 2009, at tariff about 20 per cent higher than on the one-week routes (currently $285-$485 per person per night between September 2009 and March 2010).
Of the two Maharajas’ Express itineraries, one is Mumbai to Delhi via Rajasthan and Agra (seven nights; also in the opposite direction), and the other, Delhi to Kolkata via Agra, Madhya Pradesh, Varanasi and Gaya (six nights; and in reverse).
It’s not just the route that ’s new. Sen of RIRTL said the configuration of the train is different from that of competing products.
For one, the Express will carry fewer passengers per carriage. The capacity is 82 in 43 cabins spread over 23 coaches — including the Presidential Carriage, two fine-dining restaurants, one “exotic” bar and an observation lounge with its own bar and game tables. “We have not finalised the hospitality partner but it will be a leading hospitality chain,” Sen adds.
Other particular conveniences include a special suspension for a smoother ride, individual cabin climate control, an “environmentally friendly toilet system”, TV, telephones and a safe in each room. RIRTL says the total investment is more than Rs 50 crore.
“Our target market is Europe, USA, Australia, West Asia and south-east Asia, Sen said and said they’d received “excellent feedback from luxury tour operators selling India”. He declined, however, to comment on the bookings.
The cause for concern could be, however, that the global economic slowdown has impacted the tourist market. In 2007, over 5 million tourists visited India, going up to just 5.37 million in 2008. Most of these visitors tend to be low-budget tourists. The Maharajas’ Express needs to convince more of them to aspire to a royal lifestyle — at least for a week.