Around the World in 80 Days is a popular movie that is played almost a loop on television these days. It is based on the published works of French science fiction writer Jules Verne. The story is set in the 1870s and centres around the protagonist Phileas Fogg of London and his newly-employed French valet Passepartout who attempt to circumnavigate the world in 80 days after accepting a challenge from members of an elite club.
Few would know that Verne’s original piece of literature was inspired by the railways link that started in Bombay in 1853 — the same link that today ferries 7 million people on 437 sq km of land — and that further connected northern and eastern India. The technological innovations of the 19th century opened the possibility of a rapid circumnavigation of the globe and the prospect of that fascinated Verne.
In the story, Fogg gets involved in an argument with members of his club over a newspaper article that claims it is possible to travel around the world in 80 days with the opening of a new railway section in India. Fogg accepts a bet of £20,000 from his fellow club members to attempt just that and he completes the journey — a day in advance.
The reason I write about this now is because of a recent e-mail from an old friend, Dr John Stubbs, who has almost given up his second attempt to complete a London-Mumbai journey by train. His earlier attempt in 2005 took him from London to Mumbai using only the railways in 24 days. The route he took passed through Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and then India. There was a small stretch between Bam and Zahedan in southern Iran that he had to cover via bus, a journey that took him four hours. But except for that stretch, Dr Stubbs virtually took trains all the way — from his hometown in Derby to Mumbai CST on the Punjab Mail.
Dr Stubbs said that the same journey could potentially be completed in slightly less time today, depending on train operating timetables.
But today, even though the missing rail link in Iran has been completed and freight trains run, albeit irregularly, between Istanbul and Islamabad, there are multiple problems like security concerns, border issues and unrest in Pakistan that might ensure Dr Stubbs may never make his second journey to Mumbai by train.
What this simply means is that today, two centuries after Verne’s dream, though technology and communication have made journeys so much more comfortable and faster and even though one can virtually travel anywhere one wants to, in reality, issues like terrorism and state security have taken a toll on the dream of a physical circumnavigation of the globe.