Most people have fond memories of train journeys, though some have unpleasant ones of being left behind at a station, while they waited for a steaming cup of tea or coffee. Many film directors, too, have been fond of shooting action-packed or emotional scenes at railway stations. The famous action scene at the end of the Hollywood Western ‘High Noon’ showed the cowboy hero, Gary Cooper, silencing the villain. In one Indian film after another, the hero and the heroine have rushed across a crowded station to meet each other never to be separated.

A Train of Villages on the Net
A Train of Villages on the Net [Illustrations by Sudheer Nath]

Now the Indian Railways has stepped in to make a more effective use of its 7,000 stations all over the country. If the plan succeeds, the stations will connect hundreds of villages to the World Wide Web, according to a report by the British Broadcasting Service (BBC).

It’s very simple, really. These stations cover all the major cities, towns and villages. All these stations are connected through cables that maintain telephonic communication between the stations.

A team of railway engineers is planning to use the existing cable network to provide Internet connections on rail routes. This way they can avoid the time and money required to lay a fresh cable network to provide Internet connections to villages on the rail routes. This would make the Internet connections very cheap.

Telephonic conversations are digitally coded into light and transmitted very, very quickly, over great distances through fibre optic cables. These cables have a much larger capacity than copper cables that is normally used. A single pair of light-transmitting optical fibres can carry over three thousand conversations simultaneously. One single cable contains more than 50 such fibre pairs! The Indian Railways plans to replace the existing copper cables with these high-tech optical fibres. After that is done, opportunities for Internet connectivity will increase tremendously.

This Internet project also includes the setting up of cyber cafes in stations for local people who do not own a computer system. The engineers involved in the project are also thinking of developing low cost Internet monitors to make the computer more affordable to them. In India, the stations are located at an average distance of seven km, and each station will be set up to enable wireless Internet connection to more than a hundred households in the vicinity.

The project is being tried out in a small area first. The railway engineers are using the cable connection along 40 km of railway track that links the southern towns of Vijaywada and Guntur. The track has five stations and each of the stations will also provide wireless Internet connections for 10 to 15 participating households within a 10 km radius.

If the project succeeds, it would be a feather in the cap of the Indian Railways. But, it will still have to deal with the problem of frequent power cuts. The result may well be battery-operated computers, or perhaps computers powered by solar panels!