Page last updated at 10:37 GMT, Saturday, 16 October 2010 11:37 UK

Delhi's pride in new improved Metro

Trial run of Delhi Metro Rail on elevated section of track
Delhi's Metro system has 136 stations on its network

By Sam Miller
BBC News, Delhi

India's pride took a battering recently as Delhi prepared to host the Commonwealth Games. It was an embarrassing scramble to get ready in time, but at least the coming of the Games helped speed up construction of Delhi's Metro.

When I was a child growing up in London, the Tube - as the city's underground railway system is known - was my playground.

I loitered happily on the Tube, trying to collect tickets from every one of its 250 plus stations or asking drivers to let me ride in the cab of the train. Most of them would, letting me apply the brakes and pointing out long-empty ghost stations.

One day, I set out to break the record for visiting every station on the network - which then stood at 15 hours - but I gave up in less than 45 minutes, having failed to plan the journey in advance and having brought no food with me.

The Tube Challenge, as it is now known, remains a popular pastime, particularly with computer programmers who have devised software to work out the quickest route.

The challenge has its own website, a complex set of rules and an entry in the Guinness Book of Records.

'Metro Challenge'

When I moved to Delhi in 2003, its Metro had just opened. One line and only six stations.

I was an excited early passenger.

Delhi street market
The Games brought many visitors to the streets of Delhi

It took less than 20 minutes to travel its length, which includes a superb and rare view of the city's neglected river, the Yamuna.

The Metro was treated as a modern marvel and a tourist attraction but of little use to most Delhi-ites.

The network slowly expanded and had more than 50 stations by early 2009.

Over the same period, I explored Delhi in almost intimate detail. And for a book I eventually wrote about the city, I decided to transplant the Tube challenge to Delhi and set a record for visiting every station on the Metro.

It was much easier than my previous failed attempt in London and took me just under two and a half hours.

Shame

For the past two years, large parts of Delhi have resembled a building site.

Collapsed Metro bridge in Delhi
The collapse of a Metro bridge was a low point in the Games' preparations

Much of the construction work has been for the anxiously awaited Commonwealth Games.

And the Games, in turn, provided an excuse and a deadline for almost any kind of building activity.

Ancient monuments were restored, flyovers were built, old shopping centres were "prettified", Delhi's first cycle lanes were created and, of course, dozens more Metro stations were opened.

The anxiety about the Games increased as several key projects fell behind schedule.

And then came the shame, the terrible humiliating shame felt by many residents of this city, including me, as it all began to go horribly wrong.

The Games - intended to showcase modern India - were falling apart.

With a lot of bluster, much - but not all - was put right. And the people of Delhi searched hard for things that they could be proud of.

'Impressively sleek'

In the month leading up to the Games, with less fanfare than usual, two more Metro lines opened and I decided to repeat my Metro challenge and visit all 136 stations on the network.

Women boarding a 'Women only' carriage
The women-only carriages are positioned next to the driver's cab

I prepared carefully, plotting out the quickest route, packing enough food to survive a journey that would take me to every corner of Delhi and would last, I calculated, at least seven hours.

And so, on a humid Friday morning, I began my journey.

I purchased a day pass that looked like a credit card and which cost the equivalent of just $2 (£1.25).

The newest trains were impressively sleek, with electronic station indicators above the doors, plug points to recharge mobiles and lap-tops and special carriages for women passengers.

Most of the stations are - unlike the London Tube - above ground, usually raised high above street level giving superb views over this enormous city which has more than twice the population of London.

The journey began well but I missed an interchange and lost 15 minutes.

Then, while I was checking my stopwatch on a platform and writing times down in my notebook, two unctuously polite policemen came up to me.

"Suspicious behaviour," they said. I explained. They looked at me as if I was mad.

They let me continue but I had missed another two trains and was now disheartened, and half an hour behind schedule.

I got out my food. A fellow passenger pointed silently to a notice: "No eating and drinking on the Metro".

I was starving. And so, I am ashamed to say, I abandoned the challenge, promising myself that I would try again once the Games were over.

And as I now look ahead, beyond the hype and the sneers that have overshadowed the Games, I feel again some small pride in my adopted city, which despite the poverty, despite the corruption, despite the chaos, can claim as its own one of the world's most impressive railway systems.

Map of the Delhi Metro

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