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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Greasy Tracks: The Truth behind the Indian Railways Success Story

The turnaround of the Indian Railways has attracted a lot of attention, both within and outside the country. It is indeed welcome that public sector enterprises are gradually taking their business seriously and adding to the government's kitty. But what goes underreported in all his hype is the consumer's point of view and also the other side of the story

The media has been by and large all gung-ho about the way the world's largest employer is headed, it is only occasionally that we get to read stories like these:

IIM-A study praising Lalu’s Railway turnaround was paid for by Lalu’s Ministry

Though I travel less frequently on the rails than I used to, given the advantages that air has over the rails, my observation is that not much has changed on the ground level. Let me elaborate my woes.

The charges, as usual, are hidden

Last year in a step which the Railways, obviously, didn't announce with much fanfare, enhanced the tatkal quota to 30 per cent. This increase in quota is unlike the one which the Central Government has promised following the widespread protests against the OBC quota in educational institutions. There is no enhancement of seats. If you are booking a little late, you better be ready to pay more.

And that's not all, even the tatkal charges have been hiked. For the peak-season that is 10 months a year, a passenger would have to shell out an addition of Rs 300 for an upper class ticket and Rs 150 for a lower class ticket. Off-season is only two months, when the charges are Rs 200 and Rs 75 respectively. But again, the off-season also has a catch; it is not applicable in trains and classes with average utilisation of 80 per cent.

In case I have to book a ticket in third AC from Delhi to Gwalior under the tatkal quota, I have to pay 66 per cent extra (a regular ticket costs Rs 450). Now that's called a rip-off!

Lalu and his babus were obviously not happy with the extra revenue that this 'innovative' tatkal scheme, requiring only a little tweaking of rules, would bring. There is an additional charge of up to Rs 50 (depending on the journey) if the journey originates from a station other than the one from where the ticket has been issued. I'm trying to grasp the logic behind this move. Please help.

There's more. The Railway Ministry has re-classified hundreds of trains as superfast, while on track they haven't gathered any more speed. The reason, the superfast tag invokes an extra fare from the passengers ranging from Rs 10 to Rs 50, depending on the class of travel. Benefit to the passenger - nil. To the railway balance sheet - millions and millions.

These are only a few that have come to my notice, there would me lots more in the fine print.

Benefits, well...

For the urban middle class the most welcome service of the Indian Railways is undoubtedly Internet reservation. Though there are connectivity issues, incorrect billing and delay in refund (I experienced that), but that is negligible compared to the convenience. The mobile charging points (though too few compared to the number of passengers in a coach) is another thoughtful addition.

The trains run late as usual, the other day my parents while travelling back to Shillong reached Guwahati six hours late. That's not unusual for the Delhi-Guwahati Rajdhani Express.

The pantry service is poor and unhygienic. Errant staff also overcharge passengers and also ask for tips at the end of the journey. For a 28 hour journey (which usually extends to 32 hours or more) passengers on the Guwahati-Delhi Rajdhani Express are provided with only a single one-litre bottle of water!

All the options mentioned in the menu are as-a-rule not available. And rice lovers, inspite of advance requests have to be content with half a bowl of rice and unwanted chappatis.

As a general rule I've found the employees manning the ticket counters and the railway police personnel to be discourteous, with very few exceptions. I once had to threaten a reservation staff at the New Delhi station reservation counter when he was booking other tickets on the sly while we were waiting in the queue for over an hour. The service is excruciatingly slow with most of them more adept at single finger typing.

On another instance when I had to cancel my ticket (at Itarsi railway station) which didn't get confirmed, I had to explain the clerk the cancellation rules and he had to consult his senior for about 15 minutes before telling me that the ticket cannot be cancelled. Later, a friend, who was accompanying me (as I was down with jaundice) had to go to the station master to get it approved.

Ticketless and unreserved passengers still continue to crowd reserved compartments in almost all routes, the travelling ticket examiner meanwhile adds lining to his pockets.

Entering a railway platform is another pain. There's always a huge queue at the platform ticket counter. And often the staff arrives conveniently late, I regularly experience that at Hazrat Nizamuddin. At New Delhi Railway Station there are coin-operated machines for the purpose, but their coin boxes are either full (no one seemingly cares about emptying them) or are malfunctioning. Even the operating procedure isn't clearly elaborated leading to a lot of unnecessary confusion.

This gives me an idea for Lalu to ask his boys to implement. Introduce a SMS platform ticket (since for an amount of Rs 3 online platform ticket wouldn't be a viable idea, the service charges would themselves add to about Rs 30 with additional printing and paper cost). It can have a premium pricing for Rs 6, believe me, people would happily opt for it.

Platforms have dogs roaming around and there are too few chairs where passengers waiting for yet another late train can sit or the dogs can lie under. There are too few fans too. Instead of having an incline (which would benefit everyone including the disabled) there are stairs and more stairs all around.

Lalu has shown everyone the money, but I as a consumer am yet to reap benefits that would justify the extra that I'm being charged for. I don't mind paying as long as it is worth paying for. But then it is difficult to fight a monopoly and that too a 150-year old behemoth with a surplus of Rs 200 billion.

If you think that I, seemingly belonging to the new upwardly mobile class, am anti-railway, do read this post. But then I'd rather plan my vacations in advance and fly (at competitive prices) than wait for the green signal at outer.

[The fare information mentioned in this post has been sourced from the Indian Railways website]

Related posts:

* Bhopal Expressed
* Chugging Along
* Tracks to Nowhere
* Railway Regulations


dwaipayan said...

hey, the link at the end of the post asking readers to read "this post" is not working. check it

Soumyadip said...

Dwaipayan: Fixed. Thanks for pointing that out.