Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Indian Railways; Connecting India, What About Indians?

People's lives are in the care of the railways when they get on a train. The railways should remember that....Nina Bawden.

Nina Bawden CBE FRSL JP was an English novelist and children's writer. She was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1987 and the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010. Why I choose her this quote is no childhood is there without getting fascinated by railways; rather I pity those kids who haven’t seen a railway in their childhood or not travelled by one & my kids too are included in it! 

One of my best travel memories are with railways though that time it did felt awful a times! As for my genre when private cars were beyond imagination, private busses were yet to rule the roads & air travel was for super riches; so the trains were the only means for taking us to our holiday destination which mostly was Nagpur as being a family’s central place! My town Khamgaon still isn’t on main line i.e. it’s not connected to other major cities by main rail link but a small three bogie train used to connect Jalamb which was junction for our town, to the mainline. It’s a British time railway station & my best times with my father had been going to the railway station when I was some four or five years old & all I wanted was to become an engine driver! Those steam engines were like giants for us eating coal & exhaling smoke & fire & used to rule my dreams! Then later on when I went to Pune for my engineering then also railways were only solace though to get reservation was always a nightmare & I remember standing in the general class for nearly twenty four hours on one of my trip to Pune! Those were the time I used to hate railways as the bogies used to suffocate for poor ventilation in summers & add on the smoking in the bogies which was allowed or no one use to take objection is more correct! And in winters even if you close the windows yet the cold used to penetrate somehow the bogies! The toilet was the worst part of second class or general class, they used to stink & the taps run dry & once I have spent a day without going for washroom just to avoid use of railway toilets! The reservation system that too when you are travelling on concession pass of student was always a headache for the booking clerks & they use to treat we students like we are beggars using services of railways! Yet railway was dear as its sole mean of or transport keeping the travel in our budget. I have carried my Luna to Pune from the cargo bogie & that too was a thrilling experience is all I can say! Well later on the rail travels were reduced to nil & whatever they were its by AC coach & I must say surprisingly the same railway travels which I used to hate got a bit dearer with some real good service of first class & the ease of online booking!

Here is something about Indian Railways, started some one forty seven years back, the firs rail run between Mumbai & Thane in 1853! Indian Railways is an Indian state-owned enterprise, owned and operated by the Government of India through the Ministry of Railways. It is one of the world's largest railway networks comprising 115,000 km (71,000 mi) of track over a route of 65,436 km (40,660 mi) and 7,172 stations. In 2014-15, IR carried 8.397 billion passengers annually or more than 23 million passengers a day (roughly half of whom were suburban passengers) and 1050.18 million tons of freight in the year. In 2014–2015 Indian Railways had revenues of 1634.50 billion (US$26 billion) which consists of 1069.27 billion (US$17 billion) from freight and 402.80 billion (US$6.4 billion) from passengers tickets.
Railways were first introduced to India in the year 1853 from Mumbai to Thane. In 1951 the systems were nationalized as one unit, the Indian Railways, becoming one of the largest networks in the world. IR operates both long distance and suburban rail systems on a multi-gauge network of broad, meter and narrow gauges. It also owns locomotive and coach production facilities at several places in India and are assigned codes identifying their gauge, kind of power and type of operation. Its operations cover 29 States & 7 central proveniences and also provide limited international services to Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
Indian Railways is the world's seventh largest commercial or utility employer, by number of employees, with over 1.307 million employees as of last published figures in 2013. As for rolling stock, IR holds over 239,281 Freight Wagons, 62,924 Passenger Coaches and 9,013 Locomotives (43 steam, 5,345 diesel and 4,568 electric locomotives). The trains have a 5 digit numbering system and runs 12,617 passenger trains and 7421 freight trains daily. As of 31 March 2013, 20,884 km (12,977 mi) (31.9%) of the total 65,436 km (40,660 mi) route length was electrified. Since 1960, almost all electrified sections on IR use 25,000 Volt AC traction through overhead catenaries delivery.

Well with all criticism railways have come a long way during time span of my own generation is sure. Recently I read a news though it went unnoticed by many that Hon Railway Minister handed over the fifty thousandth coach i.e. bogie to railways & that’s a big number. Many of us won’t know the expand of Indian railway but as the numeric stated above we are one of largest network of rail tracks & carries probably the maximum numbers of passengers all over the world. Though that’s due to our ever increasing population also, yet the credit can’t be taken away from the system we call railway. Prior to expressway days & private airlines days, railway was the sole player responsible for the development of the cities! If you take the major cities except those which are sea or river port it’s the railway which used to bring business to any settlement. Like my own town just because it’s not on any of the main railway line it has to suffer a lot on development front. Take example of cities like Jalgoan, Nashik or Nagpur in our State, these cities have been benefitted at large due to their connectivity to all major Metros in country via railway! With air travel getting cheaper & cars affordable the railways popularity has been reduced a bit yet for millions railway is the safest & cheapest way of transport & with volumes increasing by the sheer population growth I think railway also has to upgrade itself a lot to serve the people in better way.

And here the service of railways is divided on three fronts i.e. first is getting a ticket to the destination & connectivity, second is the status of railway stations as well bogies & third is service of the railway staff where ever there is interface amongst commuters & the staff! Let’s have a look at each of these aspects individually…

First come the booking a ticket for the rail travel; agreed lot of efforts has been taken by railways to make the booking system transparent & keep out the criminal tendencies away i.e. black marketing of the tickets & ‘’agent raj”! Yet in a country with nearly 120 crore population it indeed is a difficult job to make tickets available at ease to all & at the same time the seats should not go vacant is also important keeping business in mind! The present scene is railway bookings opens nearly one twenty days in advance but to plans something that early is very difficult in our country with all sorts of uncertainties like getting holiday too exam dates of schools & colleges. And then at eleventh hour every train shows full sign on online net booking charts! This is a big hassle for any of those whose travel plans get decided on eleventh hour or at short notice. Mostly the sufferers are marriage invitees or business meeting people or families going on school vacations with their kids! What I feel is the booking quota should be opened one twenty days before but month wise & till travel date some tickets must be kept available & a week before or three days before it can be opened on net for anybody. We can think of a separate bogie for eleventh our travelers & charge premium for its tickets so even few seats go vacant the loss is covered in booked seats! All this has to be on internet for maintaining transparency as well there has to be ID proof system for every traveler to avoid malpractices with the bookings & black marketing of the same! Another job is making proper rail routes with connectivity to every destination & making the information available at ease. A lot has been improved & timing of the railways are followed much better than what it was in my childhood days yet some where number of trains to every destination & their numbers of bogies are in adequate to handle the traffic of commuters or else most of the time you won’t have to face no booking available situation on major routes! As the news I mentioned above about Hon Railway Minister ‘s presenting fifty thousand coach to the railways & though the figure may sound big yet in nearly 140 years its hardly anything considering the traffic load the railways are supposed to carry & we do need much more coaches & numbers of trains too. This is important keeping in mind two fronts i.e. tourism & commerce of the country. We can designate the trains according to these two uses is what I feel.  What we need is to study travel pattern & create a data bank to prioritize the expansion plans of the rail routes as well strengthening the existing net work!

Then comes the condition of railway stations; in my time the railway stations used to be main address of the town & pride of citizen! Somehow the conditions of the most stations has been deteriorated & right from visitors parking to booking windows a lot needs to be upgraded. Also connectivity to the railway station from any point in the city & round the clock is also a neglected subject in many of the cities. I know many stations of many towns where to catch an odd hour train is a real problem or even for the person who gets down at such stations on odd hour don’t get a commute to his residence & in end people tends to avoid railways itself!

Railway stations are like face of the city & they have to be maintained & planned properly. The British knew this perfectly & have a look as many stations they have build including Victoria terminals at Mumbai, serving still flawlessly missions of commuters! This task is two folded i.e. one is maintaining existing stations & second is expanding them to serve by today’s needs & locate & build the new stations! When we speak about stations then waiting rooms & public toilets are like mirrors, reveling condition of any station & here huge attentions is required by the authorities! We can think of making citizens as well corporate companies of the particular city to adopt these & maintain the same.  Also recycling of water as well using solar energy for lighting & decorating the stations by plantation & making them green is another aspect which is neglected. Here first categorize the stations in A, B or C type as per their size & make a role model of each type & then replicate it all over the country. Also we can conduct competition of all the stations in best maintained criteria as well green station types & give prizes category wise! Every citizen should be proud of his city’s railway station & PRO dept of railways should make it possible; arranging school trips to railway station of city as well surrounding school kids can be one sure way of achieving it!

Entry of unauthorized people like beggars in the station premise in one more nusicence to the real users & every station should be properly secured as well gated is what missing even in cities like Pune! Garbage collection & disposal at railway station is also needed to be improvised & can be done with making people aware as well garbage treating plants in premise of the station. 

Then comes the bogies maintenance; the first class as well AC coaches are well maintained but same can’t be said about second class & surely not about the general class. Rather the time has come seriously thinking about the general class concept itself & the arrangement of the same! Why the poor’s or without reservation travelers have to suffer that kind of surrounding, if any reader has travelled by general class then he will realize what I meant! The general class bogies resemble ghettos or concentration camps especially the long route trains. The reason is less bogies & by increasing bogies as well by restricting entries in the bogies we can achieve the solution & it’s high time as maximum accidents also occur in general class bogies as no safety devises even basic like fire extinguishers are not in place here! Here we can appeal corporate as well travel companies to adopt the coaches by allowing advertising on them & maintain it! As unless the environment in which a person is supposed to spend some hours even day isn’t clean & safe how can we make him like the railway?

Third & foremost are the railway personnel who are interface between the commuters & the system! Here again each person of railway should realize & understand that this is sheer service industry & though they are Govt employee there are options of air travel of road travel! Even one commuter opting to go for a small distance by other means of transport is a loss to railways, I think this attitude has to be cultivated in every staff member right from station master too ticket checker to the cleaning crew! For this regular awareness training as well exposure with the end user i.e. with commuters can be tried. I never have received any invite in my life by railway to come & visit some station & have a cup of tea with the station crew for my suggestions or views about railway. Or even after my many first class travels I haven’t received any mail or communication by a railway that how was my experience? While if I even once travel by Singapore airline then for my life time I keep on getting mails from them, this is the difference!

As Nina Bawden says for millions railway is the only way to reach their destination & it should not happen that they are doing it out of no choice but more millions should look ahead to travel by the railway, that should be the target! Let’s remember it’s not just the numbers of coaches or kilometers of railway tracks we lay, should be the scale of success but once again every kid in the country should dream as to become a railway engine driver or station master when he grow up & I think that will be the true success of railways & this will be achieved only by making every citizen of the country part of the system which we call Indian Railway!

Sanjay Deshpande

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