World has changed radically. India and most Indian manufacturing, retail, and service sectors have changed for the good. Only one thing which believes in ‘continuity’ is the Indian Railways in spite of the fact that it has completed more than 160 years. It has not adequately used to its advantage a) the modern technology, b) increased mobility across the regions, c) preferences of the new generation customers, d) high tourism potential, and e) loyalty of the Indian passengers. Volumes can be written on each of these topics to show that what has been done is not at all enough. There are hundreds reports and research studies on these topics. My attempt is not to dissect the policy framework or analyse the financials or explore the technological opportunities to improve the system.
Indian Railways is the third largest railway network in the world. It has more than 7000 railway stations and 1.36 million employees and operates about 19000 trains every day. It transports 23 million passengers every day and has an annual revenue of more than 1 lakh crore.
In this write-up, an attempt is made to make certain observations from the passengers’ point of view about the service they perceive while using the Indian Railways. There is no exaggeration in reproducing what has been observed by me and many fellow passengers during their journey across the country.
Animal friendly establishment: The Indian Railways (IR) continued to be the single largest settlement for all rats in the world. That is the impression anyone could get after watching the rats going around inside the trains, around the trains, on the railway platforms, and inside hundreds of offices and commercial outlets in the railway stations. There are innumerable bedbugs inside the berths. People wake up to find that the rats have damaged the baggage. Cockroaches and many other unidentifiable living beings enjoy total freedom inside and outside the railway coaches. How much amount has been spent by the IR to stop this menace?
Anyone- Anytime –Anywhere: IR is magnanimous. Anyone can enter and stay for hours and days inside the platforms and anywhere in the railway property. Remember, this is the only government department which has separate security wing called ‘Indian Railways Protection Force’ whose top officers are selected through national level competitive examination. Railways platforms are full of unauthorized passengers, unrecognized vendors, illegal agents, thieves, animals and beggars. Why can’t IR establish a proper entry level security system after closing the multiple unauthorized accesses?
Free- mobility inside the coaches: Even if you are inside a reserved coach, you could find hundreds of people moving inside during day and night peeping at each cabin. Suddenly when you wake up past midnight, you would find people sleeping on the floor inside the reserved coaches. There are many reports of thefts taken place in the coaches.
Climbing the upper berths: No change in this system for past several decades. Design of every other mode and medium of transport in the world has changed, be it auto rickshaw, four wheeler, boats, airplanes or anything else. But people still struggle to climb to the middle and upper berths. IR could not find a better design in spite of their huge number of brilliant engineers. In a coach containing 8 seats, 5 passengers need to struggle to settle themselves on their berths and a sizable number of passengers are senior citizens and ladies.
Coach position: As usual, passengers wait indefinitely for the arrival of trains. Coach positions are not displayed in many stations. Even where these are displayed in the digital screens, that will appear just a few minutes before the arrival of train making people run with their heavy luggage. Many passengers would agree that the coaches never stop exactly at the position displayed.
Where is the train name?: Every train has been given a name apart from the number. But why can’t the name board (removable in case coaches need to be changed) be fixed prominently in large font on each bogie/coach?
Crowded over-bridges: Railway over-bridges in most stations are crowded and there is tough time of senior citizens and women to get through the over bridges. Passengers come from the opposite side simultaneously and people get crushed along with their luggage. There are many pickpockets and anti-social elements operate at these spots.
TTE in the midnight: Many times we need to wait for hours for the TTE to come to our seat to check the tickets. After going to sleep, TTE comes and switches on the lights and impolitely wake up the passengers. If your ticket is in RAC status, you need to go behind the TTE for hours to get a berth allotted to you as per the correct priority. If you are with family and children, you will get stranded without seats till the time you find a TTE after hours.
Which station it is? IR is still in the old century as far as digital displays are concerned. Many times, you wonder while you are inside, which station the train is passing through. We would like to know whether the station we want to get down is nearing. The sign boards are placed in the station mostly in the beginning of the platform or at the end. At other places, if at all any board is placed; it won’t be possible to read it from the train. How many people have access to real-time information in their devices? With simple technology and cheaper cost, train running information can be given in the train itself. Very few trains have such facility.
Before you eat the food supplied…: If rats and cockroaches enjoy their stay and mobility inside the coaches, they definitely prefer the kitchens in the trains. I have seen many rats and cockroaches even in the first and second A/c coaches. Food is brought to cabins in open trays and the bearers yell so loudly showering their saliva all over the food items. Platform vendors keep the snacks in uncovered containers in the platform. I have witnessed small cockroaches liberally tasting the stuff in the platform as the vendors wait far way for the next train. One could see them diluting the chutney with water from the platform taps in some stations.
Untidy interiors: Even the interiors of luxury trains such as Rajdhani, Shatabdi etc. are not cleaned properly by the staff or the housekeeping agency. The state of other trains is worse. There are not enough dustbins inside the coaches. For 72 passengers in a coach, there would be just two waste bins, which would be full within hours.
Blankets and bed sheets: Blankets are folded by placing them on the floor near the toilets. Though bed sheets are said to be washed and ironed, blankets are dry-cleaned only occasionally. In trains like Garib Rath (where one has to flock around the contract personnel to collect bed sheets on payment of a fee), the sheets and pillow covers are often in damaged condition. Ladies and senior citizens also have to go near the toilet/door area to collect the bed sheets in the night. There is always a very bad smell in the A/C coaches from the dirty and moist blankets. There are no controls to regulate the Air Conditioners in each cabin. Closing the vents in the roof is very tedious. At present, senior citizens and children find it very difficult as the Air Conditioners are never regulated by the staff early mornings when the temperature falls.
Water bottles: In most stations, none of the premium brands are available. Passengers are forced to buy substandard and local mineral water bottles. Why there is a restriction on this? One senior officer from Railways said that suppliers are selected based on lowest quote coupled with several other ‘considerations’. Vendors sell only mineral water bottles from a prescribed list.
Luggage space: For many day-trains, the space for keeping the luggage is very limited. For some trains, the luggage racks have been fixed just below the roof and passengers need to take the help of very tall and well-built co-passengers to keep and take out their luggage.
Inadequate seating for passengers in the platforms or waiting halls. In many stations, there are not enough seats for passengers either in the platforms or in the waiting halls. People wait indefinitely for the delayed trains in the platforms. Hundreds of people sit and sleep on the floors in the platforms in bigger stations. Luggage for the brake van including bikes etc. are also kept on the platform.
Uncovered platforms: Trains are long with many coaches. But in some places, the platforms are not that long (or the train is not stopping at the right place?). Even in important stations, there is no roof for part of the platform. Even when there is roof, water leaks to the platform in some stations.
Inadequate number of fans: There are not enough fans though hundreds of passengers wait in the platforms. Fans are sparsely placed and at locations not beneficial to passengers.
Indian Railways is not for people with disability and for senior citizens: Passengers with special needs/ disability or those who are senior citizens find it difficult to use IR because of inadequate facility for them. Lights are switched on only at the last minute in many originating stations creating difficulties for the passengers. Charts are pasted in a hurry, that too with gum all over the paper making it difficult to read, only just a few minutes before the departure of the train.
Lifts/Escalators/ Ramps: When would all platforms have lifts/escalators/ramps to exit or to go to other platforms?
Waiting list within minutes: It is a big mystery, how within a few minutes of opening the reservation (on the first day of the advance reservation period of two months), you get a waitlisted ticket!
Platform tickets and unreserved tickets: There are long queues to buy the platform tickets and unreserved tickets. Passengers miss their trains because of the inadequacy of counters in most stations. IR is yet to start e-ticketing for above tickets. It is reported that in some stations, platform tickets are given in STD booths in the platform charging a Rupee extra.
‘Service Unavailable’: It is likely that most of the passengers get this message very often when they login to the websites of Indian Railways to book the train tickets. Even registering your cell number is very cumbersome as you would get notified that the number is already in use when the account was already deactivated. The largest organization with separate budget could not create a robust network.
Believes in toilet transparency: How can India ever claim to be a hygiene conscious country till the time railways stop discharging the human excreta all over the country, including roads and railway lines near platforms? Till today IR could not find a proper alternative for this. Even at platforms there are no clean and adequate toilets in many stations.
The condition of the windows: In most A/C coaches (shatabdi trains and a few luxury trains are exceptions), there is no way you can see the outside because of the smoky age-old glass. Glasses of many coaches are not replaced or cleaned for decades. There is no proper vacuum cleaning done in the interiors to remove the dust. When there is rain, water leaks through the window in some coaches.
Plugs: People use the plugs in the cabins for charging their cell phones, laptops etc. But many plugs do not work and a few plugs will damage your laptop because of fluctuations in power supply.
Water taps: Water taps in the toilets in many passenger trains are in the same age old design. In many long distance running trains, water gets exhausted in the night. Even when there is water, the pressure is so low because of that you need to keep your hand for several minutes to clean them.
Coach attendance sell liquor and cigarettes: Some coach attendants have thriving business inside the trains. Apart from striking deals with unreserved passengers for allotting berths through TTEs, they also sell liquor and cigarettes to passengers.
Announcements and signs: In many stations there is no proper digital communication regarding the arrival and departure of trains. The manual boards are also not updated promptly. If someone wants to enquire in the counter there would be a long queue. Even if you get access to the counter staff, (people of very few words; no counter questions please) they will reveal the information as if they are doing a big favour. Speakers in many platforms are unclear and not clearly audible. There are many occasions when trains arrive in the platform without any prior announcements about the correct platform. Advertisements through the TVs are very lengthy and passengers have to wait for long to see the status displayed on the TV screens.
Railway enquiry phones: Certain phone numbers are given as belonging to the Indian Railways in public domain. But many times, none picks up the calls, especially in railway stations in small towns. Enquiry numbers get disconnected very often and the passengers lose money calling repeatedly. Internet complaint centre usually gives an error message.
Blame the computer or blame the man?: There are hundreds of grievances regarding refunds. There are grievances regarding confirmed tickets getting waitlisted on the date of journey.
Identity proof: There are umpteen number of grievances related to identity proof for e-tickets. Even in group tickets, some TTEs ask for identity proof for everyone. Even when a person with an individual ticket carry a Xerox copy of one of the valid documents, TTEs mercilessly ask him to pay the entire fare when he has a ticket with full fare already paid.
Indian Railways can do wonders by improving the quality of service. People still prefer railways, as it it is cheaper and safer than other medium of transport. India has tremendous tourism potential and Indian Railways can benefit a lot from the inflow of passengers from abroad
You are welcome to share your thoughts and experiences on the topic by clicking comments below (or by mail : firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Opinions expressed in this article are my personal views and the constructive criticisms spiced with humour are stemmed out of a sincere wish to see that Indian Railways regain its quality of service)
© Sibichen K Mathew