Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Great Indian Railways

No, I didn't go to Dhanbad again this time. And this being my Socio-political views' blog, I will anyway not do it here. So let's come to the point straightaway.

Over the last few years, the Indian Railways has gone a long way, boasting an achievement one too often. Let's have a look into how the Great Indian Railways has evolved since its conception 150 years back.

Back then when the first train started from "Boree Bunder" (Victoria Terminus, later changed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) to "Tannah" (Thane) on 16th April 1853, nobody had imagined the big system it would grow into over the years. Back then, we had only royal steam engines and it was sight to watch as they zoomed past the village landscape. For the people who wanted to travel, choices were very less and the only source of excitement was whenever a new train was commissioned or a new railway line was started. But the journey to progress literally stopped with the Britishers leaving the country. The railways became plagued with corruption as many cases came forward of nepotism and bribery in getting railways job and as a result the whole system suffered. Add to it the damage done by politicians who tried to appease the masses with the power of this portfolio, making the railways as inefficient as as ever. This mindset is still present as the politicians still 'fight' to get this portfolio, sometimes even exceeding the fight to become the Prime Minister.

In the background, the railways continued their slow progress to betterment by converting narrow-gauge to meter-guage and meter-guage to broad-guage, adding new trains to the system and increasing the frequency of the existing. The only news railways made was when there were train accidents, something that haunts the railways still now. Most of the people from today's generation wouldn't know that the trains like Howrah-Mumbai Mail are names so as they were the prime post carrying trains of the past, and have decided not to change name when literally all of the Express trains started carrying them.

The railways were notorious for being late and this was a big deterrent for people to trust the railways, but in the absence of better alternatives, they were forced to stay loyal. The people of India have a lot of nightmares associated with the emergency of 1975, but ask anyone about any positive side of emergency and 9 out of 10 would reply that the trains then ran on time! With such sorry state of affairs, the railway ran till in the late 90's. computerized reservation was started, and was hailed as a major achievement of the railways. With this started an era of improvement that continues even till today.

The next major news was the inauguration of Railways website that allowed people to check their ticket status and plan their travel by getting first hand information about the available train with their reservation status. Soon, more websites came up that even allowed passengers to book their tickets online and get them via a courier. Another unheard of website is of the Central Railways that somehow didn't get much attention. It offered online train status and offered support by either SMS (on mobile) or E-mail. Currently, the railways are also planning to extend the online reservation facility to allow passengers to print their tickets sitting at their home and not having to travel to the reservation counters. But of these things that have made news have very low trickling down effect in terms of benefit to the common man. But fortunately for him, there were good news for him too. Three of such stories that didn't made much news were the computerized train inquiry on phone (allowing railways to open more lines for train inquiry without having to employ more people), the Tatkal facility(keeping aside a few seats for passengers having to travel in emergency, set aside to be filled only on the last day) and the coach position/location panels on the platforms. These things were actually of most utility but sadly didn't get much attention from Mainstream Media. And while such big success stories were enough to give a 'Pass' grade to the Railways, they have much more to their pride. The conditions of railway stations in the country have improved overall. And we even hear that Habibganj station in Bhopal has became an ISO 9000 certified railway station. And (Shan-E-Bhopal) Bhopal Express became the first ISO 9001 certified train. This train even has a webpage! of its own that gives details about the train. I have also heard that Malwa Express has also got the ISO certification, but haven't been able to confirm it from reliable sources. My gut feeling is that its not true as the two times I have travelled in that train, once it reached 12 hours late, and the other time 25 hours late!

The coaches in the trains have also improved with even the Sleeper coaches having mirrors and mobile phone charging points keeping in view of the changing face of the Railways customers. Pantry services are also on upbeat with quality of food improving as compared to the last decade. The railways have also allowed fast-food joints to start operating inside the railway stations, and much more space is being given for retail outlets. Anti-pollution drive or social gimmick, the railways also started to serve tea in kulhads, which though wasn't very successful.We even hear that the railways plan to take a big step towards modernizing the station on the lines of airports, though some feel its impractical and is only tried to face the threat of revenue loss owing to the advent of Low-cost airlines like Deccan Airways and Spice Jet.

But even with all these, the railways still have a long way to go before they can get an 'A+' grade. Let us take a look into what the railways can do to make themselves trustworthy.

Firstly, the railways must do much more to stop the high accident rate that is a hallmark of the Indian Railways since a long time. Though people say that railways are going to introduce automated systems that will enable trains to operate even driver-free(!), I believe it will still take more that 20 years to get implemented on major routes even if it starts today.

The second major problem that the railways face is security. This is a multi-dimensional problem. There are still numerous cases being reported frequently about cases of theft and robbery from passengers. Though the railways have done sufficient work in educating the people (with notices urging people not to accept eatables from strangers), very less seems to be have done in order to actually stop these cases by improving the efficiency of Railway Police. Another dimension of the problem is the problem faced by the employees of the railway staff themselves, the engine drivers. Even now it is reported that there are hundreds of unauthorized halts in parts of Bihar and adjoining places that engine drivers are forced to halt at for the fear of getting beaten up by the locals. In order to avoid punishment from the authorities, they have to even cook up faults like 'vacuum failure', etc. This causes much problem for the rest of the passengers travelling in the trains. With all the railway ministers coming from this state over and over again, there is little hope that the situation will improve.

The next major challenge in front of railways is corruption. Be it the admission into the railways, or the ticketing, corruption is rampant everywhere. There's hardly an year in which we don't get to hear stories of how corrupt the system of railways gets when it comes to taking in new people. The aspiring candidates sometimes even pay up Rs. 2 lakh as bribe to secure a job as it is considered very safe job. Instances of nepotism are also widely reported. As the majority of the system seems to get corrupt, it would be a good idea of the railways try to outsource the recruitment process to some reliable third party. Now, let us see the corruption in ticketing services. All of us are aware how much black-marketing is done on railway tickets between two important destinations or for a particular train. With regards to this, I remember a true story that was told to me by my cousin. This was the case with a lady who wanted to book a ticket for a train from Delhi to some destination(I don't remember the details of the ticket). She got in line early in the morning 60 days ahead of the journey (when the booking opens). She got the ticket in her hand at 8:03 am, which was a Wait-List ticket. She was shocked. She then filed a case in the court claiming widespread corruption in the railways, daring the Railways to provide details of how hundreds of tickets got issued within three minutes time of opening of the ticket sales. I haven't got any further information of what went on in the case, and I would request anyone who has been following the case to tell me the details of the proceedings. Anyways, coming back to the point, most people believe that while ticketing counters open at 8 am every morning, automated scripts run on the computers inside booking hundreds of tickets in seconds, which are later sold through black-marketing. I feel that the solution to this problem is very simple to implement if one has the willingness to stop it. The Railway administration should implement a check on tickets before they are issued, in a sense that a same host (reservation counter) can't book a next ticket say 30 seconds before the first one was issued. And also, to catch the culprits, they can study the data of booking made in the past to check for such fraud by using software that would be very easy to make.

There can be many more ticketing reforms. The ones that I suggest now are debatable and suggestions are welcome for more inputs or a discussion of the existing.

In order to be more unbiased towards travelling passengers, the Railways should set aside a larger portion for last day/week bookings. Most of the people who book their tickets 2 months ahead of travel are usually the people who travel for pleasure/holiday making. While there is another class of passengers that are more deserving than the previous are the ones who need to travel urgently because of business work or some serious personal work. But they suffer from the fact that they are usually not aware of such travels much in advance and come to know only a week in advance (a liberal estimate). The railways need to considerate to them also and set aside a portion of tickets for booking in the last week (say 20% of all the tickets). This is a bit different from Tatkal quota that caters to the last minute reservations and has very less quota. A better solution will be to increase the number of coaches in case of over booking of tickets on priority, i.e. if there is over booking of tickets so much that all RAC's can't be accommodated, then new coaches will be added to make room for more people. But this will require the railways to maintain extra coaches whose utility will be uncertain.

The next problem faced by railways is the menace created by huge rallies that amount to gathering people from large distances. These people not only don't buy tickets, they create nuisance for the bona fide passengers. The railways need to come down heavily on such activities and move over politics to work for the betterment of the nation.

Another suggestion that I believe might work is to create a new class of travelling between Sleeper Class and AC Sleeper Class. Such a class, though will be similar to Sleeper Class in terms of coaches (though arrangements can be made that they get better/new coaches), the facilities will be better than the Sleeper Class. This may include an attendant to keep off beggars and unscrupulous people to enter the cabin, and maybe even offer bedding to the travelling passengers. This can be priced between the Sleeper and AC coaches and I believe will be a success as there will not be the extra cost of AC but the comfort will be a lot more than the Sleeper Class, especially for the long distance travellers. We may call it Exclusive Sleeper Class (suggestions for better name welcome).