Passengers as priority

Written by RC Acharya | Updated: Feb 27 2008, 03:18am hrs
Once again Lalu Prasad has spared railway passengers a fare hike. On the contrary, he has carried out token reductions and opted for the annual ritual of tweaking freight rates to squeeze out an extra rupee wherever he could. For once, he has refrained from promising the moon, and avoided mentioning the word high speed for passenger trains, restricting his list of goodies to more mundane things such as passenger amenities.

Bullet trains hurtling through the vast Indian countryside have been promised by almost every worthy occupant of the high office in Rail Bhavan for the last decade, and the incumbent minister has been realistic here, given the vast financial resources needed for even a short stretch of 492 km from Mumbai to Ahmedabad (which has been on the cards for a while).

For a billion plus population, over 8,000 passenger trains being run daily is still not enough, and every railway minister adds another hundred or so every year. Lalu Prasad has done just that, though his promise of terminating long queues at booking offices is something he should be held to. Ticket counters are being upped from the present 3,000 to 15,000 over the next two years. Also, with e-tickets expected to increase from the present one lakh to three lakh in one year, the minister has decided to allow even waitlisted passengers to avail of this facility. He also exploring the possibility of issuing reserved and unreserved tickets through mobile phone networks.

Go Mumbai cards for harried commuters of that metropolis, enabling cardholders to travel by either bus or railon the London transport modelwill also be on trial, and should offer welcome relief. Delhi Metro Rail Corporation had also been toying with this idea, but lack of any interest on the part of Delhi Transport Corporation has not made it functional. Go Mumbai cards may meet the same fate if Best refuses to play ball.

Other good initiatives include enhancing the capacity of railway enquiry call centres, which have been receiving about two lakh calls daily, to prepare for five lakh daily in a years time. The minister also proposes to link all these call centres with control rooms which keep track of trains, and thus create a National Train Enquiry System.

Online display boards on coaches, indicating the likely time of reaching a destination and name of the current station etcetera, are also a good idea. But with the punctuality of passenger trains still abysmally low, with practically every train reaching its destination a couple of hours late, such visual finesse may quickly lose its charm.

Discharge-free green toilets, introduced for the first time in India with the induction of LHB coaches a few years ago, have been long overdue, and at a cost of about Rs 3 lakh per coach, they should keep Indian railway tracks and stations relatively clean. However, getting the logistical details of this operation right would be vital.

Stainless steel had been introduced for ICF coach underframes almost a decade ago, and its use was extended with the induction of LHB coaches a few years ago. A large-scale changeover to stainless steel bodieseven at higher costwould be a worthwhile measure, increasing the coaches life and enhancing their appearance.

At the popular level, the show was stolen by Lalu Prasads list of passenger amenities, with the minister going the whole hog to please train travellers: modular toilets, better public address systems in passenger coaches, platform shelters, foot-over bridges and escalators were some of the new provisions. Escalators, specifically, will help keep travel fatigue low, a factor Indian Railways has rarely bothered with, and hopefully encourage people to travel light. Of course, breakdowns could lead to still greater fatigue, and the grumbles could grow.

In terms of capacity additions, people would look forward to 24-coach trains, and the conversion of metre-gauge routes to broadgauge.

Lalu Prasad has left his stamp on Indian Railways, no doubt. But Safety, Security and Punctuality, the slogan in use around a decade ago, has not found favour with the minister, who studiously avoids the vital subject of punctuality of passenger trains. Perhaps he knows something we dont.

The author is a former member of the Railway Board. These are his personal views