Improved road connectivity, especially on high-traffic short-distance routes, is hitting the occupancy levels of the premium Shatabdi trains, with some sections seeing patronage as low as 20%. These superfast express trains with air-conditioned chair cars connect major Indian cities and complete to-and-fro journey between two destinations on the same day. As many as 25 Shatabdi trains are being operated by the Indian Railways. Of course, some of Shatabdi routes — New Delhi-Habibganj and New Delhi-Chandigarh, among others — are still seeing occupancies as high as 150%, but the average occupancy of the 25 trains in the last financial year has varied widely, between 68% and 82%.
In comparison, the other two premium-category trains — Rajdhani and Duronto — have seen average occupancy of 83% and above during the period. Of course, none of these trains are profitable, with only the AC 3-tier segment yielding positive returns for the national transporter. The Indian Railways has observed that the passenger movement between non-terminating and non-originating railway stations on the route of Shatabdi trains is low and the passengers were opting for AC bus services in these sections. Even in some of the busy routes such Delhi-Ajmer, while the trains remain fully occupied till their journey to Jaipur, the occupancy levels drop dramatically in the last leg between Jaipur and Ajmer. Same is case with the Chennai-Mysore Shatabdi which has a high occupancy level till Bengaluru, but commuters prefer roads between Bengaluru and Mysore.
Losing traffic to roads has been a prime concern of the Indian Railways for the last few years. Railways’ share in freight traffic has declined from 62% in 1981 to around 36% at present, and that of the roads has seen a corresponding increase in the period.
To tackle the issue of losing passengers, railways earlier this year empowered general managers of zones to take a call on the fares in affected sections and even slashed the rates for many sections to bring them on par with bus services.
However, even this has not helped some of the Shatabdi trains hit by low occupancy. The Jaipur-Agra Shatabdi is being converted into a Janshatabdi to increase its occupancy level. A Janshatabdi train runs at the same speed as that of a Shatabdi, however, the former has non-airconditioned chair cars with lower fares. According to a railway official, a committee looking into flexi-fares and occupancy level in premium trains has already submitted its report and competent authority will soon be taking a call on the recommendations.
Another official said that making changes in the running and fare structure is a constant endeavour of the carrier in order to run these premium trains at optimal efficiency levels. As reported by FE earlier, one of the changes that the Indian Railways is mulling is to reduce the number of coaches of some Shatabdi trains with low occupancy. This is also aimed at increasing operational efficiency of passenger rakes.