The great Indian railway empire

Print edition : March 23, 2007

A scene at the New Delhi railway station.The entire process of the movement of goods has to be made less of a horror story than it is now.-V.V. KRISHNAN

The Railways are a transportation agency and should put the needs of the client moving freight and of passengers above everything else.

A JOURNEY on a train in India - a fairly long journey, not a hop-on, hop-off affair - can make one conscious of how far we have come from the trains of newly independent India. The wooden carriages that were filled with soot from the smoke billowing from the engines, the windows that either never opened or could not be closed, and the toilets that were appalling and usually had no water - all of these made travel by train an ordeal, an experience that was as unpleasant as it was unforgettable.

Now there is air-conditioning, there are seats or bunks that have some kind of cushioning, and the windows usually open and close, though considerable effort may be needed to get them to do so. The toilets are not always clean but some are to begin with and can be flushed for a time. Certainly these changes are praiseworthy, but the point really is whether they are enough.

It is easy to assert at this stage that one can go on complaining and that it is impossible to give five-star comforts to the passenger travelling in a second class carriage; he should be grateful for what he does get, considering the very small amount he pays to travel by train. But the point being raised has little to do with the comforts made available by the Railways' authorities or the price paid for them. It is a more basic issue.

With all the air-conditioning, the cushioned seats, the more comfortable coaches and all the rest, one needs really to look at the entire process of undertaking a train journey. Is it, one needs to consider, a passenger-friendly experience? This is not merely a matter of comfortable seats and all the other facilities being provided. The purchase of a ticket is where the process of a journey's passenger-friendliness, or lack of it, begins. With all the counters, all the electronics, the computers and the now much-touted on-line booking arrangements, the process is as mystifying as it is harrowing. Most passengers will agree that it is usual to get a wait-listed ticket even a fortnight before the journey. True, it comes with an assurance that it will almost certainly be confirmed on the day of the journey; that is the mystery and the beginning of tension. Why is it so difficult to provide a ticket that is confirmed, as in the case of an air journey?

And the other great Indian railway mystery: No ticket has the passenger's name on it - just the letter M or F (to indicate male or female, obviously) and then, of all things, the age. Given the electronics the Railways have put into the booking system, can they not at least print the name of the passenger on the ticket? There is, no doubt, a valid administrative reason for not doing so and that is the first part of the answer to the initial question. The reason has nothing to do with a passenger's convenience; it has to do with some perceived bureaucratic convenience.

So one begins one's journey with a wait-listed ticket that carries no name. It could well be confirmed before the journey starts, but to find out that would mean pushing one's way through the crowd jostling around the boards where the list of passengers is pasted and trying to find out where, in the forest of names, one's own - or that of the person travelling - appears. Once it is located, one has to fight one's way out of the crowd, then locate the carriage - sometimes numbered, sometimes not - and find one's seat or berth. Not a very pleasant experience, especially if one is old or rather frail.

And one has grown accustomed to every passenger travelling with mountains of luggage, which leave just about enough room for human beings to wedge themselves into their seats.

In all these decades the Railways have not thought it worthwhile to devise a practical system of making all passengers store their luggage in luggage vans. There is a provision for doing this, but it is such a nightmarish process that no one except some travel-hardened passengers venture to check in or, in railway parlance, `book' their luggage.

Setting aside the journey and the arrival, these experiences will suffice to point to what remains a disease with the Railways' employees more than with that of any other government agency, except perhaps the police. The assumption, from the general manager down to the officials issuing tickets, is that they are part of a vast empire distributing largesse to their vassals.

A look at the main railway stations makes this even clearer and very eloquently at that. The rows of rooms on the main platforms are for sundry officials - `Chief Train Inspector', `Station Superintendent', `Deputy Station Superintendent', `Chief Ticket Whatever' and so on. Tucked between these are, at best, two waiting rooms and, very rarely, toilets. One can see at once what the priorities are.

It is a matter of some sadness that so many years after Independence the trappings of the railway system the British set up are so faithfully being followed and by no one more assiduously than by the lowest flunkeys in the system - the clerks and petty officials. The obsession, especially with these lower officials, is to flaunt their authority, and they have a field day with helpless travellers.

Again, their dishonesty - which is legendary - is not the issue here. It is their attitude, which is that of underlings of an imperial system and not that of someone who is there to help or be of service. These attitudes and the systems - typified by the comic pasting up of lists of those who have confirmed seats or berths - are among those points of contact with the travelling public that give the Railways the image they now have.

It may well be that none of this exists higher up the administrative system, that managers and others in similar positions have some genuine concern for the welfare of passengers. But that is, again, a part of the problem, a very major part.

A service such as the railways - a transportation service - cannot be run by a Ministry. The British did it because it suited their method of running the Railways; they even had functionaries in uniforms of varying degrees of resplendence. But surely all that should be eliminated. But how will that happen when the systems are such that the Railways' officials must assume these attitudes to survive in their present form?

Surely the systems need changing; passenger needs apart, the entire process of the movement of goods has to be made less of a horror story than it is now. Easier, simpler modes of transporting goods assumes an efficient means of transportation, not one where something booked in Mumbai takes a month to arrive in Kolkata. Not one where pilferage and looting is rampant and where damage to consignments is common enough to make transporters turn to road transport, not for ease of movement but just to make sure that their goods get to where they are supposed to.

That the Railways are earning a good amount is a very effective shield against such considerations. The fact is that once the Ministry of Shipping and Road Transport gets the Golden Quadrilateral and the north-south and east-west links going and once the number of new heavy trucks taking to the roads increases, the Railways will have to face a new and not very nice reality, unless they make some radical change in their systems now.

The key to the change is very simple: realising that the Railways are a transportation agency and putting the needs and convenience of the client moving freight and of passengers above everything else. In other words, dismantling the empire in the minds of the Railways' employees and replacing it with the more modern requirements of a service agency. It is a formidable task, but one that can be done.

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