Interview with S.B. Ghosh Dastidar, General Manager, Central Railway.
As the General Manager of one of the largest suburban and long-distance railway zones in the country, S.B. Ghosh Dastidar has an enormous task cut out for him. In an interview to Anupama Katakam, he spoke about the exemplary performance of Central Railway, the tasks ahead and some of the innovative measures soon to be introduced. Excerpts:
Central Railway manages one of the largest suburban transport systems in the world. How are you coping with the increasing demand for train services?
Definitely, Central Railway operates one of the largest suburban networks in the world. We connect 72 stations over a 307-km route carrying three million commuters every day on 1,203 trains. It is rightly called the "lifeline of Mumbai". The number of people we carry daily on our trains can equal the population of entire cities such as Bangalore. Or even the size of a small country.
In the suburban system, punctuality is a very important aspect. By improving the track and other equipment, and by removing encroachments, we have been able to improve punctuality by leaps and bounds. For instance, five years back the overall punctuality on Central Railway's suburban system was around 68 per cent, but it has improved to 96 per cent now. On the harbour line, where punctuality used to be 48 per cent to 50 per cent five years back, it is now 95 per cent. This is more important in the light of the fact that the travelling time on the harbour line has been reduced substantially over time. For example, between CST [Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus] and Panvel [a distance of 50 km], the travelling time has been reduced from 96 minutes to 75 minutes in the past four years.
To upgrade suburban services, additional lines and user-friendly new coaches are being introduced and passenger amenities augmented. For this purpose, the Mumbai Rail Vikas Corporation [MRVC] has been formed. The MRVC and the Government of Maharashtra are jointly working on the Mumbai Urban Transport Projects [MUTP]. The total outlay for rail components for Phase I of the MUTP is Rs.3,125 crores. Some projects that will greatly benefit rail users are the fifth and sixth lines between Kurla and Thane (costs Rs.160 crores), the fifth and sixth lines between Diva and Kalyan (costs Rs.57 crores), the fifth and sixth lines between Thane-Mumbra-Diva (costs Rs.87 crores) and the fifth and sixth lines between CST and Kurla as part of Phase II programme in the MUTP (approximate cost Rs.3,700 crores).
Are there any plans to improve the network of long distance trains?
Currently, Central Railway has three terminals in Mumbai - CST, Dadar and Lokmanya Tilak. CST is by far one of the busiest terminals in the country. Therefore, there is a plan to extend the CST. The length of few existing platforms will be increased to accommodate longer trains. Three new platforms will come up. At these three terminals of Central Railway, we are handling about 60 pairs of mail/express trains that carry about five lakh passengers every day.
Do you think budget airlines and cheap air fares will pose a threat to the luxury classes in long-distance trains?
Railways cater to the needs of the masses in a country like ours with huge distances and population. So I do not think there is any threat to our services. However, we must bring about qualitative improvements in our service.
The advantages we have are the ability to carry huge capacities, and trains that take you right into the heart of the city. There is a certain category of people, such as the elderly, who prefer train travel. More important, other modes of transport such as air do not have the network that connects small cities and towns that we have. Fare wars are going on in other sectors of travel, but one important aspect is that none of these schemes (apex fares and so on) are unconditional.
What about travel on the Mumbai-Pune route? Apparently, the expressway is responsible for trains on that route running almost empty.
On the contrary, we are running to full capacity. Our service has become faster and we can reach Pune in three hours. Since we reach into the heart of the city a lot of time is saved for a traveller. The problem with other modes of transport is [the lack of proper] approaches to the big cities especially metropolitan towns. Further, it is cheaper to travel by train. If you take four important considerations for travelling - economy, safety, comfort and time - railways remains the best.
Does the Central Railway have any new technological innovations, particularly to ensure passenger safety?
We are always in the process of upgrading our systems and introducing new technologies. The most important equipment recently introduced is the anti-collision device developed by Konkan Railway.
Central Railway has one of the best safety records in the country. The train accidents per million-train kilometre during the year 2004-05 were 0.23 compared to 0.31 for Indian Railways as a whole. However, safety is our topmost priority and towards that we have started a Special Railway Safety Fund. The government is spending Rs.17,000 crores over a five-year period to improve the country's railway network. In the past three years, Central Railway has spent Rs.671 crores for track renewal, bridge works, signalling and telecommunication improvements.
With regard to security, we have taken many steps such as deputing GRP [Government Railway Police] and RPF [Railway Protection Force] personnel in long distance trains during night. The issue of safety and security of commuters, especially women, on the Mumbai suburban system has always been a cause of concern.
We have initiated many successful efforts - such as the introduction of "Tejaswini Squads", consisting of women ticket collectors and women constables - to guarantee safe travel for women. This concept was first introduced on Central Railway sometime back. Many other sectors have followed suit. Commuters and citizens of Mumbai have appreciated the effort. Mumbai will remain the safest city in this respect.Any plans for the tourism sector?
The Deccan Odyssey, which is like the Palace on Wheels, is becoming popular. In fact, it is superior to the Palace on Wheels. The response has picked up and bookings have improved in the past year. Along with the Tourism Department we will continue to promote this train.