Monday, June 7, 2010

The great railway circus

Indian Railways’ turnaround story has been tom-tommed across the world. It has inspired at least one book, has been discussed at b-schools across the world and the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad even developed a case about the railways’ turnaround. And then came the declaration that the ‘turnaround’ had more to do with nimble accounting and less to do with actual improvements on the ground.
The truth, perhaps, lies somewhere in between the two sets of claims. What is apparent though is that for all the progress it may have made, Indian Railways has miles to go.
A regular Jan Shatabdi coach
A few days ago, I travelled on a Jan Shatabdi — touted as a sort of flagship train — between Trivandrum and Kochi. This particular train connects Trivandrum and Kozhikode and its introduction in Kerala was greeted with much delight. For what distinguishes the Jan Shatabdi from other commuter trains is that it covers distances much faster and offers clean, comfortable, modern coaches to travel in.
The no-frills, regular second class seating coach on the Jan Shatabdi
That’s the theory. For many months now, perhaps because it is a ‘Jan’ Shatabdi and not a true blue Shatabdi, the train that connects Trivandrum and Kozhikode most often has worn-out, filthy coaches that are probably at the end of their lives. Often, the special Shatabdi coaches are replaced by regular, run-of-the-mill coaches with no frills like individual seats or seatback tables to work on.
And from time to time, the train even has regular sleeper coaches that seat only 72 people, while tickets for 106 people are issued in that particular coach. So people with seat numbers between 73 and 106 end up depending on the generosity of their fellow passengers to squeeze into the available space or are forced to stand till they find a seat or get to their destination.
The two types of coaches meet
Why this happens is not really clear. What is clear though is that those who run the railways, including the grand panjandrums who run the Southern Railways, don’t particularly care about quality and service, especially on the ‘non-Metro’ routes. So while Indian Railways’ may be making more money today than it ever has, the real turnaround will happen only when the attitudes of those who run it changes. Now that will be a truly remarkable turnaround; one worth tom-tomming.


Prabhu said...


Interesting piece.

Jan Shatabdhi is normally fine to travel
in terms of cleanliness and speed of travel.

I have travel on a few occasions between Kumbakonam and Trichy on the Jan Shatabdhi that runs between Mayavaram and Coimbatore.

I too wrote one recent piece on the quality of the trains..

below is the link:


Sankar Radhakrishnan said...

@Prabu: That's the whole point -- it is supposed to be good to travel in. But the train that runs in Kerala is the pits; even the regular Shatabdi coaches are raher bad.

And interesting post, yours.

Mee said...

Was debating this with some real time travelers and the general sense is improvement has taken place but more in favour of senior citizens/concessions/extended seats for more of them... so perhaps Didi now needs to stop being myopic and do something meaningful with her national role!

SunnySmile said...

Ah.... the Jan Shatabdi. I forgive it all its shortcomings for it gets me and my cranky four-year-old to Kayamkulam, where my parents live, in super record time.
And, Sankar, from your post, I gather that you were in Kochi for a day, a couple of hours... Did you forget that yours truly lives in this city of mosquitoes and puddles, malls and eateries? Next time, let me know. And that's a 'last and final' warning! I don't know how to create a frownie as I'm usually a smiley person. But consider yourself frowned at!

Sankar Radhakrishnan said...

@Mee: Yes, there have been improvements, despite all the constraints. What gets my goat is that the railway infrastructure, especially the coaches used, in Kerala is generally pretty much third class. Also, the attitude of the brass is still very 'babu' like and myopic.
@SS: Yes, the one redeeming feature of the Shatabdi in Kerala is that it covers distances in double quick time; Kayamkulam must like 1 1/2 hours from Kochi i gues.
And yes, was in Kochi on Saturday for 5 hours. Did not forget you, but forgot to dig out your number so couldn't call. Am suitably abashed by the warning and have taken it to heart :))

Mee said...

:( tis. Could say that abt so many things in this country too...look at the local trains in Bombay, when they move at that speed I often am amazed how do they stay on track (knock on wood!)

Sankar said...

@Mee: knock wood indeed

Mee said...