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 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.
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.
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.