Despite claims of change, Railways only getting worse

Social media is inundated with propaganda posts, extolling the so-called achievements of the Narendra Modi government and its various ministries. One such series of Facebook posts waxes eloquent about how Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu immediately responds to tweets sent to him by passengers about any problem or poor service faced during travel, and gets the matter rectified in real time.

How far this is true one can’t be sure, since many like me (a huge majority of ordinary railway passengers) do not have Twitter accounts and have therefore never tweeted a problem directly to the minister.

However, recent experiences of rail travel have left me with the distinct impression that nothing much has really changed at the Indian Railways (IR) and things might even have become a tad worse. This is sad, because much was expected from Prabhu, considered one of the few genuinely capable ministers of the current cabinet.

From time to time, one hears grandiose plans about bullet trains, redevelopment of 400 railway stations, freight corridors etc, but as regards matters that affect every rail passenger – service, cleanliness, convenience, safety, facilities and overall travel experience – regrettably, nothing even flatters to deceive. On a recent journey in peak tourist season, travelling from Kathgodam to Delhi by AC Chair car aboard Sampark Kranti, on the way back from Nainital, I found the compartment unclean. This seemed surprising since trains at least at the point of origin are relatively tolerable. 

Turning to the poster that boldly advertised an SMS service to clean one’s compartment, I texted my PNR number as required. A return acknowledgement from MD-eClean informed me that all railway cleaners were busy and I would be attended to shortly.  Nothing happened for nearly an hour after which another message from MD-eClean announced that I had sent an invalid PNR number. I double checked and found nothing wrong with my PNR.

Giving up on MD-eClean, I approached the TTE. He promised to send a cleaner. Fifteen minutes of inaction later, I flagged one of the railway cleaners in blue overalls. The boy, carrying a mop, said he would be back once he found a broom; 30 more minutes elapsed so I stopped another passing cleaner, who finally did the clean-up job without further ado.

But the woes didn’t end there. The AC was working only minimally which the TTE attributed to the summer heat and the fact that the train stopped at virtually every station along this route. That wasn’t all. The compartment had unreserved passengers sitting on plastic stools or standing at both ends of the compartment, waiting for reserved passengers to alight at each station, so that they could have the seats allotted.

At no point in the journey was this discouraged by the TTE. A customary delay was also in store when the train halted at Moradabad for long, thus making the 6 ½ journey into an eight hour ordeal. There was neither food service nor a pantry for this day journey and we heaved a sigh of relief when we chugged into Old Delhi Railway Station. Needless to say, the toilets were barely usable after the first few hours and the upholstery was jaded, old and stinky.

If this was the state of the AC Chair Car, I wondered what conditions second class travellers would’ve had to endure. That too, on a prime tourist route, a few hours away from the country’s capital! Nor was this a one-off experience. Four days earlier, I had travelled the other way, New Delhi to Kathgodam by Shatabdi. The experience had been better but one of the toilets had overflowed in the end. The pull-down shades refused to budge and seemed ready to snap if pulled with force. Finally, a staff member had to do it for us. Earlier, after battling the chaos and muck outside the New Delhi railway station, it had been no easy task finding the platform number of our train.

Bogie positions
This recalled to mind another incident a month earlier. While waiting to board a Mumbai-Pune train at the jam-packed Dadar station, the electronic board flashed bogie positions. Those of us who were to travel by AC Chair Car huddled together below the boards displaying Chair Car (CC).

However, there was some unease that the bogie numbers (the alphabet) on our tickets were different from the ones displayed. As the train rumbled in, we realised the AC bogies were positioned elsewhere. Fortunately, the train had a vestibule, so we managed to reach our seats after much jostling and wading through other compartments.

An old couple asked the TTE why the CC positions had been displayed wrongly. The TTE’s reply was symptomatic of what is wrong with the Railways – passenger unfriendliness. He said there had been no mistake. The CC pertained to second class chair car, whereas AC Chair Car was abbreviated as AC CC. The old man promptly showed him the ticket, which indicated CC under Class. Nowhere was AC specified. The TTE merely shrugged.

So has change even begun in the Railways, if it continues to be passenger unfriendly, if toilets remain unclean, if trains continue being late, if seat upholstery, bed linen and blankets are smelly and just bearable, if food quality is pathetic, if railway staff are apathetic, if safety is uncertain? The less said about the primitive conditions in II class the better.

No amount of propaganda can airbrush this reality for millions of passengers. The question is why does a passenger need to contact the minister directly, for resolving routine issues? Doesn’t the real solution lie in improving services at the ground level and making railway staff responsible and responsive? This isn’t a tweet, but here’s hoping Suresh Prabhu focuses on making Indian Railways passenger-friendly.

(The writer is a Pune based author and filmmaker)

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