Two things happened this weekend which seeded the thoughts to realize how much India relies on its railway network and makes a difference in so many lives around the tracks. The first was I set foot into a long distance train after a gap of about 4 years and though travelling by train is not the kind of stuff you tend to forget, it was an eye opener in a few ways. To complement the experience, the next day I had the another thing come in the form of an interview of the Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu; who was taking the opportunity to talk about the one year in office for the new government at the center.
So to begin; it was not the first time I was taking a train from Dadar to Sanjan- that falls between large industrial areas of Tarapur- Boisar in the South and Vapi in the North, and is served by a few through passenger trains and regular shuttle service from Virar to Vapi. The best choice of train is the Firozpur Janta Express which is a long distance and hence takes limited stops in comparison. But as fate might have it, it stood cancelled for the day. The reason for the cancellation actually brought out a key reason to justify that how important are trains to Indians and how deep is its impact.
As a mark of protest and arm twisting, a community in Rajasthan had broken onto the tracks and paralysed the passage of all trains. Now they sure did manage to catch the eye of the government and open up discussion forums- but the blockade ensured that the most convenient train from Mumbai to the industrial belt to its north was not going to run. The result was a bone crushing rush on the next available train that ran an hour later.
Now a standard coach is designed to accommodate about 90 people in an unreserved 2nd class sleeper- but Indians are indigenous. A seat for four had at least 5 and the side seating for 2 was shared by 4. The berths are occupied by 4 more people taking the average seated population to 22 per compartment and 198 across the coach. Not to mention the standees who were at times on one foot, crammed around the wash room and gangways. Even by moderate estimates; every coach was carrying three times its designed load.
While most were complaining about the inconvenience of not even getting sufficient air to breathe; for the regulars, it was just a deviation from the normal as business continued relentless over the phone and serious discussions across the aisles. Sure a few grumpy souls argued about who stepped on whom, the spirited ones saw the glass half empty and searched for every nook for that one step space to get away from a one-legged struggle and root both feet on to the ground.
By the time the train crossed the first industrial belt and I got invited to sit and join a daily traveller group; I had an epiphany of sorts- Railways is not just a means of transport, it’s a way of life. Even on the move, it’s a place to make friends and also do business within the circles. As a mode of transport it is still damn cheap and hence preferred by the common man. Not surprising is the fact that disruption of rail services has a big impact on the common man… enough to make governments sit up and take notice.
Now even while trying hard to stay aloof from the in-coach space haggles, I managed to catch glimpses of some rapid activity in terms of additional infrastructure being readied along the existing tracks. It is a long standing and delayed project for the Mumbai-Delhi freight corridor that is finally taking shape and new bridges, underpasses and desired land being marked all across. Yes, it might finally happen in a few years that passenger trains and freight may run on separate lines, at higher speeds and no interfere with each other. But considering the DC to AC conversion around Mumbai happened just last year, I am not sure few years might be how few in reality.
And this was the void in my mind which was answered the very next day by the Railways Minister.
Infrastructure has long been an area ignored as most Railway Budgets have focussed on new trains and super enticing packages for passengers. But when more trains come on the same tracks, you will always have the problems with congestions. If more trains are a solution to curb the rush; better tracks and facilities are as important. Conversion of a single to double track, changeover of older tracks and overall safety need to be enhanced and this all demands time and monetary resources. Fare hikes and selling land is not an option- nor is changing the accounting methods to make losses look like profits. I can’t agree more with the minister’s words.
It was thereby nice to see some visible changes around which were both encouraging and path breaking. For example, the water cabins have long been the site of leaky taps, muck and water puddles and the haven for algae. But seeing a clean water source with an RO unit and people not having to hop and jump around pools of water was a welcome sight. So was the fact that there always was an active cleaner on the platforms to sweep away any thrash away from the rails. Yes, some personal discipline towards not throwing thrash around the place and out from windows has to be injected into the passengers.
Few things are very very clear for me – Railways in India are more than just a transportation system. For the common man, it still is the cheapest and comparatively faster mode of transport. It is the lifeline for people who have to travel daily along a length and if 3 Cr people travel each day, it might also be the safest mode in India. Yes, the lack of development in infrastructure and no long term vision has led to almost a threatening situation – but as much as anyone else, we need to take care and make immense for all this. End of the day, it is these trains that keeps people, the flow of good and the entire nation on the track.