Tuesday, April 16, 2013

160 years of passenger trains in India

April 16, 2013 marks 160 years of passenger train services in India. The now famous Mumbai to Thane train steamed out of Dhobi Ghat's makeshift terminal, behind Bori Bunder, where ships calling Bombay Port Trust's Indira Docks dock now. And traction has moved on from steam to electric - with steam now making more than a sentimental come-back at some places.

But what has not changed, over the century and decades, is the way the ordinary common man who makes the bulk of the travelling public, is treated - like a third class native in a shameful neo-colonial environment who does not deserve better. Be it onboard the jam-packed and smelling like sardines local trains of Mumbai, the over-loaded non-express slow passenger trains that criss-cross the country, the inevitable rush in the general unreserved compartments on fast express trains - matters appear to have simply become worse in terms of what they should be like in a democracy.

However, it is not only onboard trains, that the discrimination has been made worse after Independence. Sure, luxury has a price, so nobody denies that a passenger who has paid for a higher class of travel deserves to get a better product and service. But why does the passenger in the lower classes end up subsidising the product and service, instead of getting the bare minimum for himself or herself?

Take access to railway stations as just one example. At almost every railway station, if not actually every, and certainly at every station where there is substantial traffic, the two closest lanes to entry and exit are blocked off for so-called VVIPs, VIPs and Government vehicles. The lanes after that are then reserved for cars, taxiis and auto-rickshaws. Then there is usually a parking lot, which is most often yet another scam. Far away, then, usually in an exposed and dirty location, will be the bus-stop.

Ball park figures provided to me by a friend who was in the Traffic Police suggest that for every 1 lakh passengers at a railway station, about 96000 or more will walk or connect to a bus, which means a hike of at least about 1 km to the bus-stop, if not more, in all kinds of weather, or head out even further on foot. About 150-200 will be entitled to use the VVIP/VIP/Government vehicle lanes. A couple of thousand will opt for a private vehicle, taxi or auto-rickshaw.

So, in a country where all of us are supposed to be equal, you have the numbers of how it actually pans out. But it was not always like that.

Some of us will recall how it was the public buses which were entitled to come closest to the railway station, as recently as the '60s and into the '70s, matter of fact the entitlements may have changed during the Emergency - and have remained the same since then. I have memories of seing this at Old Delhi, New Delhi, Nagpur, Poona, Bombay VT, Bombay Central, Lucknow, Patna, Madras Egmore and Howrah. The best, in my experience, was Bandra (W) local - where the 211 and 214 route buses would come intothe portico.

There appears to, sadly, be no provision for priority access to disabled passengers anywhere. Many of us will bear witness to how the Delhi Metro has given the highest importance to these issues. Can we then not expect this sort of option from the Indian Railways on the 160th anniversary of passenger traffic?

Interestingly, at many stations, it is now the Railway Protection Force (RPF) which seems to have taken on the role of making life difficult for the largest number of passengers to gain access, for the benefit of the smallest number. I saw this upfront at Nagpur and Hazarat Nizamuddin Railway Stations a few days ago, and took photographs to record this for posterity. While thousands of "ordinary" passengers milled around me.

Let us bring back, take back, the rights of the railway passengers. Tomorow would be a good day. Today is even better? Congratulations, Indian Railways, thank you for all the services you do provide, but 160 years has been long enough for you also to realise that the common man needs a few small steps from you to make large differences. Think about it - maybe all senior officials from the Indian Railways should try to access the railway stations in their own cities by foot or public transport on 16th April 2013?

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