It is important for the railways to attract comparatively prosperous passengers because they are the people who play a crucial role in preventing the railways from suffering neglect.
As a firm believer in taking the train, I am delighted that the first Indian semi-fast express, Vande Bharat, is now running between Delhi and Varanasi, reducing the journey time from 13-plus hours to eight. There is much for India to be happy about too. The train has been designed and made in India and at half the cost of an imported train. It is fitted with all mod cons, or modern conveniences, so it will provide travellers with comfort they have never enjoyed before. Hopefully it will be the beginning of a revival of rail travel by Indians who have been seduced by the mistaken idea that air is inevitably the quickest and most efficient way to get from A to B. Even a member of the Railway Board once expressed surprise when I said I often took the train. City centre to city centre, the train is often quicker. In terms of efficiency, the train provides uninterrupted time for reading or working on a computer. Air passengers waste much of their time just getting on and off aeroplanes.
Some may think that the Vande Bharat Express is further evidence of India’s elitism. Why, it might be argued, should the railways use their resources to provide luxury travel which most Indians can’t afford? The fare is well above Shatabdi’s, which are already beyond the means of many Indians. But I believe it is important for the railways to attract comparatively prosperous passengers because they are the people who have influence, and play a crucial role in preventing the railways from suffering the neglect other South Asian railways have suffered. They are also the drivers of development as the Vande Bharat demonstrates.
Having said all that, I have to admit that this government has also paid attention to the demands of poorer railway passengers. Excluded they may be from the Vande Bharat, Shatabdis and Rajdhanis , it is no longer inevitable that they will find themselves squeezed into grossly overcrowded general coaches tagged on to slower trains. The railways have launched a new class of Antyodya Expresses. They are long-distance trains consisting entirely of general coaches. Seats cannot be reserved, fares are only slightly higher than those for normal general coaches, and there are improved facilities like potable water and mobile charging points. Some of the general coaches in normal trains now have these improved facilities too.
The government promotes regional flying through its Udaan policy. I think it’s important for the environment, for making Indians less oil-dependent, for speed , comfort, and efficiency to have more and more people travelling by train. According to the Journal of Advanced Transportation high speed rail is quicker than air over distances ranging as far as 1000 kms.” India is, at last, building its first high speed railway running from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. Once again criticised by many as an elitist project, its construction should be a learning process enabling India to catch up with China by constructing a network of high speed railways. They would wean the elite off their obsession with air transport.
Hopefully, high speed Antyodya trains would also be provided. But if this is to happen, the Railways need a management fit for a modern railway. How far away they are from that was demonstrated recently by the story of the Indian Railway officer, Ashwani Lohani. He was brought in to chair the Railway Board because an officer with his outstanding reputation as a manager was needed to restore confidence after two major accidents and his predecessor’s resignation. However, a mere 16 months later, he reached his retirement age and had to retire. Now he’s back where he came from — he’s heading Air India. The hierarchical career structure of Indian Railways management with its compulsory retirement date and its promotion based on seniority of service is highly outdated for the modern world.