Making rail travel better

S. Madhusudhana Rao

I was pleasantly surprised to see an email from Railway Minister Suresh Prabhakar Prabhu, recently. Why did he send it to me was my first reaction. After opening the mail, it was clear that it was part of the Railway Ministry’s efforts to improve passenger amenities and services.

I should admit, not as a frequent rail traveler but an occasional one, that the e-booklet prepared by the Railway Ministry and sent in PDF format about the great Indian Railways is impressive. It gives, in a nutshell, a number of known and not so-well-known facts and figures and it is worth taking a look at it before we start blaming our rail system for everything.

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S. Madhusudhana Rao

The gigantic scale of operations, complex logistics, the number of routes and passengers and the quantity of goods the Indian Railways handles is simply mindboggling. Besides the e-book that details the achievements and initiatives, the minister’s mail has a personal message asking for comments and suggestions. They can be sent to the minister’s email address. Hope, someone is monitoring these suggestions and passing them on to Prabhu for “necessary action.”

In any case, interacting with travelling public through Internet and social media is a welcome departure from earlier days when aggrieved passengers were made to run from pillar to post (even on platforms) to elicit information or to lodge a complaint. Now, the process has been made easy, thanks to digitalization of most of the railway operations, including ticket booking and cancellation from anywhere in India. And, these are being made easier with mobile apps.

But a lot more needs to be done to catch up with the minimum railway standards in developed and in some developing countries. Not long ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been talking about modernization, bullet trains, a high-speed quadrilateral route, bio-toilets, Wi-Fi in stations, etc. Transforming British-era railway system into an ultra modern one needs billions of dollars that will come only through private participation. Running the national rail grid without allowing, or with limited access to, private equity is a herculean task. But flow of foreign funds into one of the key sectors of the economy has its own limitations and pitfalls. Before some grand plans materialize, some efforts are on the way for image makeover.

On Thursday, the union cabinet had decided to involve private players to develop 400 railway stations, covering all metros, big cities and towns, pilgrim centre’s and tourist spots. Re-development involves adding new facilities and sprucing up without altering the basic structure. In any case, it can’t be done in most of the cases as the railway stations have become central hubs, with little space for large-scale horizontal development. So, we can expect shopping outlets, Wi-Fi enabled A-C lounges and restaurants in the revamped stations. In fact, these facilities have already been provided at many stations. But the only problem is the restaurant food is prepared in such a manner as to make it acceptable to all palates. But, unfortunately, none likes it. The less we talk about hygiene and sanitation the better. Once Modi had asked why our railway stations could not look like airports. Wish somebody makes that dream come true.

Partly, that may be fulfilled now, under a new model called Swiss Challenge. The makeover of railway stations is expected to fare better under the Swiss Challenge. It is based on competitive spirit and innovation. Under this system, another can challenge a private bid with better ideas and products and win the contract.

In another effort to improve passenger services, the railways have also launched a PR exercise to get feedback from the public. Railway staff will call passengers randomly and collect info about the cleanliness of stations, platforms, trains, quality of catering, level of cooling of AC, quality of food, punctuality of trains and quality of bedrolls.

On an average 60-70 calls per day per train are being made and efforts are on to make about one lakh successful calls per day to passengers of mail/express trains. Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) has been entrusted with the exercise and the feedback is being collected through Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS). It operates on the basis of simple categorization of service under ‘good’, ‘satisfactory’ and ‘unsatisfactory or bad’.

The initiative is innovative. But what is required is prompt action by the officials concerned. The travelling public will not be convinced unless these efforts show tangible results. Even one year after the BJP government came to power with a lot of promises of transforming the railways, very little is seen on the ground.

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