As an Indian Railway customer, how many times have you walked up to a Railway window and the person behind the window has greeted you? Every time I found the person on the other side wore a look that suggests either they have a stomach ache or they have come to work after a fight at home.The Indian Railways, fourth longest railway network in the world, the backbone of India’s transportation. This is what the British left us with! How much have we progressed in the last six decade’s? Can we say Indian Railway is compatible with their western counterparts in term’s of punctuality, safety, cleanliness, reliability, comfort ability?
May 1988, traveling from Howrah to Guwahati by Kamrup Express that departed from Howrah at 7 pm. We got on the train few minutes before departure to find some 10-12 men sitting on our reserved seats. Four of them were playing a game of card’s while the others cheered them. We asked them to vacate the seats as they were our reserved seats. One of them replied “we will get down in an hour then you can sit, we travel by this train every day”. One of our friend went and complains to the train conductors and this is the reply he got, “They will get down at Bandel, hundreds of them travel every day back home from work, just thirty minutes”. The conductor didn’t even bother to come to check our or their tickets, leave alone vacating the seats for us. The train took off we stood till the it reached Bandel Junction, all these daily passengers got down, we got our reserved berths. The daily passenger’s had monthly ticket for travel in local trains or unreserved compartments of mail or express trains. The conductor was trying to save his ass by not doing his duty for which, we could not rest our ass.
I heard this from a colleague who was also a beneficiary. In the 90’s there was an increase in railway passenger fare. All the opposition parties were protesting. The Communist party was no exception. A group of thirty plus daily passengers came out with a unique idea. They got a banner made in the style of the communist party banners, red cloth written in white “Eastern Railway Daily Passengers Committee”. The real ticket check took place at Howrah station. At morning, they all assembled together at the Howrah station, holding the banner, they would shout anti government slogans and get out of the station, unchecked and unchallenged by the ticket collectors. They would go to their respective places of work. In the evening they would march together holding the banner in front and catch their train back home.This way they enjoyed free railway ride for almost six weeks, Howrah to Burdwan.
May 2007 traveling to Bareilly from Sealdah by Akal Takt Express. The train left Jhajha after it’s schedule stoppage and to our utmost shock we found the S-7 compartment we were in, getting robbed by 12-14 armed robbers. The robbery went on for almost 40 minutes as the train proceeded to Kiul. The robbers got down, few hundred yards before Kiul station. The passenger’s were in shock from the robbery and mal handling in the hands of the robbers, leave alone what they lost. On reaching Kiul station a complaint of the incident and first aid to the injured became imperative. Surprisingly the station master would not allow the train to park for extra minutes and wanted the train to proceed to Patna, few hours journey for registering the complainant and medical aid to the injured. At this the passenger’s became very agitated, station master had to ultimately give in. This particular stretch had been prone to robbery always. Why there were no security personal in the train? What were the Railway Police Force men on duty doing at the Jhajha platform? Why couldn’t they spot 12-14 armed men? Was the entire episode a set up?
March 2013, planned to spend Holi (the festival of colors) at Shimla. The plan was to travel by train from Agra (where we stayed) to Kalka via New Delhi, then by car to Shimla. Railway tickets, hotel room, car all were booked in advance. On the day of the journey we were well before time at the Agra Cantonment station to board the Kerala express for New Delhi. At the station came to know the Kerala express, supposed to arrive on platform no. 2, was late by thirty minutes, nothing uncommon with Indian Railway. When the train did not arrive after one hour of waiting, I went to the enquiry window to find out what was going on. Now to get to the only enquiry window one has to climb 40 plus stairs to the rail overhead pass, walk up to platform no 1 and again walk down the 40 plus stairs to platform no.1.then walk to the enquiry window stand in a unsystematic que, wait your turn. Then again walk back the same way. A pain in the ass process! At the window I was told the train will come soon. After 30 minutes more waiting the electronic board on platform no.2 stopped updating anything regarding the Kerala express. Once again made another trip to the enquiry counter on platform no.1. There were other passengers waiting at the window for the update but, behind the counter no one to answer. After ten minutes a man appears at the window to declare that the engine of the Kerala express broke near Gwalior, the support team has already reached and the train should be on its way soon. How soon? He disappeared without answering.
The train arrived after two more hours and the inside of the train was pathetic and untidy, the toilets stinking. There were cockroaches and rat’s running inside the air conditioned compartment. Amazing! We reached Delhi way after scheduled arrival and very obviously missed our train to Kalka. How much did we loose? A chunk of the ticket money as the ticket from New Delhi to Kalka was cancelled at New Delhi station after the train had departed. Had to hire a car from Delhi for Shimla and ended up paying three times the money we would have paid if we could avail the train. We reached the Shimla hotel at 3 AM which we originally should have reached by 11.30 PM. Who is the sufferer? Passengers like me. Who cares? Probably nobody.
November 2014, traveling to Mahoba from Jhansi by Chambal express. Conductor comes checks my ticket and ask for fifty rupees as reservation fee for sitting in the sleeper class. I give him the money and ask for a receipt. He gave a surprising look and said “If you want a receipt you will have to pay the actual railway charge, one hundred rupees! ” I handed him another fifty rupee bill. He scribbled behind my ticket and handed it back to me. Just as he was leaving I reminded him that he is yet to give me my receipt for the charge I just paid. He said he will be back soon with the receipt. He came back after almost two hours to return a fifty rupee bill and say that his receipt book has exhausted. Good excuse!
Experience tells me most railway employees working in Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh will not let go any opportunity to fill their own pocket. Whereas their counterparts from the south Indian states are more honest, dutiful and passenger oriented. January 1993, I reached Jajpur Keonjhar Road Railway station from Keonjhar, around midnight, and purchased a ticket for Calcutta. Trembling in the intense cold of the deserted platform. Not even a tea stall was open as there were no passengers. The station masters room was the only room on the platform with it’s door’s and window’s closed. To escape from the cold I slowly opened the door, there was only one middle aged duty officer in the room. I requested if I could sit inside till my train arrives. He noticed me shivering and pointed to a bench. Within a few minutes I felt comfortable, a room heater was keeping the room warm. Felt even better when he poured me a cup of hot coffee from his flask. In between answering the phone he also talked to me in a friendly manner. When my train arrived he walked with me up to the train and requested the conductor, of the train, to find me a berth. The train to Calcutta was packed but the conductor still managed me a berth taking the exact sleeper charge with proper receipt, not asking for any extra money.