On the 16th of April 2016, the Indian Railways completed 163 years of service. I happened to see this accolade in Thane Railway station on a banner. Thane was the destination for the first ever railway train to run in India. From a rather small scale service running 30km from Mumbai (Bombay during those days) to Thane using a steam locomotive and 4 coaches, the Indian Railways has since evolved to become the biggest, busiest and the most used railway service in the world. What can we learn from the mega success story of the Indian Railways?
Indian Railways: The epitome of steady improvement
Started by the British to cover only 30km from India’s commercial capital Mumbai to suburban Thane, the Indian Railways have grown leaps and bounds to cover the length and the breadth of the country. While some countries have chosen to showcase development with rapid fast trains, but not concentrating on covering their remote villages, Indian Railways have used their coverage as their strongest point. Be it the ghats and the coast of the Konkan railway, the mountain railways through Himalayas, Sahyadris and Nilgiris or the first train to the previously unserved state of Arunachal Pradesh in 2015 from New Delhi, the railway lines have been steadily laid out to cover a lot of ground across a lot of terrain.
Steam locomotives have given way to powerful electric locomotives which haul the Rajdhanis and Shatabdis at 150kmph. Gatiman Express (Hazrat Nizamuddin in New Delhi to Agra) was tested at the start of April 2016 and it touched speeds of 160kmph.
The ticket booking process, which was initially manual and via authorised ticket counters in stations and via authorised private agents, has now been online for slightly more than a decade now.
Innovation, testing and roll-out in small phases
In collaboration with Google, Indian Railways had launched a high speed 15Mbps public WiFi at Mumbai Central station in January 2016. In April, 9 more stations have been benefited with the connection. When I used the WiFi in February in Mumbai, it indeed blazed at insane speeds and I could download podcasts and YouTube videos to enjoy during my journey.
The railways are also experimenting with the usage of drones to check up on the status of various projects. These drones relay live images to the railway officials, thus cutting down substantial time spent by them in having to go to manually survey the progress.
Suburban short distance train (like Mumbai’s local trains) are experimenting with smart cards called ATVM which cuts down the time to buy a ticket drastically, because the passenger doesn’t have to stand in a queue anymore. Recently they even introduced machines which vend tickets when given denominations of cash. I have used such machines in Thane and Dadar stations for travelling in Mumbai’s local trains.
GPS trackers are being used in railway coaches to track their whereabouts and help in inventorying them. Initially used in the new generation coaches like those used in Rajdhani, Duronto and Shatabdi, the Railways are retrofitting older coaches with the same feature.
Mountain railways like the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways in West Bengal and the Nilgiri Railways in Tamil Nadu, both of which are UNESCO heritage railways, have loads of mechanical geniuses built into them and it is quite an experience to hop aboard those trains.
Railway engineering marvels are also all over the west coast of India, with wonders like the Ghat sections in Maharashtra, the Konkan railway. The sight of a train running across the tracks spanning the Dudhsagar waterfalls between Goa and Karnataka is goose-bump inducing (the featured photo of this article at the top)! These marvels were tested for months, before we got to gape at them open-eyed!
From time to time, Indian Railways launch special thematic trains like the Palace on Wheels or the Deccan Odyssey, which are tourist trains that run for weeks, covering special historic / religious destinations across India to show what the country is special for.
Indian Railways have managed to stay extremely inclusive
Chances are that when given a choice of trip between two far-away cities, you have multiple options like taking a luxury bus, train or even a plane. But for many people in the Indian villages, their annual income does not allow for plans using planes. To start with, they cannot afford air fares. Secondly, even if they have money to spare, there aren’t enough airports in India to cater to small towns and villages. Indian Railways have set up such a wonderful network that the nearest major railway station is probably 50km or at worst 100km away. Railway fares are extremely economical, especially for the less luxurious classes and the first-come first-serve coaches. Take any Indian train and one can see people from all economic strata embarking on life changing journeys.
Seeing such wonderful inclusivity, I feel disappointed when critics complain about the lack of high-speed bullet trains in our system. While bullet trains serve a purpose, what India really needs are solutions which lets everyone be a part of them and the Railways are the best example of this. I am in fact proud that Indian Railways have not prioritised the swanky bullet trains and have set their sights on maximum coverage.
Indian Railways have an extremely good safety record
While the critics and the media love to sensationalise the negative side of the Indian Railways and their history of major accidents, the majority of trains ply people across destinations like clockwork and without unpleasant events. Sure, trains get delayed, mainly due to the busy nature of the network and trains queuing up behind each other in places of bottleneck like major stations, but the percentage of trains being unfortunately injurious or fatal is extremely low. After having gone for hundreds of train trips in different rail regions in India, I certainly cannot vouch for the punctuality of Indian Railways, but I definitely can speak wonders about the safety record.
What can we do to keep the magic alive
Running a system like the Indian Railways takes a humungous amount of effort. With close to a billion people travelling and more than hundred thousand kilometres of route, it is hard to comprehend how the mammoth is managed. For a start, we can just put our hands together for the thousands of people who make it run like clock-work everyday, watching the infrastructure, the schedules and managing the shortfalls. Apart from that, I can think of the following to show my complete support for the railways.
- Most retractors of the Indian Railways start with the argument that coaches are dirty. It is hard to clean so many coaches especially those for daily trains, which are in the maintenance yard for a matter of just two hours. Some of the coaches are part of trains which arrive at a destination at night and have to start their return trip by early morning. In my opinion, it is upto us to keep the Railways clean by adopting clean habits and not passing the buck to the Railways. Common sense tells us that we should not throw rubbish in the train premises, yet passengers habitually do so.
- Maintaining the Railways takes a huge amount of money and the fares are largely subsidised. The Railways depend on your and my money to keep running smoothly. Freeloading trains without buying tickets is one of the worst offences that one can do to the Railways. Crowds or no crowds, we should make it a point to reach the railway station on time and purchase our tickets. For reserved trains, we should plan well in advance to avoid the situation of a waitlisted ticket which gets automatically cancelled.
- Some parties with vested interests have taken it upon themselves to stop railway services and damage trains due to petty political disputes. But also mounting recently are cases where irate passengers have been dissatisfied with some shortfall in the train services and have started damaging trains. As responsible passengers, we should accept the fact that problems may happen and it is in our best interests to co-operate with the Railways as they try their best to bring back services on track.
As a die-hard fan of Indian Railways, I was quite overjoyed to see the long journey that the railways have chugged along. I cannot even predict what wonderful things they have in store for us in the future, as we go on life changing trips across the country, but I am sure we are in for some rather special things. If you are an Indian Railways fan, please do check the very active website dedicated to Indian Railway fans. It is called the Indian Railways Fan Club Association.