A report by the Indian Railways has stated what has been obvious to many for a while now: that people are increasingly favouring air travel over journeys by train in India.
The Indian Express reported that domestic air travel will become the first choice for Indians travelling long distances over the next 3 years. By 2019-20 more people will opt for flights to commute between cities 500 km apart. At present, the overall perception is that air travel is the preferred mode of transport for those setting out on journeys that are 800-1,000 km long. But the reality is strikingly different.
Consider these numbers: domestic airlines in India flew around 97.8 million passengers between December 2015 and November 2016. "The comparable classes on Indian Railways — First AC, AC-II, III and First Class — carry on an average 145 million passengers every year," says The Indian Express, as an index of contrast.
The reasons for the decline in train travel are predictable and all too transparent.
With the proliferation of airports in smaller cities and towns, along with several low-cost airlines operating in the segment, Indians have a better chance at buying a flight ticket without feeling any pinch. Proactive government policies like UDAAN, which facilitates air travel of less than an hour for as little as ₹2,500, are also responsible for encouraging more people to fly.
Compare with these advances, in terms of value for money and comfort, with what the Railways have to offer to its passengers, and the findings are grim, if not dire.
A recent audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) observed that the food served by the Indian Railways is unfit for human consumption. Not only is it often prepared with water that isn't filtered properly, the packaged edible items were found to have passed their date of expiry. Additionally, rodents were discovered in the compartments and the linen wasn't washed as per instructions by the authorities, causing further worries about cleanliness and compromised public hygiene.
The CAG report also found that 95% of the so-called 'fast trains' were delayed, which not only caused many inconveniences to passengers but also meant that they were levied unfair charges for facilities that Indian Railways failed to deliver to them. In a country with a young workforce, many of whom are employed away from their home states, the imperative to travel faster between places is becoming more expedient. Many may feel air travel makes better economic and practical sense for the comfort and stress-free experience it can usually guarantee.
It's not that the Indian Railways are not making any efforts at all. But whatever action is being taken to address the system failures either lacks efficient implementation or feels too little, too late.
Recently, the Railways introduced the superfast Tejas Express between Mumbai and Goa, a move that was warmly welcomed by the public. But even before the train had entered Mumbai, the glitches were already palpable. After Tejas Express had completed its maiden journey, the signs of public dissatisfaction was writ all over it by the signs of vandalism done to it. From its entertainment systems to the food to the WiFi, the flaws were all too evident. The public reaction, though by no means justifiable, was just as severe.
Indian Railways is now trying to fix the shortcomings in a myriad ways. Introducing 'rail-hostesses' on Tejas Express and economy AC travel on some trains are its ways of providing better facilities to the public. As for its infrastructure, much of which is still a hangover from the colonial era, it is forging ahead with new solar-energy-operated trains and planning the launch of 'bullet trains', but there's still a long gap to bridge.
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