AUSTRAL AFFAIRS: Track to progress needs a train on time

A consumer court in Kerala has last month drawn attention to the biggest problem Indian rail passengers face – unaccountable train delays

ByV V P Sharma

Published Nov 05, 2023 | 3:28 PMUpdatedNov 06, 2023 | 2:10 AM

A train in India.

Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko noted a long time ago that justice was like a train that was nearly always late.

If Yevtushenko were worried about delays when taking a Russian train, he would not have worried because he would almost never be late.

But trains in India have a long way to chug before matching Russia’s 98 percent on-time record.

A consumer court in Kerala — the Ernakulam District Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission —  drove this point home on 18 October when it ordered Indian Railways to pay ₹60,000 compensation to a traveller for his train running late by 13 hours.

As an aside, let it be known that justice was a bit late in coming, just like the poet said. The complaint was nearly vintage — circa 2018.

Related: Railways asked to pay ₹60k for inordinate delay

The compensation order

The Kerala case made national news not only because such justice is rare but also because the din of railway inadequacies — led by terrible train delays — is lost in the political hyperbole that a bullet train is en route to change the country’s track topography.

In 2018, a person reserved a ticket from Ernakulam to Chennai to attend an important meeting.

But the train’s departure was delayed by nearly 13 hours and, as the complainant said in his petition, “later extended to 30 hours”.

He could not find alternative transport, and frustrated, he moved the consumer court.

The process took all this while to complete, and finally, on 18 October, the court ordered the Railways to pay ₹60,000.

It said the complainant had suffered “a lot of inconvenience, mental agony, hardships, financial loss, etc, due to the negligence” of the Railways.

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A passenger’s time is valuable

Cautioning the Railways, the court said it was “reaffirming the principles of accountability., especially for institutions that form the backbone of a nation’s connectivity and economy”.

This is the crux of the matter. It’s not about compensation but about the principle of accountability. For, as the consumer court said, “the significance of a passenger’s time is undeniable”.

Two, the Railways, as a major public sector undertaking, “ought to prioritise timely and efficient service”.

In its order, the consumer court quoted from a Supreme Court judgment that said, “If the public transportation has to survive and compete with private players, they have to improve the system and their working culture.”

It added: “Citizen/passenger cannot be at the mercy of the authorities/administration. Somebody has to accept the responsibility.”

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Accountability a must for Railways

The consumer court also highlighted the governing principle of a public transport system in the current times of privatisation, rapid urbanisation and values of time and productivity.

  • The late arrival of trains, without justifiable reasons, places liability on the railway authorities. It underscores that in today’s age of competition and accountability, railway operations must be improved to survive against private competitors.
  • Passengers have the right to timely and quality services, and they shouldn’t be subjected to the administration’s whims.
  • The Railways must provide all reasons for any significant delays, demonstrating that they were due to uncontrollable circumstances.

As the Railways grapple with introducing high-speed trains, they must realise both safety and punctuality are factors that make them credible.

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Crores depend on trains

Crores of Indians depend on trains. Just Southern Railways handled around 64 crore passengers in 2022-2023. It operates over 4,000 trains in its jurisdiction.

Inevitable delays cause undue harassment. Travellers spending hours at stations for journeys or onward travel face issues with public conveniences and food and have no facilities even to sit for a while.

The biggest complaint in cities like Chennai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad is train delays, causing passengers to miss connecting transport. When one train is delayed, it has a cascading effect on other trains behind it.

The South-North corridor connects South and North India with the maximum number of superfast and express trains running, and the delays are highly problematic.

The Railways say they are planning to ensure punctuality by reducing stoppage duration at major terminals, rationalising timetables, classifying trains based on speed, and setting up bypass stations to avoid time loss on account of reversing the engines.

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Crores of minutes lost

But the punctuality task is Herculean, as the minister for railways may have found out some months ago.

This March, Minister for Railways Ashwini Vaishnaw posted a picture of a modern-looking railway station on X (previously Twitter). He received millions of views and thousands of responses — many of them asking him about train delays.

And why not? An RTI query by activist Chandrashekhar Gaur last December threw up startling figures.

Between April and May of that year, 1.35 lakh trains in India clocked a delay of 12,701,660 minutes. That’s nearly 24 years lost in delays, converted at the rate of 5,25,600 minutes a year.

Worse, express trains — where passengers pay more for better comfort and higher speeds — were delayed more than passenger trains in this period.

Another RTI query of Gaur’s revealed that in 2022-2023, over 1.43 lakh trains suffered delays worth 1,10,88,191 minutes.

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West doesn’t tolerate long delays

It’s not good enough to say trains are delayed worldwide. In Russia, a train is considered late if it arrives over five minutes after the specified time. Japan and the UK follow the same rule.

The Swiss call anything beyond three minutes of the advertised time as a delay. The Americans are casual, with delays of up to 10 minutes.

Recently, the British newspaper The Guardian used phrases like “broken system”, “dysfunctional railways”, and “worst delays” to flog the country’s rail services, public and private, for “inordinate” delays ranging from one or two minutes to 10+ minutes!

Hopefully, the Ernakulam decision will encourage more passengers to knock on the doors of consumer courts. That alone can push the Railways into serious self-introspection.

They have the usual reasons they offer to parliamentary queries, like asset failures, growing train volume, and ongoing construction projects, including electrification and upgrading signalling.

Other railway systems have similar problems, but, like European countries, including Russia, they give the highest priority to safety and punctuality.

For them, maintaining the train schedule is a sacred duty. The major routes have up to six traffic controllers, each monitoring their route sections and a supervisor over them. Live reports reach the CEO of the Railway even if a minor issue is noticed.

That’s how sharp the competition is between the public and private railways over there. They know the passengers will shift loyalties at the first long delay.

It’s not that our Railways are immune to public criticism. Constant raps from the judiciary keep them on their toes.

In September 2021, they were in for a shock when the Supreme Court asked the Railways to pay ₹30,000 to a person who missed his flight because the train reached the destination four hours late.

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Long way to go to

The Railways, too, appear to be sensitive to delay complaints. Some time ago, they compensated passengers on the Lucknow-Delhi Tejas Express — India’s first private semi-high-speed train — for running late on two successive days.

However, compensation should not become the escape route. The Railways must prepare for unbridled urbanisation accompanied by increased private enterprise and toughening environmental goals.

By all expectations, passenger and freight traffic may double by 2050. Given India’s size and population, semi- and high-speed rail (along with local bus networks) is the only viable alternative for short- and medium-distance travel.

So, punctuality has to be the buzzword for the scale of operations we discuss.

A Russian example again, to round it off. Somebody travelling in Russia took a train to Siberia 51 hours away and noted she arrived at the time specified on the ticket.

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