New Delhi, Oct. 20 -- A memory that has remained etched in the mind: Being thrown into a train compartment at the Danapur railway station as a five-year-old on a wintry evening, sometime in the late sixties.
The boarding school steel trunk would be shoved in first. The coolie would then thrust me in through the bar-less windows of those times. It can well be said that there are comforts today of a confirmed and cushioned berth with luggage chains in an air-conditioned coach with a small folding tray table, a mirror and a reading light as well. With the proliferation in the numbers of trains, a passenger has, arguably, far more choices - and a train ticket from anywhere to anywhere can today be bought at the click of a mouse button.
But, as HT investigations found out, the scenario has not radically changed for a vast majority of Indians who travel by the General or unreserved class. They are still being packed like cattle and thrown down over-crowded compartments; or getting electrocuted from the overhead electric wires. Not only this, bedrolls are soiled; food served from pantry cars is inedible; toilets are filthy.
Approximately 3,000 trains have rained down the Railways network in past two decades. Every three minutes there is a train departing from New Delhi or one of its satellite stations. On the Delhi-Howrah route, a fresh train takes off after every nine minutes. Even so, the supply has remained woefully short of demands.
Capacity expansion and infrastructure creation of the Railways has not kept pace with the aspirations of the gen-next. The Railways inherited 54,000 kilometers of tracks from the British; today it has 64,047 kilometers - an addition of just about 10,000 kilometers in the last 66 years.
As HT reporters found, over 28,000 bridges that are 100 years old, are still operational. Some of these bridges are being used, despite having been discarded by the engineering directorate! Mega projects have not been implemented, as adequate funds have not been allocated.
The Railways are short of rolling stock including locomotives, engines, wagons and coaches - while passenger safety plans including the installation of Anti-Collusion Devices (ACDs) and Train Protection and Warning Systems (TPWS) have not been fully implemented.
Unable to maintain punctuality or upgrade the quality of services offered, the Railways have consistently lost passenger and freight traffic share to roads and airlines in the past 50 years - from 75% to around 20%.
With clogged networks, speed has been the casualty. The premier Rajdhani, when launched in 1969, took 17 hours and 10 minutes to compete the 1441 kilometer journey from New Delhi to Howrah. After 43 years, the Howrah Rajdhani has improved upon its speed by a mere 10 minutes - covering the distance in 17 hours.
Chugging along on the vintage steam engine in 1965, the Deccan Queen travelled the 192 kilometer distance from Bombay to Pune in 3 hours 5 minutes. The journey time taken by the train today is 3 hours 10 minutes - slower by 1.89 kilometers per hour after 47 years.
"Populism needs to go and services have to be ramped up. Train travel also has to be made less affordable. Because fares are cheap, people are traveling just for the heck of it", former Railway Board member RC Acharya said.
1. Little rest for men who man locos
Ambala (Haryana): The men who man the trains 24x7 are probably the most neglected lot when it comes to providing them rest during the layovers in the Ambala division of northern railways.
The division has of its own about 3,000 employees including drivers, guards and ticket examiners (called running staff in railways jargon) who man the trains day in and day out. At Ambala cantonment junction itself, the 64-room rest room with two beds each, for running staff, which is touted to be the best in the region, but is riddled with plethora of inadequacies. It is the only running room in the entire division, which has central cooling system which, however, has been non-functional or mal-functional since the day one.
It also boasts of heavy battery of staff to cook and housekeep for the drivers and others, though it is probably never that all of them are there. "There is always a staff crunch especially when the occupancy is more," rues a driver. Conditions of infrastructure and services at running room at Dhuri, Bhatinda and Nangal are said to be even worse. While, the railway union members too bemoan that too little is being done and that too, too late for the welfare of the running staff, additional divisional railway manager Pramod Kumar says though there are a few minor inadequacies, improvements are being done in each one of them.
Not inadequacies alone:
The drivers whom HT spoke to, also say (requesting anonymity) that it is not only the inadequate resting facilities which have been affecting their health but also the acute dearth of the trained hands on the tracks because of which several of them had to work overtime.
Officially, against the requirement of 1645 drivers and assistant drivers for mail, goods and passengers trains there are 1212, leaving the number of vacancies at 433. Though, there is a rule to give 104 hours duty in 14 days to a driver, several have to work overtime, because of the vacancies. - Rajesh Moudgil
2. Delays, logjams and other cogs in the wheel
Marhaura (Saran): The railway board is contemplating to build the diesel locomotive factory at Marhaura in Saran district on a public private partnership (PPP) mode after a directive from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
"The process of short listing the firms through international competitive bidding is underway. The work will commence soon after completing the bidding formalities," a railway board official said.
Differences between union finance and railway ministries over draft proposals and problems in land acquisition have inordinately delayed the construction of the ambitious diesel locomotive factory project.
The project was sanctioned in the supplementary budget of 2006-07 and the cabinet committee on economic affairs had approved it in 2007. As per plan, the diesel loco factory is to be built at an estimated cost of Rs. 2,025 crore. "The project will be completed in about 36 months from the date of agreement with private firms," a board official said.
Officials attributed the delay to lack of interest shown by international firms in the project even though the railways had appointed Grant Thornton International as a consultant on Bihar projects. Initially, the finance and the railway ministry differed over several aspects of the draft documents, including the price the companies would charge for locomotives.
However, the project would be taken up now on a priority basis, as the planning commission and the PMO were keeping tab on the Marhaurah diesel engine project as well as the Madhepura electric locomotive project. The prime minister had stressed on completing these two projects while reviewing the railway projects recently.
The railways required additional diesel and electric loco factories to meet its requirement of nearly 2000 engines for both goods and passenger trains. "The railway ministry has initiated work on separate east and west freight corridors for free movement of goods traffic at a cost of Rs. 50,000 crore. Early completion of the loco factory would help in coping with the huge demand for locomotives," the official said. At present, the railways have two locomotive factories located at Varanasi (diesel engine) and Chittraranjan (electric engine).
At the ground level, the railway authorities faced the problem of land acquisition at the proposed site initially. However, the chief administrative officer of Marhaurah Anup Sahu said that the process of acquisition of about 227 acres of land had been completed. "The process of connecting the project site with road and rail is underway," Sahu said.
The railways selected 400 acres of degraded land in Marhaura's Paterhi mouja for the proposed unit. It was in early 2008 that the railways issued a notification for outright purchase of 400 acres at the prevailing purchase rates. By the year-end, however, the railway decided to acquire just about 220 acres.
"They could have acquired all 400 acres had they really been keen to do so and had their acquisition process been smooth and hassle-free. Two years later, the 150 families who had sold their land there are ruing why they did so. None but those who agreed to pay railway officers their commissions for facilitating the paperwork have been paid their dues. As of date, the Indian Railways has paid just Rs. 8 crore for the 220 acres it has acquired from us," said a septuagenarian Kanhaiya Dubey, elected Mukhiya of Mirzapur four times in a row.
Though Dubey has received Rs. 30 lakh bank cheque for the 6 bighas he had sold to the Railways, he narrated a sordid tale of corruption and red-tapism that mired the railways' land acquisition process.
The 227 acres that the railways have now legally acquired belonged to 570 backward caste families and another 300 upper caste ones. Most were tiny plots of land, not more than a couple of kathas to a family, spread over a dozen villages such as Chanda, Mirzapur, Tal Puraina, Tejpurwa, Bajit Morha and others. Given an average buying rate of Rs. 36,000 a katha, these families would have been riding high, had the canker of corruption-commissions and cuts openly being sought from them for facilitating the necessary paperwork-not wormed its way into the acquisition process.
After the normal verification of land deeds, the railways insisted on classification of the acquired land. And just when those who had sold their lands began counting days when the railways would finally pay them their dues, some junior railway officers began demanding 'commission' to facilitate payments. "They visited us each weekend demanding 10 percent commission in advance. If we paid, payments would be expedited. If not, we could wait endlessly," Dubey said.
A few of the lesser landowners - with daughters to marry off or ailing family members requiring expensive medical treatment paid up. But only after seeking loans from moneylenders at a very high rate of interest, as much as Rs. 15 a month for every thousand sought.
Early this year, another set of railway officers asked for classification of land plots between irrigated and non-irrigated categories and a certificate from the BDO detailing ownership of the land sold. They even took photographs of standing crops and of all those landowners who had sold their lands to the railways.
"The payment mode is erroneous. They pay us 80 per cent of our land costs and the remaining 20 per cent would be paid later at a 5 per cent simple interest", Dubey said adding that his letters to Lalu Prasad and his successor Mamta Banerjee highlighting the corruption in land acquisition process had gone unanswered.
It's been endless wait for all 770 landowners. Barring a couple of the bigger landowners, not one has managed to move the railways to pay their dues in their entirety.
When HT visited the site at Paterhi, all that it saw were stone pillars earmarking 220 acres of degraded land and a half-built 'kutcha' road branching inwards from the main Marhaura-Chapra highway. Other than the pillars and the half-completed road, there was nothing else-just a vast emptiness.
The project, which would have changed Saran's developmental contours, remains mired in controversy to the benefit on none of the political parties- whether Lalu's RJD, NDA or Congress.
Madhepura: Shivnandan Yadav of Sripur-Chakla was delighted when railway officials reached his village way back in 2008 and erected a signboard by the roadside reading - Vidyut rail engine karkhana, Madhepura. It was the day when the entire village celebrated the occasion hoping that the face of this flood-battered region would change soon.
The site of the ambitious Greenfield project still has the signboard but the work on the engine factory is yet to begin even after a lapse of nearly five years. The vast landscape gives a look of barren land battered by the floods that rampaged Madhepura in 2008. "Officials have visited several times. But the work is yet to begin," a disheartened Shivnandan said.
Like Shivnandan, people of Madhepura and adjoining districts of Kosi are still pinning hopes that the proposed electric locomotive factory would change the economic profile of this area, the way Tata steel factory did in Singhbhum (now in Jharkhand) in late nineteenth century.
The electric loco factory at Madhepura was approved by the cabinet committee on economic affairs in February 2007 and later by the union cabinet on February 18, 2010 when Lalu Prasad, former MP from Madhepura was the railway minister. The cabinet had decided to set up this unit in public-private partnership (PPP) mode for manufacturing 12000 HP electric locomotives at an estimated cost of Rs. 1,400 crore with 26% equity from railways. It is expected to produce 100 electric locomotives per year. The project is to be set up after initial hiccups between the state government and the centre, approximately 1100 acres of land was acquired near Sripur-Chakla and adjoining villages. To enable the railway acquire the land on its own, the Railway Act was amended in February 2008 to empower the ministry for acquisition of land by itself for important railway projects.
However, the project has become a victim of the logjam between Planning Commission and finance ministry over a new financing norm. "The railway board has invited bids for this factory from foreign companies 11 times in the past three years. It has also shortlisted four global engineering firms - GE, Alstom, Siemens and Bombardier- for Madhepura plant. But the railways could not strike a deal with foreign companies for one reason or the other," said a railway official.
Now, the Railway Board has decided to invite global bids again and set up a high-level committee to decide future plans as well as short-listing fresh bidders for this factory and other ambitious projects. The committee would decide the modalities and other conditions and put it for final approval by the union cabinet, the railway official said.
"Though the railway officials have recently claimed that the electric loco factory would become operational by the end of 2013, it seems improbable because the bidding is yet to be finalised. The Centre, it seems, is deliberately delaying it for political reasons. Most of the farmers, whose land was acquired, are yet to get compensation," said a local leader Anand Mandal.
"We expected that this project, after completion, would attract economic activities and growth that would spur regional economic development and commercial activities like shopping malls, big hotels and ancillary business activities. But the fate of this project appears to be doomed now. Going by the pace of the railways, it would take at least 10 years to be completed," said Muhammad Khalid, lecturer of a local college.
"Slow progress in the Madhepura locomotive plant is also proving to be a hurdle in the progress of other railway projects that are expected to bring in private investments in Bihar," said Dr DK Yadav.
About 1100 acres of land were acquired at Tuniyahi, Sripurchakla, Balam garhia and Khopaiti villages close to Madhepura town. As per the state land acquisition office records, 54% of the land owners received compensation while the rest are yet to get the amount.
"A sizeable number of land owners, who are small and marginal farmers, did not get compensation due to low rate of land fixed by the authorities. The dispute over rate of land still lingers. How can one expect a small and marginal farmer to part away with their land at the meager rate of Rs. 25,700 per kattha fixed by the railway when the land rate in open market was much higher," said Manik Chand, Sarpanch, of Balam Garhia panchayat.
Other villagers like Sanjay Yadav of Chakla, Md Jalil of Balam Garhia, Arun Das of Tuniyahi and Deepak Kumar Yadav of Sripur echoed the sarpanch's views. "We are not opposed to giving away our land for the factory but we want compensation. After all, we will be left with no alternative source of income after being dispossessed of land. Its our prime source of sustenance," they added.
"Once officials of Siemens visited the area nearly two years ago and conducted soil tests and survey of entire acquired land. They also drew boundary lines by erecting pillars. That is all has happened on the ground. The temporary office of the Siemens located here is under the care of a guard and all its officials were stated to be out since long leaving the project in lurch," they said. - Ashok Mishra
3. 100 year old bridges
Thane/Mumbai: The Thane creek bridge, India's first railway bridge was originally called the Dapoorie Viaduct. It is a stone and masonry arch bridge famous for being linked to the first railway line in the country, which took place on April 15, 1853 between Bori Bunder (now Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) and Tannah (now Thane). It was a 34-km journey that took 57 minutes at the time; today, a fast train takes approximately 25 to 30 minutes.
According to Sadashiv Tetavilkar, a railway historian and expert based in Thane, the bridge was one of the first significant milestones in the development of railways in India during the British Raj. In 1849, the Great Indian Peninsula Railway (GIPR) was incorporated by an act of British parliament on August 1, and it spent the next four years constructing a rail line from Bori Bunder to Tannah, reclaiming land and building bridges. "The Thane creek bridge was one of these bridges," he says, adding that by then the GIPR was already in the process of extending the line up till Kalyan.
The original bridge exists in two stretches, one of 9 spans or arches of 9.14 metres (roughly 30 feet) each and the other with 13 similar spans and one span of 25.6 metres which is a steel girder. Originally, the bridge had two lines running from Thane to Kalyan; today, it has four, including a slow and a fast corridor. In 2003, the bridge was jacketed with a layer of roller-compacted concrete, covering the black jagged stones with smooth, uniform concrete. The only exception to this is a small stretch where the bridge is visible in its original form at what is known as the Kopri subway, which connects the eastern and western parts of Thane.
According to Rajeev Kumar Mishra, senior divisional engineer (coordination), Central Railways, the move was necessary to reinforce the structure and prevent it from collapsing. "With four lines and more than 500 trains running on it every day, the bridge was carrying a much larger load than it was designed for," he says, adding that the original design, however, is still very robust. "Maintenance for this bridge is minimal - there is usually just a routine annual inspection that is conducted and repair-work done on an as-needed basis." - Suprateek Chatterjee
4. Lost property store
In West Bengal, the officials of the 42 police stations under state GRPF seized 85 lost items from January 1 2012 to September 9 2012. Of which, the GRPF has handed over 56 items to its original owner.
Defending why they failed to return around 32 per cent of the lost items recovered this year, a senior GRPF official said this is because despite investigations they failed to find out any contact information of the owners of these items. Neither, did the owners approached them.
"Generally commuters are very careful about their belongings and they do not lose valuables. It is the simple things those are generally leave behind. May be this is why they do not bother to find out," said a senior GRPF officer.
The RPF officials at the Howrah and Sealdah stations said that they often had to face grievances from the passengers who feel that are liable to take care of the lost items, being a central government agencies. But, as per law, the GRPF is the sole authority to take care of the lost items. "Even if our constables notice any lost items we hand them over to the local GRPF office. In case a passenger inquires at out office we send them to the GRPF office," said a senior RPF inspector. - Arpit Basu
5. Nothing adarsh
Chennai:Grand announcements remaining just that. The historic Royapuram Railway station sums up the status quo. It is among some 100-odd stations across the country to be developed as 'model railway stations' -- Adarsh stations. The reality is anything other than this at the station, a heritage building. Announced by former railways minister Dinesh Trivedi, the concept of Adarsh stations, is well meaning one, aimed at the passengers and commuters to give them a smooth experience. But, like several other passenger amenities schemes, this one has remained largely on paper. And the exit of Trivedi has not helped the scheme he had announced in the railway budget last year either.
One of the oldest stations in the country, Royapuram was inaugurated sometime in 1856. N Srinivasan, a government employee, who is a frequent traveller using the station says that he is appalled at the poor upkeep of the station. Even without considering it to development into an Adarsh station, railways should have taken more care to maintain it.
As Adarsh station would have meant adequate clean drinking water facilities, toilets for passengers and commuters, platform ticket and ticket counters on either side of the station, freer approach ways to the station and wide footbridges for passengers. A Tamil Nadu Railway Station Masters Association office bearer on condition of anonymity said, "so far the thing is a mere announcement. It remains to be seen when the action begins."
T Vijaykumar, a labour lawyer and former station master who had once served at Royapuram, is sad that several times well meaning schemes remain unimplemented. Reason may be anything, the paying passenger is often the loser, he said.
Other than some facelift in terms of painting and small tinkering of repairs, at the oldest in South India from, not much has been done for passengers, said C Karthikeyan, a private sector employee. But, yes, slowly the station may become an adarsh station.
"This concept of adarsh station (model station) is as old as three decades or so," said a veteran journalist who had reported on Shimla being developed as a model station way back in the early 80s. - KV Lakshmana
6. Passenger Safety
Chennai: Chitteri is famous, well, for nothing. And is like several thousand small villages with a railway station located there. It was along the route of the first railway line laid in South India by the Britishers, a little away from Bombay-Thane line which became the first Indian railway line. Chitteri, in Vellore district, hit the headlines recently for the wrong reasons - a local passenger shuttle rammed into a stationary passenger train killing 10 people and injuring many more. An inquiry later found that the driver of the local train was guilty - he was talking on mobile and thus got distracted. Human error is often the cause of many accidents.
Spend a little time with the station master, the realities might startle you. You will thank stars that passengers are lucky to be alive and living another day to come back again. Imagine a railway station being manned by a single person. Chitteri station is not alone. There are some 10,000 single person manned railway stations that are operating all over India. "The station master has to man the all important panel, issue tickets, receive and dispatch the train (those stopping at the station and also passing through), attend to phone calls (at least three for each train). He has to be at different places and in different roles at any point of time during the eight hour duty," said C Krishnakumar, Chitteri station incharge, who tookover only a week ago.
On an average, some 120 trains pass through Chitteri, of which 12 stops there. For each train that passes through, there is standard operating procedure that the station master follows -- receiving a phone call from the preceding station and immediately runnig outside to receive the train (with a green flag/light) and dispatch. The fourth grade employee, who is on duty with the station master, crosses the tracks to be on the other side of the platform with flags. It is also the duty of the station master to observe the train and note any malfunction of wheels etc.
"The rule book says that the ticket counter be closed before five minutes of the arrival of the train but if we close down, we can be beaten up by people," Krishnakumar says. "It would only cost just Rs. 3 per passenger at a rough count to have an additional station master to dedicatedly man the all important panel, with switches to command the movement of trains within its jurisdiction of some 3 km eitherways," said Girish Kumar, station master at Sevur, also in Vellore district.
In fact, the Railway Board had cleared the appointment of additional station masters in single-person manned stations in 2006. But till date, stations like Chitteri are awaiting their appointments and arrival. As per the Railway Board order, each double line station must have two station masters on duty, round the clock. Across India, it would cost Rs. 150 crore per month, to have additional station master in all such stations. But then, is it not cheap to have a few accidents and carry on, wondered a Railway trade union official, Vijay Kumar from Calicut. - KV Lakshmana
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.