Steam locomotive on display at Guwahati Station, 011213
The Indian Railways
has is one of the largest railway networks in the world. (Click on the link above to get facts and figures.)
Given its size and unwieldiness, it's a remarkable organization. The trains are on time for the most part, and earlier delays (up to 24 hours, sometimes!) have been nearly eliminated. When Lalu Prasad Yadav was the Railway Minister, he won laurels for "revamping" the Railways. (The ultimate recognition....it's a case-study at Harvard.)
But alas...the revamping seems to have brought out the vamp in the organization, and the passenger trains, it seems to me, seem to have a lot of problems. I am listing them, as I see them, here....I do appreciate many things about the railways,but these are outstanding minuses that cannot be wished away.
Awful online booking website.
The IRCTC website
continues to be one of the least user-friendly websites I have ever used. It's amazing that to date, on this site, I cannot book return tickets, and have to book each journey separately. It's so difficult to use that I totally avoid options like break of journey. Very often, it ,can take hours to book one's tickets on the site, and this enables bad practices like the using of agents and touts to get one's tickets booked.
The Railways recently brought back the 60-days-in-advance rule for booking journeys (it used to be 90 days), and this is obviously essential, given the kind of corruption and underhand practices that sometimes marks the booking of rail tickets. It also results in people who are planning ahead, booking the tickets on the date that the booking opens, and sitting on the bookings until they decide whether or not they will travel, or travel by that train. This means that many genuine travellers get only RAC (Reservation Against Cancellation) or WL (Waiting List) tickets, and do not know until much later if their tickets will get confirmed...and they get very uncomfortable side berths, about which I will write more, later.
Passengers still cannot choose their berths, or seats on day trains. Senior citizens can request lower berths, but other passengers must be content with what they get. Lights may not work, nor fans; the attendant is usually nowhere to be found, and it's impossible to exchange one's berth after allocation.
Maintenance of bogies and railway tracks:
The maintenance of the passenger bogies leaves much to be desired. I am still regularly able to see mice and rats in the bogies. All the bogies of the Bangalore-Guwahati Express, which I took on the 19th of November, were dirty and old, and a terrible place in which to spend 3 nights and 2 days, on a 3000 km journey. Even the newer bogies are, unfortunately, of very bad design, with heavy, unwieldy doors, a lack of electrical outlets for many passengers (except the random lucky ones).
The spaces between bogies are rapidly becoming a litter-deposit area, and railway employees think nothing of throwing all the trash out on to the tracks. I am unable to see a responsible method of disposing trash on the many journeys that I make.
(You can see the amount of trash on the tracks. Ahmedabad-Bangalore, 161213)
Air-conditioners in upper-class bogies may freeze the passengers, or let them swelter in an ill-ventilated space. To get the attendant to do something about the problem is tough, given their general invisibility (see below).
The windows, sealed in air-conditioned upper-class bogies, are usually very dirty, and on the Bangalore-Guwahati train, was impossible to see out of, creating a feeling of claustrophobia. On the journey from Ahmedabad to Bangalore, the window was dirty throughout the first day, and was cleaned at Hubli, at 7pm on the 2nd day. I have never otherwise seen the windows being cleaned during journeys. The lower class bogies have open windows, where the glass or steel shutters might be stuck, or come crashing down suddenly...and open windows expose the passengers to the filthy smell from the railway tracks.
Sealed windows on the air-conditioned bogies
My window on the Bangalore-Guwahati journey, 201113. (A/c 2-Tier coach)
Maintenance of toilets
The toilets, even on upper-class bogies, are an abomination. They still open directly on to the railway tracks. They are dirty, often without water, and the flushes just do not work properly, due to terribly bad design.
Upper class bogies are supposed to have attendants in, well, attendance. But usually, they are nowhere to be found, after they hand out the bedding at the start of the journey and it's impossible to get anything repaired or rectified.
Bedrolls and towels
Bedding (provided free in the upper class bogies) can often be damp from washing, torn, and frayed. Towels are supposed to be provided, too, but are usually not given. Sometimes, pestering the attendant, when he appears with the bedding, works.
The food on the railways is under contract, and this is increasingly result in in a combination of awful food and beverages, and overcharging in the most blatant way. I just wrote a blogpost about the recent increase in food rates
Food is a major issue on long journeys. Good food is just not available. I explored the internet sites of a few caterers, but they want a minimum order of Rs.1500 and are not interested in individual passenger orders. So passengers are still at the mercy of the contract vendors.
Lack of information about the running of the train
The lack of the attendant also means that most passengers do not get any information about whether the train is running on time, or not. Even trains which have display boards only have meaningless messages and advertisements running on the LED display, and no useful information about the next station or how long the train is doing to stop there. In the middle of the night, passengers do not even know which station the train has halted at. My train back from Ahmedabad (AII-Mysore Exp, no. 16209) was due in Bangalore at 3.15am...and I kept awake all night for fear of falling asleep and missing the station. And when there are multiple stations in a single city (eg, Krishna Raja Puram, Bangalore East, Cantonment, and City on the train mentioned above), one has to constantly go to the door, risking one's luggage, to find out where one is.
Shanties along the railway tracks, Guwahati-Bangalore, 031213.
Waiting list confirmations and side-berth issues
The side berths on the bogies are charged at the same rate as the regular berths, but are far less comfortable, and can often result in great difficulty for the passengers, as they are in the high-traffic area, and cannot get out of the way. The side berths are much shorter, and are allotted to passengers who have been confirmed after being on the waiting list. This is very unfair to passengers who have paid the same as those who are occupying the more comfortable berths. Sometimes senior citizens on the waiting list are allotted upper berths, and have great difficulty climbing up to sleep, especially if they have to visit the toilet once or twice at night.
Theft of luggage and mobile phones seems to be very common on long-distance trains, and there is absolutely no way one can report theft, unless one is prepared to pull the chain and make everyone wait. My 82-year-old fellow passenger and I had our mobiles stolen in broad daylight when returning from Guwahati, and on the journey from Ahmedabad to Bangalore, another passenger had his mobile stolen. Most passengers just curse their luck and are helpless, as they discover the loss later, there is no attendant to complain to, and the Railway Police never make their appearance on the train.
Travelling Ticket Examiner on train, 031213, Guwahati to Bangalore
An incredible array of vendors seem to frequent the aisles at all times on long journeys, and it is difficult to accept that their presence does not have the endorsement of the Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE) or the attendant. Some of these vendors could also be opportunistic thieves.
One of the many vendors on the trains, Guwahati-Bangalore, 211113
So...while the railways are very useful (and I must express deep appreciation for the fact that senior citizens get 40% off the train charges if male, and 50% if female...a discrimination I have never been able to figure out), it takes a lot of stamina and resolve to spend a couple of days on a train, and make the journey with Indian Railways. I do...and I think of myself as an intrepid traveller.