Never on Track

“We want to bring back the ‘aah’ factor of railways”, said the Railway Minister PiyushGoyal on Tuesday. It might take some time to bring back that ‘ahh’ factor in this season; the dense fog that has engulfed North India has resulted in 62 trains being delayed, 20 rescheduled and 18 cancelled in the Delhi-NCR region due to low visibility, as of today.
It is unofficially the Delhi-transportation-suffers-because-the-fog-is-too-thick season. The Capital has been celebrating it for three years now. The issue is the same- excessive pollution from stubble burning, vehicles, factories, open wood stove, lighting of garbage combined with the northeasterly cool winds settling over the Capital NCR region, suffocating the citizens in a hazy cloud. Pollution levels sky rocket; the smog level of PM2.5, which is the most hazardous particulate matter in polluted air, was 40 times than World Health Organization recognized safe limit, last November. The State Government blames the crop burning of nearby states {but cannot initiate a widespread action because the farmers of said States are crucial voters}; the Odd-Even rule for cars in Delhi is enforced for a short period; transportation is severely affected and people complain till the weather brings relief in the form of warmer sunshine and clearer skies. Delhi has subconsciously become complacent with this cycle. But perhaps what irks the citizens most is the troubling transportation.
The Ministry of Railways has been hard at work. Upgraded infrastructure in the form of computerized signaling system and installation of fog safety devices with GPS technology helped reduce the delays this year. “Due to our constant efforts, less trains were running in late in comparison to flight during fogs”, PiyushGoyal stated during the Question Hour in LokSabha. But unfortunately, the comparison doesn’t ring too mellow in this chilly weather. While flights delayed at airports offer some solace for the passengers in the form of centralized heating at airports, railway stations do not offer that luxury. Waiting Rooms and Retiring Rooms at stations are few and function on first come first serve basis.
People waiting for Chambal Express in Mahoba share the seasonal defeatist sentiments of the denizens of the National Capital. Travelers dependent on the railways for reaching to their workspaces are running late. When asked about the facilities available, Mahipat, a passenger waiting at the platform instinctively replies ‘No facilities, we’ll just keep sitting in the cold. If something happens to someone, they’ll die’.

Going to work also becomes a Sisyphean state of affairs. Mahipal Singh, who’s spent almost a day at the Kulpahad station, has just learnt that the train he’s planning to take will now only arrive at 7 a.m. the next day. “I’ll go back to the village now. I’ll come back again early morning.” If the train is delayed yet again, then Mahipal misses a full 24 hours of contractual work. Tara has spent the last month in Mahoba but is now due to return to Bhopal where she’s expected at work, but the incessant delay has now got her mulling over other travel options. “Bus se jayenge“, she says, “We’ll take a bus to Jhansi, and then from there, proceed to Bhopal.” For Mahipal, Tara, as for so many others, this equals to a salary cut – employers after all rarely consider train delays as legitimate reasons.

Waiting all night out in the open on the platforms in winters is a daunting chore. Solo women travelers are more susceptible to face security concerns having to wait on the platforms alone. When enquired about the facilities for overnight stay at the station, Sarda, travelling from Mahoba, replies without missing a beat that, ‘there are no facilities; whatever amenities you bring from home, linen etc, that is it…’ On the 31st of December, Kanpur Central Station had 187 trains running behind schedule and 4000 tickets were cancelled.[1] The fog has not only affected the scheduling, but has also reduced the speed of the trains. [2] If the trains are running too late, the travelers return home or look for other means of transport. Those at the station come prepared with amenities to spend long hours waiting. Instead of questioning the lack of amenities, people have developed their own coping mechanisms. The cheap tickets ensure the loyal customer base, ready to brave the inconveniences without much protest or hesitation.
The Citizen’s Charter of the Ministry of Railway claims in its Preamble to ‘provide safe and dependable train services; courteous and efficient counter services; and ensure adequate passenger amenities in train and at railway stations’. The Ministry might not be able to stand firm on these points this ‘fog season’ but hey, let’s revel in the fact that there are fewer delayed trains than flights. Pappu, however at Charkhari station, would disagree, “Now, my village is quite far from here. So, I’m in a hopeless situation – I can neither go back home, nor is there any point in waiting here.”