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Bullet trains? First change the stinky coaches and stations

Last updated on: July 09, 2014 17:27 IST

Bullet trains? First change the stinky coaches and stations

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Mahesh Vijapurkar

Amid all the changes that Railways has undergone over the decades, one thing has been constant - untidy stations and malodourous trains, says  Mahesh Vijapurkar.

There are four categories of people, each looking at the Indian Railways and the promises made in the annual budget in their own way.

First is that category, which would look at the promise of a bullet train to eventually run between Mumbai and Ahmedabad as a macho symbol of coming of age of a country, where trains move so slowly that this category does not use trains at all. They even move their freight by road.

The second is the aspiring category, who want faster travel and the comfort such bullets trains can offer, bringing us in the same league as Japan and China, which have their speedsters.

With that upgrade come scores of things – cleaner toilets like in aircraft, and hopefully cleaner stations from which they take off.

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The third category wants the existing two- and the three-tier AC coaches to be better serviced including provision of clean bedrolls and food. If possible, run a tad faster.

The fourth is the hoi polloi travelling at odds with their inability to even reserve a ticket. They have somehow convinced themselves that it is their lot, being where they are on the economic and therefore social hierarchy, much like the migrant who has to travel from Mumbai to Gorakhpur and sit on his haunches all the way in a general coach.

It is a class where a trip to the loo may rob you the spot acquired by bribing someone who is a thug on a platform.

There are more of the better-off travellers by the number of coaches, and as many of the common who are confined into the few cattle coaches going by the number of people crammed in a very few unreserved coaches.

No wonder in some places north of the Narmada, they do not respect the spaces acquired by legitimate reservation. They plonk amidst the people like us – PLUs.  Even the poor can feel the misery of travel, but are helpless.

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The railways need to worry about and provide for these two classes though it is a fact that over decades, the lot of all except what P G Wodehouse would have described as the sweaty peasants, have somewhat improved. 

The ticketing has become easier, the black-marketing reduced, trains run more or less on time, but elsewhere things are found wanting.

A shocked friend journeying to Pune in an AC chair car complained last week of omelettes served with cockroaches in them.

Therefore, if a bullet train is in the air much like a castle in the same space, so be it, for it at least shows how even the railways can be aspiring.

If a bullet train becomes the benchmark and the trains lower in the classifications are not ignored, there could be a general tide raising all boats – or coaches?

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Image: A high speed New Delhi Agra test train leaves New Delhi station.
Photographs: Shirish Shete/PTI

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The latest railway budget shows some promise but cleaner trains and stations are a factor of the diligence and work ethics of the service providers. Judging them by monetary allocations would be absurd.

Half the problem of filthy trains and stations is resolved the moment the user decides to be tidy in his or her habits but how the provisioning is equally critical. A good toilet is as good as the manner in which it is used.

Madhu Dandavate as Railways Minister introduced potable water in steel drums placed close to the washbasins near the exits and chained a tumbler to drink with. The purpose of a new amenity was defeated because they were not refilled during the trip. 

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Of course we have come a long way from the trains and the travails of travels in them over the decades.

Over fifty years ago, a reserved seat or a berth could not even be dreamt of because the Indian Railways just wanted to physically move people from one place to their chosen destinations. 

Then cushioned seats and berths, the air-conditioning of coaches, the bedrolls for which you paid for but now is part of the ticket fare were introduced. They banished the II Class and upped the III to that.

But amid all these changes which included replacement of the steam engines with diesel and electric locomotives, one thing has been constant: untidy stations and malodourous trains and stations.

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Even the quantity of tea which was specified as 180 ml at a set price has shrunk to its third served in plastic thimbles. We don’t know where the breakfast, lunch and dinners are cooked but sometimes freelancers masquerade as official caterers and cheat on the quality.

These need to be attended to and the latest budget shows promise in that direction.

If sincerely done, the majority of the train travellers would not salivate at the thought of a bullet train when they realise that cost of a ticket on such an expensively built train on an equally expensive set of tracks would be six to seven times the standard fare of Second AC.

But yes, it would do nicely for a window dressing and we can gawk at. Others can zoom past in it.

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