Kerala is the New Bermuda Triangle of the Indian Railways

lot has been said and written about the terrible state of the railways in Kerala. Trains are not enough, trains are slow, trains are late, trains are overcrowded, their stops are many, tracks are bad, service is terrible, coaches and stations are worn and filthy and so on. Nothing new in all that, this story is at least two decades old. But today it has gotten worse. Horribly worse, as it can be attested by anyone who has travelled on a train in the state. For the past one year, the already slow trains have only gotten even slower, stoppages have increased, the tracks have gotten worse, the coaches are older and filthier than ever, and the levels of late running have reached epic proportions that any train now takes an hour to run thirty kilometres. Everything has become frustratingly slow as trains crawl unendingly at 30 kph and make unscheduled stops at every station, getting stranded endlessly on double tracks. Services are being arbitrarily rescheduled and cancelled, often without warning or alternate arrangements. The lack of punctuality, even for daily office commuter trains is throwing lives out of gear. Commuting by train has become an ordeal so painful and frustrating it is difficult to articulate.

Of course, to expect Indian Railways trains to run on time is too much to ask for. Far from apologising for late-running, here they pretend that trains running 10 minutes late are “on time”. However, the late-running in Kerala, especially in Trivandrum division, is of another level. Most trains that start on or before time at their origin now regularly take two hours to cover 60 km and four hours for 100 km. The 200 km Ernakulam – Trivandrum stretch now takes 6 to sometimes 8 hours to cover! That is an average speed of 30 kilometres per hour. Thirty. Oh, and this goes for all trains: MEMU, passenger, express, superfast, Jan Shatabdi, Rajdhani, all are put at equal misery. The last time such speeds were the norm was during the mid-1800s. Even the trains of British India ran at higher speeds. And no one gives a damn. Officials are as usual sitting on their high thrones with no communication with passengers who they seem unworthy of the attention of the great (1960s) technology they administer. And of course, when existing trains cannot keep up time, running new trains is totally out of the question.

But why are trains running this late and slow in Kerala? Commuters and observers are perplexed at why trains are stuck on electrified double track line, as they were always been taught crossings to be the singular evil at the root of all late running, and doubling the line the solution to all railway problems. Well, no. The double-track fallacy is a big railway misconception. All the track in Kerala, double and all, is still not enough to run all the trains. Double tracks do no good when there aren’t enough platforms, terminals and yards, and when signalling systems still use outdated manual blocks. As for electrification, it mostly is intended to improve the railways’ operating overheads and don’t do much good unless high-speed and suburban services are introduced, which Kerala does not have, and any attempt at introducing which are always successfully thwarted. The reason why trains are running late, and no more trains can be introduced on the tracks, is because the tracks are full. The late running is not the problem, it is only the symptom of the real problem, which, like the rest of the Indian Railways, is too much train and too less track. Kerala is Indian Railways’ new Bermuda Triangle.

The Indian Railways Capacity Problem

As explained in great detail in this chapter, railway tracks are not roads and trains are not buses. You cannot run an infinite number of trains one after the other just because you have double tracks. You need space between trains, space to park and service them. Trains are running slow because the tracks can no longer support all the trains that are running on them. When the number of vehicles on the road exceed its carrying capacity, you will have traffic jams, as we all know. The same goes for trains too. You cannot keep on adding trains to tracks and expect them to run on time without building infrastructure to support them. Here are some of the reasons for the railway problems Kerala and in extension India face.

What Why
Trains run slow and late because Tracks are too weak to support the large number of trains running on them.
Tracks are weak because They were not renewed or replaced for a long time. They weren’t improved to take all the load they do now.
New trains cannot be run because Existing tracks are “full”. There is no more space on the track, platforms, terminals or pitlines.
Tracks are full (and weak) because No new tracks and associated infrastructure was created for over three decades to account for increasing traffic.
No new infrastrcuture was created because Politics, mostly, as everyone concentrated on new stoppages and useless new trains alone.
Trains are stuck everywhere because All of the above.
Most people do not know that railway tracks have a real physical limitation on the number of trains that can be run on them. You cannot run infinite trains one after the other as if they were buses on roads, mainly because of the ancient manual signalling systems we use, where trains are routed manually by station masters and controllers. Tracks are divided into block sections 7-10 km long, and no more than one train can be present in a block. So, a train running at average 60 kph speed will roughly take around 10 minutes to clear a block section and before the next one can be allowed onto it. So, only four or five trains can be run on a section in an hour. If trains run at 30 kph as they do now, it will take them twice the time to clear sections, cutting down the number of trains the section can service per hour by half. Yeah, when your train is stuck at a station or on tracks for extended times, it is mostly only waiting for the train ahead to clear, which could be waiting for the train ahead of that to clear, and at the head of the chain will be probably a passenger train.

The reason for the slow and late running of trains in Kerala is the very acute lack of infrastructure in terms of tracks, signalling, platforms, terminals, pitlines, etc. This situation is probably acuter than what is felt anywhere else in the country. The original “Bermuda Triange” of MGS-BSB-ALD-CNB section has quadrupling of the line and the DFC coming up to solve congestion problems. Kerala has no solutions whatsoever on the horizon. And the new trains that everyone wants to start? Impossible, without new tracks and terminals.

How Infrastructure Creation in Kerala Has Been Neglected

The situation currently in Kerala is the culmination of decades of neglect, apathy and indifference from the railway administrations, both state and centre, in all spheres from coaching to infrastructure creation, often on purpose. Over the past few years, the Indian Railways have improved in many aspects from track to speed to rolling stock to traction to infrastructure to customer service. However, one state and its people at the south-western corner of the country are always ostracized. They are outcasts who get nothing from any plan or project meant to improve the transportation sector in the country. There is no Mission Raftaar here, no new train products, no decongestion initiatives, nothing. They hardly respond to any customer complaints or suggestions, even on Twitter. The lucky people of its neighbouring states enjoy much better railway operations, development and networks, like Karnataka, which had absolutely pathetic rail connectivity until a few years ago. However, Kerala has no hope even on the horizon as there are no projects allocated there. When it comes to the kingdom of the Indian Railways, Kerala is the refugee waiting for crumbs, the orphan who nobody wants or cares about. It survives by salvaging whatever is discarded from other parts of the country. Kerala is the garbage can of the Indian Railways.

The 112-km Kottayam line doubling that started in 2003, 15 years ago, still has 32 km to complete. During the same time, 493 km of track doubling was completed and opened in Tamil Nadu. Karnataka got 300 km of new railway line in the past 10 years, while in Kerala, exactly ZERO kilometers was created in the past 23 years. A 78-km gauge conversion project on taking 14 years and is still not fully complete. Coaches are stinking, rotten 20+ year-old rust buckets that break apart while running. TVC has just one LHB train and Palakkad has none, while almost all daily intercities in TN and most trains in north India, including random specials run on LHB. The Nemom terminal was announced in 2008 and still is only on paper. The refusal to add a track at available platform space at Kochuveli and to develop existing stations into new terminals at Ernakulam, while the Tambaram terminal in Chennai announced in 2011 and is already completed. Hyderabad just got three new terminals and Bangalore, two. The unheeded cries for the past six years for just one MEMU rake for TVC and any MEMU services for Malabar. DEMU services are started everywhere in TN without anyone even asking for them. Railway stations that are no better than garbage dumps. Trains being cancelled for want of loco pilots.  For a divisional and state capital, Trivandrum Central has a grand total of five platforms. The decade-old denial of a new daily train to Bangalore. Tracks not renewed or replaced for the past 15 years. No kind of any premium class train. No special trains. No automatic signalling. No suburban railway. No big-ticket projects, No electric loco shed. Accidents galore. It goes on and on, and on, endlessly. The capstone? Kerala has the lowest density of railway track per population in the country among all states with more than 1.2 crore in population.

In any more sensible land they would’ve noticed ages back that the railway would boost commerce and trade, increase mobility and reduce travel times, all of which will improve the economy and raise the standards of life of the people. In fact, this actually was how the USA rose to the status of a world superpower. One would assume that the railways would go on an all-out mission to improve and expand its services to achieve these objectives. Well, as explained in the chapter before, even while crying about losses every day and supposedly moving heaven and earth to generate revenues, they won’t even try to run trains on highly profitable routes, which would’ve filled the coffers of the railways while greatly benefitted the people as well. For instance, if they had built sufficient infrastructure and ran trains efficiently and on time, every train in Kerala would’ve easily turned a profit. Holding back on these projects is one of the reasons why the state can never achieve its own true potential. Maybe that is the plan, because of all the services in the state, the railways is without doubt the most backward.

Why Was No Infrastructure Created in Kerala?

The reason for the deplorable condition of railway infrastructure in Kerala is mostly, only, political. The Indian Railways is a politico-bureaucratic organisation used as a political carrot to reward favored consistencies and a stick to beat noncomplying ones into submission. For this end, all its functions, services and engagements are tightly regulated and kept under strict top-down delivery control. As it operates completely insulated from market-driven forces of need and delivery or demand and supply, the only way any development can happen in the railway domain is through orders given by the kings of the railway board. With just 20 MPs, the state plays no big role in the corridors of political power. For their part, save for some three or four, most MPs are least interested in developing the railway sector. People and their representatives, none of who really understand the technicalities behind running trains or railways, blindly pester authorities for “new train to whateverabad” and “plzz to stop all trainzz at Cheriyanad“, thinking trains are like buses of which an unlimited number can run and stop everywhere with no impact on traffic. Every stoppage slows down not just the train but those behind it as well.

It can be said that the railways in Kerala are ideally stuck in the 1970s. There hasn’t been any fundamental changes in tracks, engineering, operations, stations, signalling, coaches etc. for many decades. Well, speeds have, but they are actually less than what they were in the 1970s. (Other parts of the country are atleast beginning to enter the 21st century). For years, the only “development” in the railways sector in Kerala was either the indiscriminate increase of stoppages or the introduction of random long-distance weeklies to faraway destinations. These were all mostly for political gains with no planning or customer requirement studies, no thought of capacity enhancement or network modernising or a vision for a development model calling for a cohesive, integrated, forward-looking transport policy and model to create a sustainable, long-term solution for fast, easy, reliable and predictable shorter-distance commutes across the state and not meandering ultra-long distance “national integration” trains. What Kerala needed was, in all essence, a suburban railway. But all that is unsexy compared to making Venad stop at Sasthamkotta. However, the neglect is by and large, official.

Official Apathy at Zonal and Divisional Levels

All of the railway network in Kerala lies under the Southern Railway zone, administered by its Thiruvananthapuram (TVC) and Palakkad (PGT) divisions. These two are amongst the worst administered in the country. With no substantial revenue source or large projects under their ambit, they have the least mindshare within Southern Railway, which itself has the least mindshare within Indian Railways. Contrary to popular belief, divisions are only administrational centres with absolutely no decision making powers at any level, be it for funds, projects, trains etc., which are all made by the zonal headquarters at the the behest of the Ministry of Railways and the Railway Board. For instance, if TVC wants to short-terminate Venad Express at ERS for a day, the decision has to be approved by the board! Hence, even for the simplest of needs and wants, the state has to go begging to the bosses at the Southern Railway zonal headquarters at Chennai, who but seemingly cannot think beyond the Chennai division, which are hence rich in latest technology, projects and services. SR not only allocates the bare minimum crumbs to Kerala but also keeps trying to stave off from what precious little the state already has. What is this, but terrible discrimination?

State Rail Density / Population Route KM added last 10 years Total Track KM added last 5 years Trains Started last 3 years Suburban Railway
Kerala 0.000061 -5 30 3 No
Tamil Nadu 0.000089 144 218 3 Yes
Karnataka 0.000084 299 318 7 Yes
Telangana 0.000087 118* 271 10 Yes
Andhra 0.000104 118* 271 9 No

Every aspect, right from the stinking toilets to infested coaches stink of complete, utter neglect that can seem even rapacious at times. Whenever the people demand a new train the standard reply arrives from the authorities is that there is no rake, no track, no slot, no path, no platform, no pitline, no staff, no locomotives, no nothing. Everything is a black hole. However, they have all the stuff needed to run trains to everywhere else. They had no problem starting useless, empty-running weeklies to Indore and Hatia, while the same damn time claiming to have ‘constraints’ to run trains on highly demanded routes like to Bangalore or Hyderabad, or even within Kerala. Special trains, if at all announced, run on useless odd timings during the middle of the week, at speeds like 38 kph and so on and so forth. However, the rot here is really not just at the top, but everywhere, and everyone is complicit, including local divisional authorities.

The Southern Railway bosses’ indifferent attitude is compounded by the Thiruvananthapuram and Palakkad railway divisions themselves. For some reason, they seem to be actively trying to prevent any attempts by anyone to solve the operational problems plaguing the division. Over the past three decades, no single large project has taken off in TVC or PGT, mostly because officials keep outrightly rejecting those plans under one pretext or the other. Any proposal, any project or suggestion put forward to TVC operations officials is always met with the same, repeating responses of “not feasible”, “not possible”, “not practical”, etc, time and time again, while PGT officials don’t even bother (PGT is probably the only division on IR whose HQ does not have terminal facilities). Apparently, infrastructure enhancement will mean more trains resulting in increased workload which has to be avoided at all costs. Instead of building infrastructure and running trains, the division seems to be busy in opening fancy restaurants and fixing clocks at defunct stations.

Yes, lack of infrastructure is the problem. What measures have the zone and division taken in the last couple of decades to fix and improve this? To build more tracks and upgrade signalling? To open more terminals, platforms and renew tracks and so on? All Nothing! And they get away with all of it!

Sure, there has been improvement in infrastructure. Around 24 kilometres of track was doubled during the past one year, 46 km in the past three years. The results, however, aren’t what you would expect. With every new section of double track opened, trains end up only losing more time! This makes no sense, since with the increase in infrastructure such as double tracks, trains should be running faster and more efficiently, right? Not in Kerala In fact, the present saga of ultra-late running started as soon as the Tiruvalla-Changanasserry and Kuruppanthara-Piravom sections were opened. The Changanasserry-Chingavanam and Ettumaoor-Kuruppanthara sections are scheduled to open soon. At this rate, trains will stop running altogether after that happens. They were actually running on time and much more efficiently when it was a single track line, and took lesser time to cover distances than what they take today.

The entire infrastructure, including coaching, is proven rotten. Trains are losing a minute for every kilometer they run. Passenger complaints have been countless. Customer support is nonexistent. Enquiry reports have explicitly stated the division’s incompetence and negligence as the reason for its operational problems. Still, there is not even a whimper from the railway top brass. It sure says a lot about their sincerity in improving services when they won’t (or can’t) even raise a finger against its officials, even when they have fialed so visibly in their basic duties, forget coming up with new and innovative ideas and measures. Officials are part of very powerful unions and will (or won’t) do jolly well what they want, without any fear of repercussion. They have zero commitment, responsibility or accountability towards the general travelling public. It does not matter if trains run on time or not, or even run at all, they will get their salaries all the same. Their first (and mostly only) priority is to safeguard their own fiefdoms and do as little work as possible The few honest officers are either sidelined, pushed to VRS, or indicted in false cases, destroying their careers, while the lazy and the corrupt advance. A handful of people have been holding back the progress of the entire state for the past three decades so they can enjoy life at the expense of the suffering people.

Sure, there are structural problems affecting railway tracks in Kerala. There are problems with the terrain, the curves, frequent stoppages, etc. But there also have been railway lines in the state for well over 150 years. Wasn’t this time enought to solve these problems? What to expect from people who take more than a year to construct a simple culvert? Aren’t the people of Kerala Indian citizens? Aren’t they entitled to the same rights the people in rest of the country enjoy and take for granted? No matter how much the people, lakhs of commuters want the railways in the state to improve, it only deteriorates instead because all the powers that are, from managers, officials, unions, ministries, politicians, various lobbies and mafia all conspire to result in a perfect storm to hand a raw deal to its people. The state where passengers actually take tickets gets nothing while those who vandalise or destroy nice railway property keep getting rewarded with more and more goody stuff. Those who can really improve the condition of transportation facilities in the state are least interested or bothered to do so. The pure, raw neglect and apathy of the state by successive governments, ably supported by the railway establishment of all levels has been so institutionalised, that it is no considered as a given that Kerala will get no part in any new projects or plans announced by the Indian Railways. To show how evident this is, across all its  across its entire wide spectrum. The next chapter will be a mega project examining that spectrum in detail, over not one or ten levels, but fifty.

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