To Solve Indian Railways’ Financial Crisis, Run Profitable Trains

A lot of bandwidth is spent these days wailing and whining about how the railways are running in loss, and how everyone should pitch in to give up subsidies, etc. to that the railways can make some money to invest in improving its operations and so on. The “dynamic pricing” thingy, by which they arbitrarily charge more during high-demand times, was one. The latest seems to be psychological. Indian Railways tickets are printed with the lamentatious message that it recovers only 57% of what it spends on an average. Elsewhere, they also ask us if we are aware that the “43% our fare” is borne by the “common citizens” of the country. For one, this idea of the people suffering for the sake of the railways makes little sense. In this case, the average Indian Railway passenger is exactly that common citizen who bears the remaining 43% of that railway rupee as well. However, there a number of other reasons for why the railways asking passengers to shoulder its troubles is preposterous. The burden of the railways’ mismanagement is not theirs to carry.

The message on the ticket somehow makes it feel like it is the passengers’ fault that the railways is losing money on their operations. It is not. If it is anyone’s fault, it is of the railways themselves. When they are asking passengers to bear a part of the railways’ losses, are they fulfilling their part of their bargain? Are they doing what is required to mitigate those losses? First of all, it is entirely the business owners’ or operators’ prerogative to ensure that an enterprise operates to be financially remunerative, be it for entrepreneurial gain or for customer satisfaction, and not one of the users or the customers. In this case, however, it can be argued that it is in the passengers’ best interests that the railways run at a profit because it is a major driver of the economy, provides cheap travel to the vast unwashed masses, promotes national integration, etc. Absolutely. But then again, it has to explore all avenues to make a reasonable amount of money which can be reinvested to run better services. Running a monopolistic service and then burdening the people with the weight of losses is pure and simple, exploitation.

Everyone has always a hundred different ideas for the railways to make money, many of which are complicated and actually expensive. However, there is a simple way to increase revenues. Run more trains. What everyone seems to miss is the most basic elephant in the room, that the Indian Railways does not seem to be interested in properly leveraging its core services to generate revenues. Or, they simply do not run trains on much-needed and heavily patronised routes which could’ve earned them lots and lots of money! This is like refusing to take the cap off a water bottle and then complaining about thirst (lame cliche).

There are two simple things a service business should do when it finds itself losing money:

  1. Cut losses by removing and consoldating non-remunerative operations
  2. Identify and increase/strengthen services that bring in more revenues

What the Indian Railways seem to do, however, is the exact opposite.

Subsidies and concessions are not only what is making the railways run in losses. They keep insisting on adding empty-running, loss-making trains on unpatronized sectors while refusing to run more services on heavily-demanded routes with long waiting lists. Yeah, it increases losses while foregoing easy revenues. Sure, there are other means of avenues for revenue generation like staff and route rationalisation, secondary income streams etc., but the first thing a business should do is try everything to make its core business earn money. Indian Railways resists privatisation and eschews profit under the ostentatious pretence of “public service”. A noble pretence indeed, because public transportation enterprises, especially government-owned, should not be run with the single-minded profit motive. However, Indian Railways ends up neither making money nor providing any service.

The Missed Opportunity of Bengaluru

Look at Bangalore. The legendary transportation problems of India’s alleged IT capital is not limited to within the city but outside it as well. There are no dedicated daily overnight superfast trains from Bangalore to any of its surrounding cities: Mangalore, Udupi, Karwar, Belgaum, Hubli, Gulbarga, Trichy, Coimbatore, Madurai, Trivandrum, Ernakulam, Kozhikode, Panaji (Madgaon), Pune, Mumbai etc., within or outside the state. Chennai is the only exception in this list. The lone daily superfast to Hyderabad goes only until Kacheguda. Bangalore is also home to the largest concentration and growth of automobiles, private and state-owned bus operators, and the fastest growing airport in India, all of which are growing at the expense of the railways. Of all transportation modes, the railways is the weakest in Bangalore be it suburban, regional or Intercity where it could’ve been the strongest. Bangalore is Indian Railways’ biggest missed opportunity. The South Western Railway (SWR) which runs trains in Karnataka is solely and squarely alone responsible for this.

One does not really need any fancy analytics tools to understand passenger flow in and out of Bangalore. Just common sense is enough. Bengaluru has an enormous base of the affluent type migrant population who regularly travel to their “native places”, mostly neighbouring cities and towns less than 12 hours away, especially on weekends, shelling out large amounts of money on overpriced luxury buses, because there are no trains available. Any train to any destination out of Bangalore on a Friday evening and returning on a Monday morning runs full the year round and makes lots of money. However, there are only very few such trains. There is no Bangalore-Madurai Superfast or Bangalore-Trivandrum Humsafar or Bangalore-Mumbai Duronto. Instead, there are slow, long-distance, cross-country “national integration” weeklies to faraway destinations. These trains serve no purpose for the thousands who are looking for fast, intercity and overnight travel, and even are ready to spend money for it!

 

We need Bengaluru Integration as much as national integration

Anyone with the slightest understanding of how business is done will be baffled at this. Why are they willingly forgoing millions and millions in revenue? People are baffled because they think of Indian Railways to be like any other enterprise who plan their services for maximum revenue gain, customer satisfaction and all that through careful analysis of demand, competition offerings, customer expectations, behaviour patterns and so on. As explained in the previous chapter, it is nothing of the sort. Indian Railways, as the bureaucratic successor of the erstwhile British Raj railways, aims at only serving itself and its officers. They seemingly take no account of passenger demand or business requirements before running train, doing so only because they have to fulfil some bureaucratic requirement like rake utilisation. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Bangalore-Kerala sector.

The Bangalore-Kerala Railway Travel Crisis

There are a million Malayalees in Bangalore, and only three daily overnight trains, one to north Kerala and two to south Kerala. It is close and next to impossible to get a ticket on any of these trains with waiting lists longer than the trains themselves, all of which run with 23 coaches. All in total there are only a measly 32 total services to Kerala from Bangalore, and only three run on weekends! There are seven overnight trains from Bangalore to Kerala on Thursdays, but only three on a Friday! Any new train started is strategically announced to run during the middle of the week with odd timings to make them useless to passengers. Examples are the two Ernakulam-Bangalore (now Banaswadi) Superfasts and the 16561/2 AC express. These trains are run because the rakes of the Ernakulam-Patna, Ernakulam-Okha and 12213/4 Duronto have to be run to somewhere, even if empty and at a loss. In addition to all this, they are also now pushing trains from Kerala terminating at Bangalore City station to the middle-of-nowhere hellhole called Banaswadi station, further alienating people from trains.

The Island Express. Legend.

For over a decade, people have been crying themselves hoarse for new trains to be introduced between Bangalore and Kerala, especially on weekends, but nothing has materialised. The travel crisis has reached acute conditions that are now approaching “violation of human rights” levels as the railways steadfastly refuse to start any new trains. There is no room for excuses, the demand was sky-high a decade back, and if there was a paucity of infrastructure, it could’ve been created by now. The present trains cannot handle even 10% of the demand. Any old train introduced in this sector will run full the year round. In fact, at least three more trains can be added during the weekend alone! Not only will it ease the suffering of the people, but bring in a lot of money to the railways as well. But no cigar. What progress can you expect when such huge-anti people and anti-development forces are running the system that is the lifeline of the nation? It is this why even simple things are such a big ordeal in this country. Every turn is a money-making opportunity for someone. They simply do not want to start new trains. In fact, there is a case where such a train, already announced to be run four years back, hasn’t started yet thanks to these vested interests, which is the biggest example for why the railways have no moral right to cry about losses.

The Curious Case of the 22657/22658 Trivandrum-Bangalore Express

In the 2014 interim railway budget, the last of the UPA government, the then Railway Minister Mallikarjun Kharge announced a new biweekly “Premium” service between Bangalore and Trivandrum. This train was then included in the next years’ timetable (TAAG 2015) as the 22567/8 Trivandrum – Bangalore Premium Express, featuring a revolutionary timetable, leaving Trivandrum at 1915 on Thursdays and Sundays to arrive Bangalore at 0810, and then return from SBC at 1900 on Mondays and Fridays to arrive at TVC at 0830, the perfect timetable in accordance to the flow of passenger traffic! This train would’ve run full on its every single run and would’ve mitigated a lot of suffering. However, that was not to be. The train was never introduced. Now, all trains announced in a railway budget and included in a timetable are always started, no matter who announced it, even if the government changes. And moreover, this train was then removed from all subsequent timetable! All this is unprecedented in the history of the Indian Railways.

The 22657/8 “Introduction” Timeline

  1. Premium train between Trivandrum and Bangalore announced in the Feb 2014 interim railway budget.
  2. Train finds place in the 2014-15 TAAG timetable as 22567/8 TVC-SBC-TVC Premium.
  3. A slew of special trains is run on this timetable duing Summer, Onam and Christmas/New Year seasons from 2014 to 2016 under train numbers 02657/8, 02662, 00611, 02659/60, 00633/4, 02611 etc,
  4. In late 2014, LHB coaches are transferred to Trivandrum division to officially start this train. Some trips of special trains were run using these rakes.
  5. In August 2015, Malayala Manorama reports these coaches to lying in QLN yard overgrown with weeds and their electricals eaten up by rats.
  6. The then railway minister Suresh Prabhu orders investigation on the wastage of the rakes and on why this train hasn’t been started yet. Nothing comes of it.
  7. Dec 2017: News reports surface of a new Mysore-Bangalore-Trivandrum biweekly train to be started soon.
  8. SWR and SR officials meet at Hubli to finalise timings of this new train. TVC/SR proposes timings of erstwhile announced 22657/8. SWR outrightly rejects this.
  9. Now, SWR says they will run a weekly train from Mysore via Bangalore to Trivandrum on Thursdays. This is very much needed since there are only seven other trains on Thursday while Friday despite being a useless day has a huge number of three trains to Kerala. /s
  10. Trivandrum division and MPs etc from Kerala are begging Southern Railway to give them a rake to run the train. SR seems not to be relenting.

Consider what the revenue impact of this train could’ve given. Reservations for the 06575 Bangalore-Trivandrum Onam tatkal fare special train for September 01 2017 opened at 0800 hrs on August 29, 2017, and had 1496 seats up for sale. Just before midnight on the same day, there were only 127 seats left! By 0900 hrs next morning, sleeper class had gone into RAC and 3A was well into Waiting List. The entire train, 1500 seats, was sold in a little more than 24 hours! A sleeper berth end-to-end cost Rs.540, and taking a Rs.465 average, that was a cool 7 lakhs in one shot. A train with the composition of 22567/8, which included 8 AC coaches would have easily collected upwards of a million rupees. That is 20+ lakhs revenue every week. A crore every month. From one train. And still, they are won’t start trains in this and every other such sector and cry about losses. Isn’t it incredible? There has been endless outrage, petitions, dharnas, serial reporting in all Malayalam media, queries by MPs, orders from railway ministers and even the Prime Minister’s office to run this train. Still, nothing. It says how powerful a handful of people are, that they can cooly do nothing to benefit the people and no action can be taken against them!

Bangalore Kerala Train Travel Problem
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Yes, what you see is what it actually is. Railway officers are actively trying to prevent the introduction of a train which would’ve brought much relief to people and generated crores in revenue! They have stalled it since its inception, and are now trying to stall it further, and if possible kill it, along with all other such high-density intercity trains from Bangalore. Tracks and terminals are saturated, you say? Yeah, like they are. This “terminal constraint” excuse falls apart as a lie on close inspection. SWR has started around 12 new trains since 2014 from various stations in “spaceless” Bangalore, including spectacular flops like the Jaipur Suvidha all the while maintaining that they don’t have “space” for 22657/8 alone. The same SWR also runs the 06579/80 KJM-VSKP and 07603/4 KCG-KJM specials, both which arrive at KJM on Mondays, the former actually using the exact same slot that was meant for 22657/8! SWR is also gearing up to run a new daily Uday Express to Coimbatore and a purported Humsafar to some faraway destination. The Uday was also announced in the budget. They can start that train but can’t start the train to Kerala? Recently the two Ernakulam Superfasts were moved out to “middle of nowhere” Banaswadi, causing untold misery and hardship to passengers, because, yeah, you guessed it, no space at SBC. Does anyone still think that the railway bureaucracy has any concern about the passengers, revenues or anything like that? They have space, slot, route, rake and terminal for all trains in the world except for those to Kerala.

Bangalore-Hyderabad is a similar sector. The Secunderabad-Yeshwantpur Garib Rath Express which initially started as a tri-weekly with departures including from Bangalore at 2000 on Fridays and from Hyderabad at 1915 on Sundays, making it super convenient the tens of thousands of Telugu techies. So big was the dent caused by this train, that the powers that are conspired for the train to arrive YPR at 1115, and then to leave YPR at a ridiculous 1330 and arrive at SC at an equally ridiculous 0400, effectively killing it. After a lot of outrage, the train was rescheduled to arrive YPR at 0915 and then leave at 1645, somewhat mitigating the problem. But then, they changed its Friday departure from Bangalore to Saturdays. Boom!

So, what could be the motive for all this? We all know what, don’t we? There are around 600 private luxury buses plying between Bangalore and various destinations in Kerala, as they do to all locations around Bangalore. Trains are their biggest enemies and worst nightmares. They are a very powerful and influential force that can easily get the railways do their bidding. The fewer the trains, the more the scarcity of seats, allowing them to charge fares as they wish. Last New Year, the ticket prices hit Rs.4000 per seat for a 10-hour journey, while Rs.2000 is the everyday norm on a weekend these days. Adding to this, the Karnataka government itself is a bus operator with KSRTC and BMTC, which could be a reason why the state is not really interested in developing its railway network. This is not just unjust, but criminal. The private bus business seems to be the only thriving business in the country right now, keeping on adding buses and routes and passengers, while the railways flounder and cry about being unable to make money. That itself tells something.

A lot of Indian Railways problems can be solved if they just start working like how a real business is supposed to.This can be achieved by following three simple steps, which will result in increased revenues.

  1. Rationalise train services.
  2. Cancel loss-making, empty running white elephant trains
  3. Run more trains on heavily demanded routes.

They can whine and wail all they want about poor finances and bad revenue recovery, but nothing is going to change until they start actually really try to make money, which is by running trains to places where there is a demand for those services. It is ridiculous and nonsensical that they are asking the public to subsidise and bail out those who are causing them untold misery by their corruption and incompetence. Do they want us to give half to both sides? The railways should first rein in its errant officers and ask them to shove their excuses and start running trains on financially remunerative sectors and make it clear that their job is to run trains to make money and benefit the people, and not to keep vested interests in business.

The 17321/2 mega white elephant express takes a whopping 21 hours to run on the useless route from Hubli to Mumbai via Solapur. And it predictably runs completely empty And it runs on a weekend. Now, there is insane demand between Hubli and Bangalore on weekends. If SWR had any sense of anything, they would’ve cancelled this train and use that terribly underutilised rake to run a weekend Hubli-Bangalore biweekly (ex-UBL: Fri, Sun, ex-SBC: Sat, Mon – The rake runs as 12777/8 on other days). This way it will benefit way more passengers and bring in a lot more money.

P.S. Change.org petitions are useless, yes, but it is the only way for us the poweless plebians to raise a squeak against the powers that are.

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  • Sohamn Chatterjee

    long awaited but finally a good post. Would like to see a post on WAG12 and WDG4G soon.