Kerala is stuck in the stone age when it comes to railway development. The first reason for this mostly financial: the undersupply of funds for development projects amply supplanted by the inability or unwillingness to utilise even whatever meagre funds are available. The second part of the story is one of organised apathy and neglect by the powers that are, and is the core reason for the railways’ condition in the state. Railway authorities are often said to be acting in methods and manners that are unfavourable and discriminatory towards the state when it comes to allocating funds and projects. This is so deeply entrenched that it almost has become policy. Ultimately, this is also the basic cause for the unavailability of funds and by extension the sad state of railways in the state.
Kerala is Discriminated Against at Zonal and Divisional Levels
The railway network in Kerala lies under the control of the Southern Railway (SR) zone, administered by its Thiruvananthapuram (TVC) and Palakkad (PGT) divisions. Contrary to popular belief, divisions are only administrative and operating centres with absolutely no decision making powers, especially when it comes to matters involving money. All they can do is to report and suggest to zonal headquarters and abide by all their orders. All decisions on funds, projects, trains, staff, allocation, infrastructure, coaching etc. are taken at the zonal level. So, the officials at the Southern Railway headquarters at Chennai decide what the people of Kerala (and the Mangalore region and Kanyakumari district) should get in terms of railways. Southern Railway is often accused to meting out step-motherly treatment to the Thiruvananthapuram and Palakkad railway divisions, as it is evident from the allocation of the least and the worst in terms from funds to projects to trains to coaches.
The other four divisions of SR are far ahead in development. The Chennai division (MAS) is the most “developed” among all of Southern Railways’ six divisions. It has close to 150 km of automatic signalling, around 120 km of tripled and quadrupled lines, more than 30 trains running on LHB coaches, a number of large projects including ICF and of course, the Chennai suburban network. It is evident that most funds go to Chennai. Trichy, Madurai and Salem divisions see gauge conversion and doubling completed in record times followed by increase in train speeds. Also, a large number of new trains and coaches were introduced over the past decade with many LHB conversions. All this while, Thiruvananthapuram and Palakkad divisions cry for want of even the very basic facilities such as coaches fit for human travel and trains that run at at least 60 kph. And it does not end there.
The discrimination against Kerala seems to be deliberate and orchestrated. All decisions by Southern Railway seem to be to suspiciously aimed at to somehow prevent trains from running in any sensible manner. Their attitude and extended goal seems to be to make sure that no railway development actually takes place in Kerala. No big-ticket projects been approved for Kerala for at least a decade while projects approved 20 years ago haven’t been completed. Countless suggestions that have been put forward to SR authorities to solve railway problems in the two Kerala divisions, but not even one among these have taken off as they keep rejecting and scuttling them under some pretext or other. Without these projects, no new trains can be run in the state. For even something small to move in the state, it requires enormous energy by passengers, local people, politicians, media etc in the form of agitations, struggles, protests etc. This is when enormous modernisation projects are conceptualised, planned, approved and completed before time in other parts of the country.
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When protests and pleas by the general public becomes too much to ignore, they do initiate projects. However, behind the scenes, it will be set up and rigged to fail. This way the demand which would’ve been a massive hit if it were executed in the proper way, will be buried for good. This is what happened in the recent CHTS DEMU-drama. The closed-for-a-decade Cochin Harbour Terminus station (CHTS) was recently renovated after years of protests and demands to revive it as an alternate terminus to the oversaturated Ernakulam Jn station. What happened then was incredible. They started running a 3-coach DEMU from Cochin Harbour Terminus to Ernakulam Junction station! For eight kilometers! Taking a ridiculous 35 minutes to cover that distance twice a day, which takes only 15 min by road! After a week or so, they hurriedly announced that they are cancelling the service since there are no passengers (of course there weren’t!). Shubham. In addition, there was a media campaign to ensure the closure of a railway level crossing gate on the line turned public opinion against the service. They had been “renovating” CHTS for the past four years. That was time enough to construct an underpass at the location. It does not require a transportation expert to realise that the primary function of CHTS would be to serve as a terminus to extend trains currently terminating at Ernakulam Jn., thereby decongesting it. Extending the DEMU to TCR/KTYM/ALLP also would’ve made sense. Everyone except the officials at Southern Railway seemed to realise all this. Or did they?
The Indian Railways can a very efficient, innovative and visionary organisation that analyses, plans, looks ahead to anticipate and solve public transportation problems in the country in the most efficient way, if they want to. And they don’t want to do this for Kerala, ensuring things only keep getting worse. One wonders why they act like this when so many obvious things can be so easily done to improve railway services in the state! From things so terribly basic in infrastructure as just laying a track under an an existing platform (Kochuveli) or increasing loop line turnout speeds to more complex ones like installing automatic signalling to creating third and fourth lines to decongest the network, absolutely nothing which would improve or speed up train running is being done in the state. All over the country, Indian Railways is scrambling to build additional terminals in cities to expand capacity of oversaturated stations. The biggest hypocrisy is that they are unwilling to start new trains from Kerala saying that there is no terminal space while they are also unwilling to commission new terminals on freely available land and stations at the same time (CHTS, Old Ernakulam station (ERG), Ernakulam Marshalling Yard, Kochuveli, Nemom, Palakkad, Shoranur, Kannur etc.)! Why?
A recent report says SR refuses to open the newly renovated CHTS station to long-distance trains because they “will have to run more trains to Kerala!” Well, that explains a lot, doesn’t it? Fully opening up terminals will mean new trains have to be operated in Kerala. It looks like some powers do not want this to happen, and hence purposefully sabotage any infr development in the state! It is terribly unfortunate that the railways deal out this kind of injustice to a set of Indians, who contribute among the largest in foreign exchange and taxes to the nation, only because they have no one to speak up for them. It is infuriating that the people are denied what they not just rightfully theirs but also because they actually pay for it. Southern Railway should provide the people of Kerala with atleast some returns on the revenue they get from the state. Ernakulam South railway station gives revenues of 170 crore a year and does not even have a proper concourse or platform shelters! It is this attitude behind the long-standing, recurring demand from Kerala for its own railway zone (which of course will never materialise).
The Southern Railway bosses’ inconsiderate attitude is compounded by the attitude of the Trivandrum and Palakkad divisions themselves. Any proposal, any project or suggestion put forward to TVC operations officials is always met with the same, repeated responses of “not feasible”, “not possible”, “not practical”, etc., time and time again. Most of these suggestions are genuine to improve public transportation facilities in the state and country. For instance, a think tank recently submitted a proposal to turn the 110-acre marsh land at the Ernakulam Marshalling Yard into an integrated transit hub and commercial complex on the lines of those planned in Mumbai. The officials at Trivandrum division didn’t even forward it it to zonal headquarters. Automatic signalling will solve most of the scheduling problems of trains in the state, but they don’t even suggest it. The less said about train controlling and track renewal, the better. Instead of building infrastructure and trying to run trains on time, what they seem busy in doing is opening fancy restaurants and fixing clocks at defunct stations. This is what their priority lies in, when trains are taking 3 hours to cover 100 kilometres.
The entire infrastructure, including coaching, is proven rotten. Trains are losing a minute for every kilometre they run. Passenger complaints are endless. Punctuality is so laughable that it is ridiculous. (Trivandrum division is the fourth last in the country in terms of punctuality!) Customer support is nonexistent. The only thing that moves at a slower pace than trains in Kerala is the execution of projects. Inquiry commissions constituted by the railway management themselves have reported that TVC division’s mismanagement to be the reason for the mess in the state. They have no connect with the travelling public and are absolutely unanswerable to anyone. The work practices and ethics are so pathetic that they can’t run trains on a fully electrified double line for 148 km without it getting an hour late. When the honourable Railway Minister ordered that railway officers will face the heat if trains didn’t run on time, what did they do? Did they pull their socks up to make sure trains ran on time? No, of course not! They simply altered the timetables to increase running times of trains by half to one hour! So, the late-running time of trains was simply made their right times to improve punctuality! If you want to know why India is in the state it is, this incident is a simple example of it.
Still, there isn’t 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 their officials ho have failed so visibly in their basic duties. What measures have the zone and the and divisions have taken in the last couple of decades to fix and improve this? What actions were taken on suggestions given? To build more tracks and upgrade signalling? To open more terminals, platforms and renew tracks and so on? What development has happened in the state for the past 30 years? All Nothing! And they get away with all of it with such impunity! It is appalling and outrageous and infuriating and so on that no one has any responsibility towards solving these problems! Their first (and mostly only) priority seems to do as little work as possible. 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, officials will get their salaries all the same while people rot inside stranded trains. No matter how much the people want the railways in the state to improve, it only deteriorates instead. All the powers that are, from managers, officials, unions, ministries, politicians, various lobbies and mafia are all conspiring to make the people suffer!
Why aren’t the people of Kerala accorded the same rights the remaining citizens of the country enjoy and take for granted? It is sad that the state where passengers actually take tickets gets nothing while those who vandalise and destroy railway property keep getting rewarded with nicer things in larger quantities. While the rest of the country gets “Bullet Trains”, “Train-18“, LHB coaches for any random train, 160+ kph speed upgrades, faster locomotives, 100 kph average speeds, DFCs, tripled and quadrupled lines, loco and coach factories, suburban railways, new terminals, swanky new stations, special trains on demand, officials who personally assure service and so on, what does Kerala get? It is a running joke in the state that newspapers keep a default headline “Kerala gets Nothing!” to be printed while reporting on railway matters. Railways in Kerala have never moved from the 1970s. 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 now considered a given that Kerala will get no part in any new projects or plans announced by the Indian Railways. This neglect is not limited to one area of case but covers the entire wide spectrum of everything related to the railways, be it permanent way, track, train running, operations, coaching, station and terminal infrastructure, administration and operations, and so on. The following series of chapters will examine these case by case. First, the state of train running infrastructure.