In the recent past, due to various functions being held at Jamshedpur and Bombay in connection with my daughter’s wedding, we needed to undertake long distance travel by Indian Railways. It was far from a pleasant experience -- my family and I were actually appalled by the way I.R. is running. Let me share some specifics with you.
Shoddy online reservation system of the world’s biggest railway
Reservations for long-distance trains start 90 days in advance. To make our bookings from Tatanagar to Bombay, I switched on my computers at 7:45 AM (bookings open at 8 AM) exactly 90 days before our journey. Having experienced very slow response from the I.R. online booking server in the past, I switched on my desktop and laptop simultaneously and connected both to the internet using different modes of connectivity (desktop on wired broadband, laptop on wireless). Exactly after 8 AM, I commenced my efforts to log in and managed to do so after several minutes. Then started the frustratingly slow procedure of online booking – transition from one page to the next takes several minutes and often, instead of opening the next page, the I.R. system just logs you out and you have to start all over again. How does one feel when this happens again, and again, and again? Very frustrated and angry, trust me.
After 17 minutes of trying I got lucky on one of my computers and booked 4 berths in AC 2-tier by Gitanjali Express. Even though the booking was done only 17 minutes after bookings opened 90 days in advance, we got 3 confirmed berths and 1 was RAC-1. In other words, anyone who booked after 17 minutes could not have got a single confirmed berth in AC 2-tier, despite trying 3 months in advance! But I am only talking about legitimate ways of booking tickets here. There are any number of agents and touts who get you confirmed berths in trains for a fee, even days before you journey.
When we boarded the train three whole months later, the status of our 4th ticket was still RAC-1, i.e., it did not move up even one notch.
Is there even one honest TTE in the I.R. ?
Frankly, I doubt it. The TTE (Travelling Ticket Examiner) of Indian Railways epitomizes corruption in India. When we boarded Gitanjali Express at Tatanagar, we were reasonably sure that our RAC-1 would get confirmed as there are always some last minute cancellations and no-shows. For those who are not familiar with the RAC system, each compartment has 6 passengers listed as RAC-1 to RAC-6 and 3 berths are allotted to them, i.e., 2 RAC passengers share 1 berth. As soon as a berth falls vacant due to cancellation or no-show, confirmed berths are allotted to RAC-1 & RAC-2. And so forth. But this is just in theory, as I soon discovered.
As soon as the TTE came to check our tickets I enquired about our RAC -1 ticket and he told me that all berths were full and nothing could be done. Being suspicious, I started taking rounds of the compartment and found that there were a number of wait-listed passengers in the compartment who were continuously following the TTE and requesting him to ‘do something’. As per rules, a wait-listed passenger is not allowed to board the train in any reserved compartment. I too started tailing the TTE to figure out the goings-on. In front of the toilet, I saw a passenger (maybe wait-listed) putting a Rs 500 note in the TTE’s pocket. I then confronted the TTE and dared him to allot any berth to anyone without clearing the RAC first. I stuck to the TTE like a leech, maintaining an eagle’s eye on everything he was doing. When he asked me why I was sticking to him, I told him that I was studying the way TTEs work!
The TTE soon realized that he would not be able to sell any of the vacant berths without having me off his back. So he allotted a berth to me after an hour or so.
The duty of the TTE is to first clear the RAC (3 berths are required to clear 6 RACs) and then only can he allot any berth to wait-listed or other passengers (who approach him on the platform at every station where the train halts). Usually, the TTEs just ignore the RACs (this especially happens during night journey when everyone needs a full berth to sleep and so berths fetch high ‘premium’) and ‘sell’ vacant berths to the highest bidders. I subsequently exchanged notes with some frequent rail travelers and learnt that this practice of not allotting berths to RACs and instead selling the berths to bribe-givers is more the norm than the exception. Often, the RAC passengers are required to bribe the TTE to get a confirmed berth. If a berth is vacant, full fare paying RAC passengers have the first right to it. Why should they pay a bribe to get what is rightfully theirs?
The average Indian is so corrupt by nature, that he is ready to pay a bribe even before he is asked or forced to. Why blame only the bribe taker? If every RAC passenger is vigilant like me and refuses to bribe, the TTEs will fall in line.
But the most important issue is – what is the I.R. doing to curb such malpractices? Is there any system of surprise checks, esp at night, to see whether RACs have been cleared and whether any non-RAC passenger was allotted a berth? Are the TTEs required to submit a report on berth allotments at the end of their duty? Apparently, there are no systems in place, otherwise would such malpractices be so rampant?
Cleanliness on I.R. is going from bad to worse
We travelled to Bombay by Gitanjali Express which is considered to be one of the better trains between Howrah and Bombay. In our AC 2-tier coach we were appalled to see torn upholstery (due to fair wear and tear, not vandalism), dirty walls, broken seats, missing fans in toilets, filthy toilets and plenty of cockroaches. About a year back I had noticed that I.R. had outsourced cleaning work to private agencies and their boys would periodically sweep the compartment, clean the toilets, replenish liquid soap in toilets and even spray air freshener. This time, both while going to Bombay and returning, I found that this arrangement had been discontinued, at least on the Gitanjali Express.
It is a known fact that Indians are litterbugs by nature and a railway compartment gets littered by empty paper teacups, plastic water bottles, paper wrappers for bed linen, etc., every few hours. So the compartment needs to be cleaned every few hours. The TTE, incidentally, is also responsible for ensuring cleanliness. But as I have mentioned before, the TTEs consider extracting bribes as their only job. On our train to Bombay, I noticed that not a single sweeper attended to our compartment even 12 hours after the train started. The entire compartment was full of litter and the small dustbins under the wash-basins (adjacent to the doors) were overflowing. So I met the TTE and requested him to have the compartment cleaned. He told me that he would send a message to the next major station and our compartment would be cleaned when our train halted there. However, the station came and went and nothing happened. Then my wife and I collected all the litter from near our berths in two large bags and unceremoniously dumped it next to where the TTE was sitting! The TTE started protesting but many other passengers, who were also disgusted due to lack of cleaning, joined us in reprimanding the TTE. Cornered by many passengers, the TTE ensured that the compartment was cleaned at the next station.
Failure of air-conditioning due to poor maintenance
When we were returning from Bombay, our compartment started becoming too warm and I requested the coach attendant to do something about it. When nothing happened for the next couple of hours and the coach became unbearably hot, I complained to the TTE and he put the AC mechanics on the job after another hour or so. I came to know that two AC mechanics accompany trains with AC coaches. As the mechanics started working, it was found that the intake air filters were completely choked with dust and since hardly any air could pass through the choked filters, the evaporator coils got covered with ice, blocking the air flow even further. It took the mechanics another couple of hours to get the AC working (without the filters – as the filters were so clogged that they could not be cleaned on board).
My observations about this 6-hour ordeal were :
- Four hours were wasted before commencing the repair work, despite the fact that I had complained about the temperature soon after the AC stopped working.
- After my first complaint, the AC mechanic simply put the plant on ‘high cool’ mode without bothering to find what the real problem was. This aggravated the problem by choking the evaporator with ice.
- Over the four hours before repair was commenced, the TTE did nothing to initiate rectification of the problem on his own, though ensuring comfort of the passengers is another responsibility of the TTE, obviously only on paper.
- If scheduled maintenance was carried out regularly, the AC filters could never have got choked so badly. Obviously, maintenance is not being carried out as per schedule.
Completely unreliable train running information system
In India, where trains are often running late, one always tries to ascertain whether the train is on time before leaving home for the station. One can get this information either telephonically or through Indian Railway’s website. My experience over the last few years has been that the train running information system is completely unreliable. It has happened with me several times that I found telephonically as well as through the website that a train is running an hour late but upon reaching the station I was told that it was two hours late (and the train actually arrived 4 hours late!). I find it almost impossible to understand why correct train running information cannot be provided in real time considering that the I.R. has its own dedicated communication network. Obviously, some people are not doing what they are paid to do.
Whenever I need to receive anybody arriving by train, I make it a point to remain in direct touch with the passenger on mobile phone because it is only the passenger who can provide authentic information on where the train actually is.
The Indian Railways used to be an efficient and proud organization which was set up during British rule and expanded manifold since independence. Over the decades, lot of modernization took place and many new facilities were introduced. However, political apathy and the rot of corruption have robbed the I. R. of its sheen. The recent degeneration in the railways during the stewardship of Mamata Banerjee has been particularly glaring. Accidents have increased, corruption has become endemic, long-distance trains rarely run on time, maintenance is shoddy and passenger comfort and cleanliness have taken a back seat. Everybody knows that Mamata Banerjee concentrated only on winning the elections in West Bengal during her entire tenure in the railway ministry. She rarely used to be at the Rail Bhawan in Delhi. Year after year, she continued with populist measures like not increasing passenger fares and introducing new trains in non-remunerative (but politically rewarding) sectors.
Passengers had hoped that with increasing computerization of reservations / bookings, the scourge of corruption (at least in reservations / bookings) would be arrested but it has not happened. TTEs continue to take bribes openly and brazenly. The computerized reservation system appears rigged and touts and agents manage their own 'quota' of berths in collusion with railway officials.
It saddens me to see this once proud organization in such a mess 65 years after independence. Can a public sector behemoth like the Indian Railways move in a direction opposite where the rest of the nation is being led by our political leaders? How naïve of me to expect so.
Labels: corruption, Indian Railways