First Class

Confessions of a former Railway Board Member

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“A cup of tea costs Rs 8 to 15 in cities. For the same amount, one can travel 50 to 120 km on Indian trains”

I can’t understand what the fuss over increasing sleeper class railway fares is all about. We haven’t had a hike in eight years and it won’t be unreasonable to declare one now.

I have seen many railway ministers over the years. Not one has the guts to raise economy class fares. They only change air-conditioned coach fares or introduce Tatkal fares to bridge revenue gaps or announce new trains without due thought.

The budget presented last week is a progressive one. Even the 1.4 million strong Railway employees unions have supported it. I hope the Government does not think of a rollback.

People take in their stride hikes in other prices—of petrol, vegetables, groceries, bus and cinema tickets. A cup of tea costs Rs 8-15 in cities. For the same amount, one can travel 50-120 km on Indian trains. Even buses charge three to five times more than the railways on some sectors.

There are romantic notions about the Indian Railways, but we have problems. Engines and carriages run past their expiry date due to pressure from regional politicians for new passenger trains. The Railways also have prime land and many local politicians have been eyeing it. They encourage slums coming up along tracks and later pressure the Railways to accommodate them. All kinds of commercial activity takes place in these slums. Those living in them have powerful connections, so you can’t get rid of them.

The Railway Ministry is valued because it has the potential to create jobs, and thus impress vote banks. I have worked with different railway ministers. They are all populist. The previous minister claimed he could manage railway finances without raising fares and even took a class at a B-school. Now, an opposition party handles the ministry. Unfortunately, the Railways have gone from bad to worse.

(This person worked in the Railways for many years and retired as a Railway Board member)

As told to Anil Budur Lulla