ON 5 APRIL, India’s fastest train, Gatiman Express made its debut. Festooned in tricolour balloons and marigold, it zipped its way through Delhi and Agra in just 100 minutes, sending a message from the Railways that speed and modernisation were its flavour of the season. There was also something out of flavour. A few days earlier, Palace on Wheels, the luxury train that has been offering a languid seven-day ride through scenic destinations of Rajasthan since 26 January 1982, cancelled a trip for the first time in 34 years. Reason: no passengers. There were just two bookings for the 104 seats available.
Over the last couple of years, even during the peak tourist season that goes from September through March, the train’s numbers have been disappointing, according to tour operators. The issues that plague Palace on Wheels range from high maintenance and haulage charges, lack of adequate staff and diminishing passenger interest. Even as the trip with its scheduled departure on 30 March—the last of the year’s tourist season—stood cancelled, authorities heaved a sigh of relief with 45 confirmed reservations for the next run on 6 April. It was just enough to ensure that the Indian Railways and Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC), which jointly run the service, did not bear any losses. The luxury service needs a minimum of 20 paying passengers for every trip to ensure this. The one before that of 30 March had only 18 passengers aboard. During the Christmas-New Year season last year, the train was running on 45 per cent occupancy.
Rajasthan Tourism authorities say the main reason for these dwindling numbers is the drop in overall tourist footfalls over the past few years. Pradeep Bohra, general manager, Palace on Wheels, says, “There have been incidents related to women’s safety within India that has led to a decline in international tourists. Besides, terrorist activities in any part of the world have an impact on tourism. The bombings in Paris last year and then Brussels this year resulted in major cancellations this season. People get scared and change their travel plans.”
It is not just Palace on Wheels that has taken a hit. Rail tourism in general hasn’t been doing too well. The Indian Railways runs four other luxury trains at the moment—Maharaja Express, which covers a set of royal sites in the north; Deccan Odyssey in Maharashtra, which primarily covers Mumbai, Kolhapur, Goa and Ratnagiri; Royal Rajasthan, which goes along the desert circuit; and Golden Chariot, which operates in Karnataka, Goa, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
Despite being introduced in 2014 as a less expensive version of Palace on Wheels, Royal Rajasthan had two trips cancelled last December during peak tourist season. “This is mainly due to a decline in international tourists who mostly avail of these facilities,” says Manish Saini, director of Worldwide Rail Journeys Pvt Ltd, a Delhi-based travel agency that helps people book seats on such trains. According to Saini, these trains are not as popular among Indian tourists due to their high fares. Tickets on Maharaja Express are over Rs 55,000 a night per seat, while a ride on Palace on Wheels costs close to Rs 50,000 during peak season for place in the cheapest category. “The authorities must realise that they need to [lure] Indian tourists and bring down their charges to attract more passengers,” he says.
Officials in charge of Palace on Wheels admit that this time, they began with season bookings and promotional offers late. Saini says such a lackadaisical bureaucratic attitude is part of the problem. “The trains are old, their suspension is bad and yet they are charging such exorbitant prices. This is where they need to buck up,” he adds.
Bohra concedes that the administration and marketing of Palace on Wheels needs to be improved, but he also blames the haulage charges of up to Rs 65 lakh per trip levied by the Railways for pushing up tariffs.
The original service offered an experience of travelling in the private railway carriages of some rulers of erstwhile princely states. In 1999, Delhi-based interior designer Monica Khanna worked as a consultant to redo the train. “There’s no concept of keeping up with the times,” she says of the experience, “I found the whole decor and interiors very tacky when I joined them on board. Just because it offers a royal experience doesn’t mean that everything should be gaudy and shining. Since then, they have continued to follow the same design, which is archaic and inelegant for today’s times. They have to hire experts for running trains and should not run them themselves.”
The Maharashtra government took the cue early and roped in tour operator Cox & Kings to handle the marketing and services on Deccan Odyssey, but others are yet to explore the possibility of privatising a part of the operations, which many believe could revive interest in them. “We should be running at least 10 trains spanning our huge country with its diverse culture and natural beauty, and we have a railway system already in place. It is just about the attitude,” says Saini.