Saturday, September 19, 2015

NEW DELHI: The Ministry of Railways is at a loss as to why the number of passengers travelling in trains is going down despite no increase in fares. The railways have lost 150 million passengers in the five months of the current financial year, and Suresh Prabhu is worried.

The issue came up for discussion during the General Managers' (GMs) meeting on September 15. The trend of declining passengers left the Minister of State (MoS) for Railways Manoj Sinha astounded. "The trains are always full. You cannot get a reservation. Then how can you say the number of passengers travelling in trains is going down. There must be something wrong with the numbers," he is believed to have said.

The railway ministry numbers show that while 3,575 million passengers travelled in trains in the period between April to August in FY15, the figure for the same period in the current year was 3,425 million, a fall of 4.2 per cent in ridership. Going by the trend, railways expect a nearly 5 per cent fall in passenger traffic by the end of the year.

This is the second year in a row that the passenger figures have shown a downward trend. Railways had lost 191 million passengers in 2014-15 too. "Though we were concerned, we thought it was an aberration and things would be alright. However, now things are becoming worse and we have to buck the trend for the sake of railway's financial health," a senior official in the traffic directorate of railways told ET. For that the railways have to first figure out the reason for the passengers' cold shoulder.

As a follow-up to the GMs meeting, Chairman Railway Board (CRB) AK Mittal has sent a letter to all the zonal GMs, asking them to find out from the divisions under them as to why the passenger numbers are declining.

"The Railway Board Members cannot figure out the trend. It has defied their belief that their low fares vis-a-vis road travel would ensure that passengers do not go anywhere," the traffic official said.

Several officials failed to see any sense in CRB's letter. "It does not require rocket science to figure out why the passenger figures are going down. Maximum loss has been in the short distance and suburban segment. Obviously, passengers prefer road journeys to the unwelcoming railways. .. They prefer to pay more to save time than to wait for low fare, unpunctual and crowded trains," an official said.

He listed out several reasons for passengers' unhappiness, right from booking of a ticket to the journey itself. "It is a pain for most passengers to buy a ticket. There are long queues. Ticket vending machines have been installed at some stations like New Delhi but many of them don't work. If they work, they ask for the exact amount of money and do not return cash. Mobile booking apps have been launched for some segments but how many can use them. Most passengers don't have credit or debit cards," he revealed.

Another official said there was also the possibility that ticket compliance had reduced and many passengers were travelling without tickets. He said there was a shortage of about 5,000 train ticket examiners (TTEs). "TTEs anyway restrict themselves to reserved sections and hardly venture out to the unreserved sections of the train," he added.

The only saving grace was that railways had registered a marginal increase of 8 million in the reserved category, mainly accounting for long distance and AC-coach travelers.


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