At a time when Indian Railways’ profits have peaked, a HT reporter made a 38-hour, 2,800-km journey on one of the country’s busiest routes to investigate whether services had improved.
Here is what we found: it’s even worse than before.
“We will have to continue travelling in this filth,” said 39-year-old Vikas Thakur, an agricultural scientist, as the train halted at Kota.
The Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) guidelines for private contractors stipulate that trains will be cleaned at major stations. None came.
Prior to 2006 — after which the Railways outsourced the cleaning of trains, tracks and stations, as well as catering and bedrolls assignments — all passenger train coaches were cleaned and fumigated at yards between journeys.
“Railways staff is no longer involved and private contractors sometimes get the trains cleaned, sometimes not,” an official said on conditions of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
In the premier Trivandrum Rajdhani, on which we returned, the Delhi-based Chase Detective and Security Agency has the bedrolls contract.
Its workers alleged that the company had not paid them salaries for eight months. “We have to make pocket money by selling liquor and cigarettes to passengers,” said Sonu Yadav, one of the workers.
Owner T.K. Sarasan retorted: “My workers have sold off bedrolls and put me under huge debt. I cannot lodge a police complaint against them because if I do, the Railways will impose heavy penalty for non-fulfilment of the contract.”
As the train trundled into Madhya Pradesh, waiters brought in food wrapped in foil — greasy and tasteless.
Catering is another black hole. Only two per cent of passenger trains — 260 out of 8,984 — have pantry cars. Meals are moderately priced between Rs 32-35, but poor in taste and made without hygiene.
Food at station outlets is worse, and costlier — up to Rs 80 per meal.
So we decided to complain.
Approximately 60 calls to the railway’s catering-related toll free number, launched by the Railways on December 15, went unanswered.
The IRCTC has not had passenger satisfaction surveys for almost two years. If it had, here is what it would find.
“Bring home cooked meals. Or prepare for stomach ailments, while being fleeced out of your pockets as well,” said passenger Anand Kumar Sharma.