Railway minister Suresh Prabhu will announce on Wednesday the government’s ambitious plan to to provide reserved berths to all train travellers.
Called the “Vikalp” or the alternative train accommodation system (ATAS), the scheme aims to provide reserved berths to wait-listed passengers in an alternative train running on the same route within 12 hours, without any difference of fare or extra charges.
The scheme will be effective from April 1.
But there is a caveat to the plan: Alternative berths will depend on the availability of vacant seats in another train.
In the over-crowded network of the Indian Railways – where passengers are packed like sardines in compartments of most passenger trains – the possibility of finding reserved berths in alternative trains appear remote.
The scheme has another flaw. A waitlisted passenger on the Delhi-Howrah Duronto (journey time of 17.15 hours), for instance, might end up spending 41 hours for the same journey in case of finding an alternative berth on the Delhi-Sealdah Express.
Of course, a reverse scenario can also come true for lucky passengers once in a while – with a wait-listed passenger on the Shaheed Express finding an alternative berth on the premier Duronto, for example. But such a scenario is unlikely to emerge every now and then.
Unconfirmed tickets have been a constant grudge with passengers wanting to travel on the Indian Railways, which carries 23 million passengers each day, a number equal to the population of Australia.
Passengers travelling on rooftops of trains are still a common sight in India.
General compartments including the toilet space are mostly chock-a-bloc with passengers. Confirmed berths often remain unavailable for two, sometimes three months.
Does the “Vikalp” address these problems to provide real relief to train passengers?
“Smart traffic management plans like the Vikalp help, but unless structural issues of infrastructural constraints are addressed, the problems of the railways cannot be resolved,” an official said.
Approximately 60% of the railway passenger traffic is carried along 16% of the network on the Grand Trunk routes. On these routes, there is a train leaving an originating station after approximately every five minutes.
“Schemes like the Vikalp are unlikely to provide real relief to passengers,” a former Railway Board member said, adding that the “clone train” model would have been more useful.
The concept of running “clone trains” – which has been in circulation in past years – involves the idea of operating an identical train after a gap of every half an hour to accommodate wait-listed passengers. For inadequacy of rolling stock – coaches and locomotives – the idea has not taken off.