In Japan, the Shikansen trains that nearly fly at a speed of 443 to 581 km per hour are described simply as high-speed trains. They may be more popularly known the world over as ‘bullet’ trains for the shape of their engine and for their speed, but in Japan, they are the trains on the "new trunk line" or the Shinkansen.
In France, even the new TGVs that match the speed of Shikansen at around 257 miles per hour, are known as just high-speed trains. However, in India, the Indian Railways unashamedly refer to trains that chug along at an average speed of 45 km to 55 km per hour as ‘Superfast’ and even collects from passengers a special charge for traveling in those trains! Fifty years ago, such hyperbole and the surcharge may have been justified, but today, to call snail trains as superfast would be a national disgrace.
The intention of the Railways was quite honourable when it first introduced these trains in the late 1960s. At that time, they were meant to run at a maximum permissible speed of 110 km per hour, had very few halts and were certainly much faster than the express trains of those days. So the term superfast was not inappropriate. These trains considerably reduced travel time, had a pantry car, an attendant in each coach and some even had a well-equipped library for the reading pleasure of the travelling public.
In 1973, the railways hit upon the idea of levying an extra surcharge on passengers travelling by these trains. That was fair enough because the railways incurred extra expenditure in running them. Tracks and coaches needed better maintenance to allow the trains to move at that speed and even the drivers of these trains had to be paid extra.
However, as the years went by, the railways found that they could not maintain the speed of these trains. For one, to run the trains at those speeds required a higher standard of maintenance of coaches and tracks. It was also found that since these coaches needed special fittings to run at such speeds, in an emergency, ordinary coaches could not be fitted on to these trains. Then there was a sudden spurt in the number of train accidents. Taking all these factors into consideration, the railways decided in 1982, to bring down the maximum speed of these trains to about 100-105 km an hour.
Subsequently, two things happenend. Firstly, on account of local political pressures, the number of stops increased, thereby reducing the speed and increasing the travel time (a single halt reduces running time by 20 to 25 minutes, the Railways had estimated at that time). So much so that by 1989, these trains averaged about 40 to 60 km an hour -- so the term “superfast” became a misnomer. Second, in view of the reduced speed , additional coaches- at least three per train- were added, thereby increasing the railways' revenue . Earlier , to run at that superfast rate, these trains could carry only 14 coaches. And then the punctuality of these trains also nosedived. This was the time when the railways should have honourably withdrawn the superfast tag from these trains. But it was reluctant to let go of this additional revenue.
Not satisfied with that, it began to classify more and more trains –even those that crawled at 38 kmph to 40 kmph -as super fast.. From 35 in 1984, their number rose to 62 in 1989 and 92 in 1992.
Their annual revenue from super fast charge too picked up accordingly- from around Rs 8.00 crore in 1988-89 to Rs 11.31 crore during 1991-92 (Until February) And in order to justify the tag and the levy, it came up with a new interpretation of superfast- "the fastest train on a given track"!
Persistent campaigns against this unfair levy and a direction from the apex consumer court finally forced the railway ministry in 1993 to define “superfast” again. As per this definition, trains that attained an average speed of 45 km on the metre gauge and 55 km on the broad gauge qualified for the super fast levy. Even with that definition, 27 trains lost their "superfast” status because they did not have even that speed!
By all means, this was a patently unfair practice, but the Railways continued to perpetrate it. In 1998, the then railway minister Nitish Kumar even raised the supplementary charge on these trains ranging from Rs 5 to 25 (on different classes) to Rs 10 to Rs 50. And railway minister Lalu Prasad in his 2006-2007 budget said 200 more mail and express trains would be anointed with the superfast nomenclature. By August 3, 2006, 140 trains (or 70 pairs) had been added to the list and by December that year, the Railway Ministry was sending circulars to all railway divisions to classify all trains averaging 45 km on the meter gauge and 55 km on the broad guage as superfast.
So how many trains now come under the SF list? A railway spokesperson said the figure was not available, as they were yet to collate the data. The railway minister was equally evasive about the revenue from the levy. In reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on the ‘additional revenue generated by trains due to their enhanced status as super fast’ minister of state for railways R.Velu said on August 30 last year that "separate data of additional earnings from the levy of superfast charge are not maintained by the ministry of railways". In the last railway budget, Lalu Prasad brought down the superfast levy on second class fares by 20 per cent but that was hardly a consolation. At least in the rail budget due next week, the railway minister should withdraw the patently unjustified super fast levy and transfer what has been collected in the last 20 years to the Consumer Welfare Fund constituted by the union ministry of consumer affairs. The Railways should also dispense with the superfast tag on trains that crawl at a snail's pace as that will invite nothing but ridicule in this age of high speed trains.
Senior journalist, consumer affairs specialist