Just how affordable is train travel in India?
The Railway Board – the apex body of the state-owned transporter – has answered that question in a rather compelling manner.
Sample this: The price of a train journey in the general class from Delhi to Chandigarh is a mere Rs 95 – the cost of toothpaste of 140 grams. The Mumbai to Chennai distance in the same category of travel can be covered for Rs 300 – the price of one kilogram of paneer. For Rs 20 – less than the price of a kilogram of sugar – one can complete a train journey from Lucknow to Kanpur.
If the top rail bureaucracy has taken the effort to put together such facts in an official note, the reasons are understandable: While direct and indirect hikes in passenger fares for the AC classes have intermittently come, fares for the unreserved, general class have remained unchanged in the last decade.
Losses in passenger earnings, meanwhile, have mounted and were placed at an enormous Rs 30,000 crore in the last fiscal year.
In a presentation made to railways minister Suresh Prabhu recently, officials put across this point in a straightforward manner: “The political resistance to the idea of raising fares for general class passengers must finally and decisively be overcome”.
Ninety five percent of passengers travelling on the network of the Indian Railways are general class travelers.
“The option of hiking fares in higher classes no longer exists, as fares for these categories is already high and passenger volumes in these categories have been falling on account of competition from roads and airlines. However, even a marginal increase in fares for the general class will bring in big revenues for the railways,” a senior ministry official said.
Former railway board member Subodh Jain views the option of raising fares for general class passengers as a “flawed and misplaced” idea.
“General class passengers are those that constitute the nation’s economic activity, while also generating maximum revenues for the railways by way of passenger earnings. They travel in inhuman conditions with no onboard catering or toilet facilities. Burdening such passengers with fare hikes would be criminal,” Jain said.
With the current NDA dispensation – as with the earlier UPA government – the subject of general class fares have been a red herring of sorts.
Shortly after the NDA assumed power, Prabhu’s predecessor and then railways minister DV Sadananda Gowda announced a 14.2% hike in passenger fares across the board, but promptly rolled it back for general class travellers in the Mumbai suburban system at the insistence of the Shiv Sena.
During UPA-II, Trinamool Congress chief and persuaded then prime minister Manmohan Singh to remove her nominee Dinesh Trivedi as the railways minister after he announced a hike in all classes of fares. Fares for the general class were subsequently rolled back.
The clamour for a hike in passenger fares for the general class as a measure of hauling the state-owned transporter out from its current state of financial crunch has once again started to resonate in the corridors of the Rail Bhawan.
Rail finances have been in the red in past years, given the mounting graph of the operating ratio (paisa spent against every rupee earned by the transporter).
Prabhu’s position has been that the fare hike option should be exercised as the “last resort”, as he has instructed the bureaucrats in his ministry to work out innovative strategies to cut losses and generate additional revenues.
In a paper submitted to Prabhu, the Railway Board members argue that train fares are not only approximately one-fourth the price of a bus fare but were as ridiculously low as a price of a geometry box in some cases.
According to a comparative fare chart prepared by the officials, the bus fare to travel the 278-kilometer distance from Lucknow to Gorakhpur is Rs. 394, while the train fare in the general class is priced at Rs. 95 - the price of one kilogram of detergent powder. The Kolkata-Chennai General Class fare of Rs. 360/- is equivalent to the cost of one kilogram of tea leaf.