There are two ways in which one can look at the Indian Railways as it runs on its tracks today. One, as the great turnaround story under the ‘CEO-ship’ of Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. Profits are at a record high of Rs 70,000 crore; accidents are no longer a part and parcel of train travel, thanks to railway safety being prioritised; booking tickets for a rail journey has been modernised to the extent of not being an arduous journey by itself; and Mr Yadav is the toast of management pundits, with the Indian Railways becoming a case study of how to run a massive enterprise. All this forms a real and praiseworthy picture. But then there is the other side to the story, which becomes evident even if only to the random passenger.
As this newspaper noted on Wednesday, the compartments in which our reporter travelled had filthy toilets, rodents and cockroaches as fellow travellers, and, with no cleaning and fumigating operations in between stops, provided much less than spartan comfort. Some railway officials with whom the matter was raised found nothing awry in all this. One hopes that such non-reactions on the part of even a minority of railway officials are tardy exceptions that need to be corrected.
Maintenance and providing basic amenities that include cleanliness and hygiene are non-negotiable issues that need to be firmly locked into the idea of train travel. Even if there is the odd complaint from a passenger, it should be looked into as legitimate customer feedback. For those millions of passengers whose idea of the Indian Railways goes much beyond goods and freight, the quality of services provided in trains is no more about value-addition, but as basic as punctuality and safety.
At a time when air travel is oscillating between fare hikes and low fare offers from various airlines, the comforting monopoly of Indian train travel provides a steady and economic option for the traveller. The Indian Railways has, over the last few years, travelled a long distance. It would be a pity if tardy service and unhygienic conditions — even if found to be anomalies — turn out to be the talking points that harm the reputation of this nation-binding institution.