Sick of spending hours trying to get to a crowded airport that lacks even basic facilities and then paying for the privilege of flying ‘cattle class’, many regular air travellers are switching to trains.
This is happening as complaints about air travel are piling up: difficult commutes to out-of-city airports, crowded terminals staffed by insensitive staff, and delays without information. All this for being herded on to flights where one has to sit without air-conditioning or water for up to an hour before take-off. At the end of the flight, there’s the agony of circling in the sky for an unending period before landing.
Even a few years back, similar grumbles would be heard only about train travel. Then, India flying was a part of the India shining picture. But with air travel getting more tedious and the good ol’ railways delivering on some never-before promises, a new picture seems to be emerging.
Take the case of Ambika Chawla of Ludhiana. She has vowed never take a domestic flight again. Her reason: “My father is 80 and is suffering from a neurological disorder. We were advised to see a specialist in Mumbai. Last month, we took a flight from Delhi that was supposed to land in Mumbai at 9 pm; we got there at 2 am. He was terribly exhausted after the ordeal. A week later, we went again on the same flight. This time, we touched ground at 1.30 am. The third time I took him by train and we were so much more comfortable.” This experience converted her. “Now I’ll travel only by rail,” she says. “At least, the mobile phone works... Trains nowadays are cleaner too.”
Vijay Thakur, president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, says more such shifts are likely. “I have started telling people: if you have time, travel by train. International airports, particularly the one in Delhi, are a nightmare. Domestic air travel is bad too. Cheap tickets are a gimmick that people have started seeing through,” he says.
Several travel agents in Chandigarh, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Pune and Chennai confirmed that they have been advising train travel.
It’s better for even foreign tourists on a whirl around Incredible India. Harpreet Batra, proprietor of Happy Travels, Delhi, says, “I deal mostly with Japanese and Dutch tourists. They get really upset if flights are delayed because they fix very tight schedules. A delay of three hours could mean the loss of a day’s sightseeing. Then they want their money refunded. I can’t afford to compensate people for airline delays. So when my customers travel to Jaipur or Agra — or even to Shimla — I convince them to go by train.”
Railway minister Lalu Prasad recalls the time when “budget airlines were directly targeting our passengers”. He says: “They used to take out huge advertisements comparing their fares to ours. I guess it’s our turn now. The only difference is, we don’t need to advertise the difference.”
The minister, however, maintains that “people are not switching merely because air travel is a nightmare, but because we have improved by leaps and bounds”. Ask him what has improved and he reels off: “One, our fares have been coming down; two, we offer free upgrades whenever possible; three, we offer mileage points; four, e-ticketing is a success; five, 96 per cent trains are on time and punctuality is almost 100 per cent for Rajdhanis and Shatabdis; and six, my Garib Raths are a hit.”
One would, of course, expect the minister to paint such a picture. But surprisingly, there are noteworthy converts from the ‘other camp’ too. Civil aviation consultant and former Airports Authority member Robey Lal is among them. “If you have time to spare, travel by air,” he says. “There’s a new aircraft coming in every five days, which means 750 more passengers — but there are no corresponding facilities.”
Such a calculation could be irrelevant to those willing to brave the inconveniences, that too at a higher cost. To the rest, on-ground realities are better than in-the-air promises.