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Travelling between hope and despair: Delhi’s own local awaits a revival push

Almost two years after the Centre’s promise to rejuvenate Ring Railway, commuters of the once-preferred mode are waiting for some action on the ground

delhi Updated: Nov 19, 2017 07:42 IST
Manoj Sharma
Manoj Sharma
Hindustan Times
delhi,delhi news,ring rail
The S P Marg Ring Railway Station in New Delhi.(Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

In February 2016, Tilak Raj, who works at a post office in south Delhi, was watching live on TV the rail budget speech of Suresh Prabhu, the then railway minister, when, much to his delight, the minister announced, waving his hand dramatically, his glasses perched low on his nose, “Our capital is under severe stress from rising pollution and can be provided relief by reviving the Ring Railway system… we will come out with a detailed policy in the next four months.”

Tilak Raj almost jumped with joy. This was, after all, a moment he had been waiting for many years. He has been using the capital’s suburban railway—it now has 7 trains and 21 stations on its circular 35-km route—since 1983.

Over the years, Tilak Raj’s workplace has changed from Chankayapuri to Vasant Vihar to RK Puram—and the cityscape has come to be dominated by gleaming metros and low-floor buses, but Delhi Ring Railway continues to be his preferred mode of transport.

On a smoggy November evening as Delhi is once again in the grip of severe air pollution, and as he waits for the 5 pm ‘local’ to Dayabasti at the scenic SP Marg railway station, he has lost all hopes of the revival of the ring railway.It is not the pollution that perturbs him, but the putrid smell of garbage along the tracks, the increasing incidents of mobile snatching, the infrequency of trains and, more importantly, the suburban railway’s slow, inexorable journey into oblivion.

“In the last one year, I would often keenly look out of open compartment for any signs of improvement, but there were none. It doesn’t matter anymore, I will be retiring in a few years,” says Raj with the dejection of a man who has travelled between hope and despair in the past few months. Equally dejected is Naresh Kumar, who works as a peon in the Air Force Central Account Office in Subroto Park. He arrives at 3.30 pm at the SP Marg station and waits for the local for almost one- and- a- half hours every day.

“I live in Rohtak and my office ends at 3 pm. I cannot afford the bus, so I don’t mind waiting. This local train has been my lifeline for the past 20 years, but the government is obsessed with the Metro, ignoring all other modes of transport,” says Naresh. Ironically, as he says so, the Airport Express Metro rattles overhead, crossing the bridge over the suburban station.

Tilak Raj prefers the Ring Rail to the Delhi Metro or buses. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

By 4.45 pm, the station, carved out of Aravalli hills, has over 100 passengers sprawled on the grass, relaxing, talking to each other with the familiarity and comfort that come with being fellow travellers for long. One gets the feeling of being on a high-altitude railway station, what with the chilly air, rocky walls, and dense, almost forest-like, cover of trees and shrubs.

There is still at least 15 minutes for the local to arrive and Tilak Raj is keen to tell more about his tryst with the suburban trains. “It was a good mode of transport until the mid- 1990s, when it started going off track. The stations were better, the trains more frequent, the commuters more civilized. But then the government lost interest, the city spread, and the passengers drifted to buses that provided last-mile connectivity,” he says.

Today, there is a small community of about 4,000 that takes the suburban train every day. They mostly comprise junior government employees, labourers, factory workers, and some middle-class women from places such as Lajpat Nagar, making a journey to and from Sadar Bazar for shopping.

Over the years, Ring Railway’s deserted, dilapidated stations have become home to a motley cast of characters: vagrants, beggars, homeless, drug addicts, petty criminals.

For Virendra Kumar Sharma, 57, from Hapur, the Lajpat Nagar station has been his home for the past five years. “My wife died 20 years ago, and whatever money I had was spent marrying off my daughters,” says Sharma, sunbathing on a bench at the Lajpat Nagar station. “Tradition does not allow me to live with my daughters and I do not earn enough to rent a house. I eat at a Gurdwara and live here.”

Similarly, Pappu Chowdhury, a casual labourer, takes the train from Inderpuri to SP Marg on days he does not find work. His destination is the Nanakpura Gurdwara, where he goes for lunch. “You see, post the note ban last year, it has been hard to find work, I come here by the local and then walk to the Gurdwara. The government should run more such ‘free’ trains for poor people like me,” says Chowdhury.

SP Marg is one of three stations of Ring Railway without a booking office and that makes him believe that the local offers a free ride. The office was demolished recently.

At 5. 10 pm, the train pulls into station, and everyone, including Tilak Raj, scrambles into the train. Inside, most people are sitting, reading newspapers, playing cards or just chatting. Their voices are lost in the rattle of the speeding train.

Tilak Raj is tightly holding his bag close to his chest. In the past few years, he says, almost every other day there has been an incident of bag and mobile snatching between Brar Square and Dayabasti stations, which he describes as the ‘filthiest’ and den of criminals. He too was a victim a few months ago. “It was dark and I was standing near the door. A man suddenly snatched my bag and jumped off the running train.”

While some stations like SP Marg makes for a pretty sight, most are in a state of dereliction. A railway staff posted at the Patel Nagar station calls the suburban railway a ghost line. And not without reason. At 7 pm, scary darkness and silence permeates the station. And this is supposedly the busiest of all ring railway stations used by over 2,400 passengers every day, more than half of the total daily ridership. “This darkness is a result of discrimination and government apathy,” says the railway employee, not wishing to be named.

The Ring Rail now has 7 trains and 21 stations on its circular 35-km route. The average daily ridership is 3,500. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

In the distance, one can see the Satguru Ram Singh Marg Metro station, which presents such a compelling study in contrast between the two —one deserted and shrouded in darkness; the other gleaming and bustling with passengers.

Many like Suresh Kapoor, a Lajpat Nagar- based retired teacher who uses the local once in a while, believes that the suburban train may have lost race to Metro, but its circular route between Nizamuddin and Pragati Maidan provides a broad and representative view of Delhi in a single ride: “If you want an alternative view of the city, just hop onto the suburban train. You see it all through its large open coaches: slums, skyscrapers, monuments, rocks, dense forest, parks, tree-lined avenues without having to change the train. Is that not reason enough for the government to revive it,” he says.

RN Singh, divisional railway manger (Delhi), says the plans to revive it may have been delayed but not shelved. “We have appointed a consultant for the project, which will soon start a detailed study of various aspects of the revival and commercial development of the Ring Railway”.

Mention that to Tilak Raj and he says, “I have heard it many times by now Nothing will change.”

The Ring Rail has lost the race to Delhi Metro and buses. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)
Passengers travelling from SP Marg Station to Daya Basti on the Ring Railway. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)
The S P Marg Ring Railway Station. Its circular route between Nizamuddin and Pragati Maidan provides a broad and representative view of Delhi in a single ride. (Vipin Kumar/HT PHOTO)

First Published: Nov 19, 2017 07:38 IST