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Same prices for five years, yet your rail ticket costlier

Although, at a glance, the railway has pulled off the impossible — profits without raising fares — it has added several invisible costs. The biggest jump has been the cost of Tatkal reservations, a quota reserved for last-minute bookings. Srinand Jha examines...Reactions

india Updated: Feb 12, 2009 01:26 IST
Srinand Jha
Srinand Jha
Hindustan Times

Those mesmerised by the great railway rope trick, watch out for the magicians’ fine print. The train network did away with illegal middlemen and just hired a new middleman — itself.

At first glance, Indian Railways has pulled off a turnaround seen as impossible in India — never-before profits without raising passenger fares. But a Hindustan Times reporter who travelled 2,800 km on the country’s busiest route, New Delhi-Mumbai-New Delhi, to investigate passenger services found it is ingenious number crunching. Technically fares have not gone up for five years, but several invisible costs have been added.

The biggest is the extra costs paid for “Tatkal” (immediate) reservations, an expanding quota reserved for last-minute bookings, cutting into the regular seats available without increasing the number of seats in some cases. There are also surcharges of up to Rs 25 on the purchase of tickets online –– going against standard practice of online tickets being cheaper than over-the-counter ones.

Passengers also pay more if they buy a ticket from a city that is not where their journey will originate or end.

“Fares have not increased. But each time I travel, the Railways manage to extract money out of my pocket,” said Surendra Gairola, a 32-year-old passenger, as the Golden Temple Mail rolled out of Ratlam in Madhya Pradesh.

On the way to Mumbai, the reporter and photographer ended up paying an additional Rs 600 to add to the regular AC-III fare of Rs 2,280 on the Golden Temple Mail.

On the way back in the same class on the Trivan-drum Raj-dhani, additional charges of Rs 2,575 were added to the normal fare of Rs 2,850 in the name of Tatkal scheme.

“There is something fishy. I had to buy a Tatkal ticket, but several berths in the compartment remained empty throughout,” said 62-year-old Neelam Jha, a homemaker who recently travelled from Saharsa to New Delhi by the Garib Rath (chariot of the poor).

The upper quota for “Tatkal” seats has been fixed at 30 per cent of all reserved seats. Even if they board midway, passengers often have to pay for the train’s entire run. And even though one passenger has paid for the entire trip, the Railways sells the same seat to another passenger for the stretch where it is vacant.

Worse, Tatkal tickets are non-refundable. The quota of these berths is released five days before departure, but passengers can queue up for them two months in advance.

What this means is that the Railways is actually selling almost 30 per cent of passenger tickets on premiums that could go as high as 40 per cent –– doing exactly what touts and middlemen used to do earlier.

Indian Railways runs 8,984 passenger trains every day on tracks stretching across 63,327 kilometres, ferrying 1.7 crore passengers –– more than the population of New Delhi.

Given the traffic volumes, the Railways generate huge profits by way of “add-on” charges. This prosperity does not seem to have translated into better travelling comforts for passengers.

The original Tatkal concept had envisaged that additional coaches would be fitted to accommodate last minute travellers. But a Railway official said on condition of anonymity that the network simply does not have enough spare coaches to carry longer and heavier trains, nor the high-powered engines required to pull them, or tracks and platforms that can support bigger numbers.

“Given the scenario, the scheme has been reduced to a moneymaking venture for the Railways,” said frequent traveller Jagat Kant Chaudhary, a 42-year-old banker. “This is not true,” said Chairman, Railway Board S.S. Khurana. “Additional coaches are being fitted for Tatkal travellers. The Railways has no shortage of spare coaches or high-powered engines to pull longer and heavier trains, while platform capacity is being rapidly increased,” he told HT.

First Published: Feb 12, 2009 00:42 IST