Most Indians who fly today rode Indian Railways back in the 70s, 80s and up until the late 90s. While the railways remain unquestionably the most widely used means for getting from one place to another in India, so many people who have taken to flying don’t travel trains any more. Apart from the obvious time saving factor (that’s a no-brainer), ever wonder why?
Many reasons. The expansion of the domestic air industry and resultant proliferation of airlines and airports, better economy, so much more money in the pocket, reasonably affordable air tickets, a more jet-setting (pun intended) life, to posit only a few.
So who travels trains? Well, all of India, it would seem, as I key in this aboard a long distance train. Despite a confirmed berth in a reserved compartment, I sit cramped, at the mercy of the encroachers. A walk down the length of the train during a halt to get some fresh air revealed the train, full beyond capacity. Some other trains chugging in and out of the platform are no different. This write-up is about getting a fact check on whether, and how, air travel has affected train travel in India.
Train reservations are not available even months in advance on any route. Any class. This was the situation 20 years back too, with fewer trains, fewer aeroplanes and fewer people. Now, as averred, more people fly and there are almost double the number of trains. So why is the train scene unchanged…why indeed do trains remain so heavily oversubscribed?
These thoughts played on my mind as I undertook this train journey after a long hiatus, with notions of romanticism generally associated with train travel. Such notions of course went right out the window the moment I stepped onto the bustling railway station and muscled my way through a sea of humanity, baggage in tow. More notion-busting was in store when I found a whole family in occupation of my reserved berth, with their lunch spread in front of them (it was only 10:00 am!). They were kind enough to however allow me a corner on my own berth! Not for nothing do they say that train travellers are a considerate lot. It’s the air travellers who wear the stiff upper lip and wouldn’t glance at their co-passenger.
I try to strike a conversation with my fellow passengers and encroachers, offer a biscuit to a child who was being an utter nuisance, but only draw a tepid response. The lady with the lunch spread gives a cold look. She perhaps takes me as one of the forceful occupants. In any event, everybody and their children are busy with their cell phones. Some are watching videos and playing games without headphones and the cacophony, with the sonorous accompaniment of the clanging coach wheels, is a surefire conversation killer. So I take out my own (cell phone) and start this… the only way I can deal with the distress politely in the land of Nirvana.
Train travels have been beautifully essayed by writers like Kipling, Ruskin Bond and others. Steam engine-pulled, 5 coach trains, gently puffing and meandering through the dales, glens and rolling hills of British countryside are a far cry from our 22 coach, electric engine-driven monoliths. They crisscross the vast Indian landscape like giant caterpillars… only somewhat faster. Still the best way to see this beautiful land… provided you can see out the window through the packed heads and bodies and the smudged window glasses.
Make no mistake, however. Indian railways is one of the best things you have running. Imagine 12,000 plus passenger trains carrying 23 million people daily, more than 7,000 freight trains everyday, over almost 1,20,000 kilometers of tracks, connecting more than 7,500 stations! The statistics are mind boggling. Almost the entire population of Australia travels by train everyday in India! Under such daunting challenges and gargantuan numbers, I would imagine even the accident rate (which critics carp about) is not as bad as it could be. True, even one accident or loss of life is not acceptable or being condoned – but it has to be seen in the light of the mammoth task and figures. And this when the systems and infrastructure here are not ultra modern. I would even venture far out enough to say that given these conditions, the overall on-time running percentage of trains is also commendable. Could of course be better, but, hey… give the guys a break. With such a massive machinery and thousands of clogs to control and coordinate, don’t trash the railways for a little delay now and then. Gone are the days when it was quipped that the only thing that runs on time in the Railways is PT Usha! In any event, a cynic would argue, people travel trains because they have the time…so an hour or two extra shouldn’t hurt.
Back to the flyer and some more number crunching. As per estimates, 3,30,000 people fly domestically everyday in India. Of these, 90% or about 3 lakh were taking the train earlier! So it amazes me that with so much of rail traffic per day taken on by airlines in the last 20 years, there is not even an iota of reduction in rail traffic. Whatever economic or social data you may throw at me, you cannot deny that air travel has caught on in a massive way in India…and that includes Bharat.
It is then that I had my face-palm moment. Doing simple math tells me that 3.3 lakhs out of 23 million, still leaves you with 22.7 million or 227 lakh people traveling by train everyday. This is not counting the local/metropolitan passengers in suburbs! So the air travelling population, despite mushrooming lately, is a mere drop in the ocean – a speck in the sky if you will! Is it any wonder then that our trains are overbooked, overfull and sometimes overdue? The hypothesis with which I started is patently flawed and flies in the face. Domestic airlines have absolutely nothing to fear – the competition is just not there.
As I board my return flight (no return train journey for me!), I conclude that people travel trains not because they want to, but because they have to. I am also left wondering what kind of air infrastructure we would require to cater for our kind of traveling population. Some more numbers to underscore a point. What if even a third of train travellers, or about 7.5 million people were to fly every day? At about 180 seats in an A320 airbus (taking it as a standard aircraft in Indian skies – there are many smaller too) this would mean – hold your breath – about 41,600 aircraft per day. Or if you take an acceptable average of one aircraft doing 8 trips a day, you still have 5,200 aircraft flying every day. I am not talking of airports, airport handling capacity, air crew, ground staff, air traffic control etc. So…the obvious question and conclusion: can we be a nation of fliers ever, as say most developed nations are? Obviously no….not anytime soon at least.
The figures used in this blog are ball point estimates. They can of course be challenged by agencies, departments and even individuals in better know. But if we were to overlook the nitpicking, it can be firmly deduced that Indian Railways has and always will be our main transporter, carrier, mover, shaker… our literal vehicle for progress, as it has been through the years. The rapid expansion of the air network and the newfound popularity of air travel is never going to cause the Railways to break into a sweat. They will chug on and take India places. On wheels, rather than wings.