As a child, my annual Secunderabad-Madras train journey was really something. There were no reservations, you had to sit on hard wooden benches and the luggage rack served as a sleeper for the adroit. People spread out their hold-alls between the rows of seats, the hold-all having a thin mattress as its centrepiece with pouches for everything else, including slippers. It was belted after being rolled up and the grip was a part of the belts.
Others just spread out a sheet and slept on that. Anyone seeking out the loo had to navigate the sleeping forms and during the stumble, keep true to direction, because the nose was the best guide to the lurching passengers. It was cleaned sometimes at the major junctions. Meals comprised what you lugged along in tiffin boxes. Water was drawn from the taps on the platforms, but at junctions, the train stopped long enough to facilitate the exit, the search, the filling-up and the return to the coach.
Then a few years later came the reservations – 25 paise per seat and Rs 2, if I recall correctly, for a berth which provided some comfort. The former luggage rack had been converted into a space for sleeping but no, it did not have a cushion. The reserved coaches were fewer, while the general compartment – that’s what the unreserved bogies were called then – more. Now it is the other way round. The Indian Railways expects people to plan and travel or be crushed in the crowded general dabbas. It was its attempt to bring order into Indian lives.
Things have changed a lot since my younger days. The first important step was Prof. Madhu Dandavate installing steel drums which carried drinking water. They were placed opposite the wash basins inappropriately placed near the exit. The jostle of the passengers – they never like to sit in one place even then– and the lurch of the train as it picked up speed made the drawing of water there or the gargle at the washbasin a challenging task.
Now we have all sorts of trains and coaches. There are the all-AC trains, three and two-tier coaches, chair cars, and vestibules making movement from one coach to another easy even if one needs to be a bit careful between the coaches. So many trains in fact, that perhaps there could not be enough defining choices for the new ones!
And yes, they even give you blankets and sheets if you reserve a ticket. They have attendants who wake you up, a privilege reserved once for only First Class travelers.
Now the Indian Railways is much improved except for the disasters which have taken lives, most of which are attributable to human error, especially if the engine driver has also died. It is otherwise blamed on signal failure. Or simply a broken rail under the wheels which caused the train to jump. Then you think that despite all the changes for the better, fundamentally things remain the same. Like the unrenovated and unsafe bridges you still find in most stations.
Now that the new budget is to be announced tomorrow, I have a wish list, though I know that by now the minister has sealed the details, printed them and is keeping them secret before they are revealed in Parliament. Yet, for form’s sake, here is a short list.
· Keep the platforms clean.
· Rid them of the stink of the excreta and urine that emanate not only from the unusable public toilets on platforms but also the trains themselves.
· Do it by installing toilets which don’t drain as they are used but has a tank to collect the stuff and above all, mechanise their cleaning without using humans as scavengers. The Indian Railways is as worse an offender as a backward village where one human’s excreta becomes another’s head load.
· Ensure standardisation of items sold, especially the unpacked food - not only by weight and volume but also in quality. Rid the platforms of the hawkers who bring stuff to sell, cooked god knows where, wearing uniforms that mislead you to believe they could be from the Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Corporation.
· Mandate that those who serve also clean up after themselves. Spilled tea and coffee on the coach floors are terrible, messing up the place. You cannot expect the users to keep clean what is dirtied by the Railways itself.
· In the toilets, one sees liquid soap but diluted with water and one can believe that the contractors seem to have such poor specifications. Make sure the toilets are checked at all stations, because given the load, refilling soap just once during the entire journey is just not enough.
· Bed rolls are welcome for they cut down on baggage one needs to carry but they would be nicer if they are really clean and not smelly. And above all, please have tags which indicate the date on which the woollen blankets were last sanitised. Wools are prone to infestation and traveling with them could cause infection. In the old days, we only found bed bugs in our baggage.
· There is no reason why Madhu Dandavate’s idea of steel drums, better placed, of course, should not be revived unless the Railways has a deal to shore up the sale of bottled water. Like Lallu Yadav seemed to have had with the potter for the khullars.
· And yes, keep the IRCTC website for reservations open 24 hours like the airlines do but retain the slot when Tatkals are bought by barring agents. And of course, speed-up the website. They are as fast as the trains I travelled in 50 years ago.
· When passengers die in accidents, make it mandatory to publicise names widely. It is not as if the lives of air travellers alone are precious. Don’t force the anxious kith and kin to keep calling new helplines. Have one toll free number for the entire country for all accidents.
· Above all, when a train crash takes place, Mr Minister, do not go there for disaster tourism. It is not only in poor taste but hinders the work of the rescue teams. Officials tend to treat you as being more important than the fare-paying passenger who just died or is seriously injured.
· And when you travel overseas, don’t order the hired limousine from the Indian Embassy, just use the host country’s railways and you would know that despite all improvements, we are primitive.
The bottom line is not how much you spend or what you propose in the budget. It is what you hand over to the users.