“No more Rajdhani or Duronto for family. It has to be air travel now. Hope the rush for flight tickets doesn’t lead to an air fare hike. That will leave people like us nowhere,” said a friend who saves money diligently for one family trip home and back every year. His logic is simple: He didn’t mind spending extra money on the premier trains because they were faster. He reached Bhubaneswar from Delhi in 24 hours, while other express trains took nearly twice the time. The time saved made up for the extra money spent. With the fare expected to go up by upto 50 percent, this calculation goes for a toss.
So air travel it has to be. “It will cost me a bomb but the time saved is a solace, a minor one though,” he said before throwing this question at nobody in particular. "Does it make sense in any business to make patrons look for other options?"
No, it does not. But obviously the decision-makers in the Railways Ministry do not think so. This is a classical situation in a no-competitor scenario. The patrons have to swallow what is on offer or find their own way out. Surge pricing is a nice way to make the bitter pill palatable but nobody’s in doubt that it is plain and simple fare hike.
The argument that passenger fares have been traditionally abysmally low in the country and it is not sustainable if we want a healthy railways is fine. That the Indian Railways, a victim of decades of neglect, needs to be financially stable to meets its very basic requirements such as maintenance and expansion is understandable. But wouldn’t it be better if the fares were hiked across the board? A smaller hike, say of 10 percent initially, over a very large base could have been a better way to approach it. It would have looked more equitable besides relatively painless on the passengers.
According to media reports, the hike affects only 0.65 percent of train travellers. So the protest over it is pure overreaction. Again, the ministry has clarified that the concept of flexi-pricing is an experiment. Then why panic? Well, there’s reason for people like our friend above to be worried. It comes as no relief to them that they come within the minuscule 0.65 bracket. The end result is they have to fork out a big sum of money in a sudden jerk. Moreover, why should they be singled out for special treatment while others are spared? Perhaps the assumption is that this section can take the shock since is well-off.
There’s something deeply unfair about the ministry’s experiment. The moot point is, however, does it make sense for one to spend the same amount of money on train travel while the option of faster air travel is available? And our friend is not the only one thinking along saying good bye to train travel.
It takes political courage to hike passenger fares. Since Suresh Prabhu has proved that like his boss Prime Minister Narendra Modi he is not averse to taking risks, he should have gone for hike for all classes in all trains. There would have been political outcry over such a move, but it would have served the case of fairness better. Again, the idea of surge pricing is unnecessarily complex for the gargantuan train ticket operations. Why not keep it simple?