Food poisoning on Tejas Express: Steep fares, dropping demand, catering concerns can derail Suresh Prabhu's dream project

The Indian Railways was left red-faced over its flagship Tejas Express train, after 26 people were hospitalised on Sunday due to food poisoning after they consumed food served on board.

The passengers were reportedly served breakfast, following which several people started complaining of uneasiness. The train was stopped at Chiplun station and the people were admitted to the city's Life Care Hospital. Embarrassed by the incident on such a premium train, the Railways swung into action and suspended the catering manager, while food samples have been sent for tests.

The Tejas Express was launched in May this year. Image courtesy: CNN-News18

The Tejas Express was launched in May this year. Image courtesy: CNN-News18

The Tejas Express, a pet project of former railway minister Suresh Prabhu, was flagged off in May this year. Boasting of luxury amenities like LCD screens, WiFi, coffee and snack vending machines, magazines, etc, Tejas Express was at par with the Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains.

The first Tejas Express runs between Mumbai and Goa, while the Railways is planning a second train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, scheduled to be inaugurated by the end of this year.

Tejas, a flawed experiment

However, it also could be another case of the Railways prioritising a flawed project. The fare for a one-way journey between Mumbai and Goa's Karmali station on the Tejas Express is Rs 3,075 for the executive class and Rs 1,600 for the AC chair car. To put this in perspective, the corresponding fares for the Jan Shatabdi Express between the same stations is Rs 2,200 and Rs 930 respectively.

In fact, the rates for the Tejas Express are almost at par with flight rates. A simple search for a Mumbai-Goa flight yielded options for as cheap as Rs 1,900.

Even though the Tejas Express is considered one of the fastest trains in the country, it's only one hour faster than the Matsyagandha Express that runs between Madgaon and Mumbai, and two hours faster than the Netravati Express that also plies on the same route. Passengers clearly don't believe time saved is proportionate to the fare difference incurred.

Not surprisingly, the Tejas Express commuter figures have been dropping. As mentioned by a report on DNA, almost 90 percent of seats on the luxury train were vacant. "During monsoons, trains are less crowded. But it is surprising that even in the months of October to December, full of festivals, the train hasn't seen many bookings," a Central Railway official was quoted in the report as saying.

The report said commuters were shunning the luxury train on account of the steep cost. "It feels futile to improve the condition of services, accessories and food quality inside premier trains," an official said.

So much so that railway officials privately admit whether it's commercially viable to continue running these trains given that the cost of construction of one rake of the Tejas Express is Rs 75 crore. Speaking to Hindustan Times on condition of anonymity, a senior railway official said it may have been more of an emotive rather than commercial decision to run the service in the first place.

"Introducing Tejas Express may have been premature. The general sentiment is that such a luxury train may not work on shorter routes and would have better demand on longer routes. In the case of Goa as well as Ahmedabad, the time saved by travelling in Tejas is not more than two hours than the existing train options. The money spent however is more than double," the official said.

Vandals attack

If passengers weren't shunning the train altogether, they were vandalising it. On its very first journey, vandals attacked the Tejas Express, damaging the LCD screens, stealing headphones, soiling the toilets and littering all over the train. A report in The Asian Age quoted a maintenance staff aboard the train as saying, "The floor of the train was littered with cups, pet bottles, wrappers and bags of chips, which we had to clean up at the end of the journey. The amount of garbage found aboard Tejas was just like on any other train."

Railway officials, however, said that not much should be looked into these incidents. "These are teething troubles that will be sorted out within a few days. We need to celebrate a train that will eventually change the way India travels," an official was quoted as saying by a report on Mumbai Mirror.

Food unsuitable for human consumption

Another major problem is the food itself. This was termed "unsuitable for human consumption" by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in a report earlier this year. The CAG audit, which looked at 74 trains and 80 railway stations regarding all aspects of quality, hygiene and affordability of catering services, found that "contaminated foodstuffs, recycled foodstuffs, shelf life expired packaged and bottled items, unauthorised brands of water bottles, etc., were offered for sale" by the IRCTC.

The CAG audit took place three months ago. Could timely implementation of these recommendations have averted Sunday's food poisoning incident? We will only know once the railways conducts its probe and checks into the incident.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Oct 16, 2017 12:13 PM

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