Frozen in time, can suburban rail find a renaissance ?

The Railway Minister, Dinesh Trivedi is presenting the Railway Budget today. It is beyond argument that the Indian Railways will remain the lifeline of a populous India for a long time to come, ferrying people across States by the millions, and keeping economic activity vibrant.

As a regular user of suburban rail in Chennai, I am aware of the tremendous impact that these services have on urban mobility. But this segment of our railways has remained in something of a blind spot. The photo below epitomises the problem. The clock on this MRTS platform at Fort station has stood still for years now, invisible to the Chennai Division of Southern Railway, and too remote for the average commuter using the trains to complain about.

In a blind spot: The clock in this picture has remained frozen in time for at least five years now. Fort Station MRTS platform, Chennai, India

There is a servicing unit for automated ticketing machines close to this clock, which is manned by Railway staff. Possibly, they have no mandate to do anything about it. Would not the members of various Railway unions be disappointed with this image of their infrastructure and service? Apparently not.

In some ways, this clock is symbolic of what is wrong with urban rail operated in various cities by the Railway Ministry from New Delhi. It shows potential, and, simultaneously, neglect. It could be good working vintage, but is dysfunctional. Several elements in the picture add strength to this view. The information system is poor. A timings chart on this platform has been torn up, so you can’t find information on the next train. Access routes are bad, crowded, dirty and unwalkable.

Poor service and efficiency have rendered some good old train lines unattractive in a country of fast-moving people, and robust economic activity.

Unfortunately, the marginal efficiency and the comfort of personal motor transport remains attractive enough for many influential people not to intervene and modernise the suburban rail system. Only a rude fuel price shock can shake us out of complacency, and hit the vocal classes where it hurts. Change can then be attempted more easily.


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