At a conference of senior railway officials recently convened soon after he took charge of his new department, the minister of railways had talked of bringing about a comprehensive change in the system. He had exhorted those present to bring about a drastic improvement in efficiency, train punctuality, cleanliness and services. Referring to passenger amenities, he wanted to know why the trains and stations were not kept clean and tidy despite every passenger wanting it, and called for quick solutions to overcome these deficiencies.
Very soon thereafter, the Railways announced a sharp hike in passenger fares. Not unexpectedly, this bold move—the clichéd expression being “biting the bullet”—led to widespread protests from all sections of rail users. However, it also received welcome support from several economists, political analysts and leading national newspapers.
In order to justify that the increase in passenger fares was necessary for increased efficiency and a better quality of service, it now becomes incumbent upon the railway administration to provide a higher level of satisfaction to its customers. This alone can win the trust and confidence of the travelling public. If amenities at stations and on-board trains are made better, if the number of train accidents are reduced through timely attention to tracks and rolling stock, and if there is a marked improvement in train punctuality—say over the next six months to one year—the public anger with the escalated fares will abate and it will be able to understand and appreciate the government’s rationale behind this rise.
For this to happen, the Railways shall first have to find out if all amenities that it professes to provide are in fact being made available to its users, and if so, how satisfied are they with the quality of service. Once this can be correctly assessed, a suitable action plan can be readied to raise the standard and quality of each facility to an optimal level. Budgetary allocations can then be decided accordingly, works prioritised and deadlines set for their completion. A monitoring mechanism can also be set in place to ensure that there is no dilution in the quality of service.
A national survey for evaluating the level of passenger satisfaction, both on-board the trains and at stations, can help in setting the goals. The survey should be carried out by an independent agency with a proven track record. No comprehensive survey of this kind is known to have been commissioned by Indian Railways so far. The Comptroller and Auditor General did, however, carry out a survey of this kind, albeit on a very limited scale, during the course of a performance audit of the rail ministry some years ago. It had then concluded that though a majority of passengers felt that the services were improving over the years, they continued to rate their overall experience at five/six in a scale of 10, indicating that greater efforts were needed at improving the services.
The results of the audit also revealed that, though the Railways’ initiatives to develop modern and model stations have been well received, passenger amenities were inadequately provided and their maintenance was not efficient. The proposed survey will bring out in the open how far the Railways’ ambitious project of developing more than 900 model stations—aimed to equip them with certain upgraded amenities—has been implemented and how successful it has been in promoting passenger satisfaction.
Elsewhere in the world such surveys have been carried out to help countries arrive at a proper assessment of the deficiencies noticed in railway services. In 2011, a survey on passengers’ satisfaction with rail services, including the trains, stations and the rail network in their country, was conducted within the European Union. The survey was requested by Directorate-General Mobility and Transport and coordinated by Directorate-General Communication. The passengers were asked about certain features of stations that affect them most. These were: ease of buying tickets, the provision of information about train schedules and platforms, personal security in the station, car parking facilities, the quality of station facilities, and the cleanliness and maintenance of such facilities.
The first three ranked the highest in terms of passenger satisfaction. Across almost all countries, more than 70 per cent of passengers were very satisfied with the ease of buying tickets at stations, more than two-thirds of passengers were highly satisfied with the provision of information about train schedules and platforms, and an equal proportion with their personal security on-board the trains and at stations. Three other features were identified as ones that rail passengers—across most countries—were most dissatisfied with: car parking facilities, the quality of station facilities, and the cleanliness and maintenance of such facilities. This has enabled the railway authorities to focus their attention on areas found deficient in service.
In the UK, the National Rail Passenger Survey provides a network-wide picture of customer satisfaction with rail travel. Passengers’ opinions of train services are collected twice a year from a representative sample of passenger journeys. Their overall satisfaction with 32 specific aspects of station and train services is then compared over time. For the spring of 2014, an overall sample size was 30,000 for all train operating companies combined was taken and results documented. Nationally, the percentage of passengers satisfied with their journey overall was 82, and that of passengers satisfied with punctuality/reliability was 77 per cent. While the survey highlighted individual areas of frustration for passengers—insufficient room for passengers to sit, or attitude of staff on train on some train services—the underlying message for the industry was a positive one.
Indian Railways can attempt a similar exercise so that it can direct its efforts towards improving those amenities which show a high percentage of user dissatisfaction. Quite naturally, it will take time to usher in the improvements, but after these take effect, it can set in motion a virtuous cycle: greater political support for the Railways, increased funding, superior service delivery, larger number of satisfied passengers, increased ticket sales and improved profit margins. Some of these profits can then be reinvested in development of better amenities, thereby initiating another reiteration of the virtuous cycle.
The author is a former MD of Railway Finance Corporation.