Of derailed hopes and diffused plans

There seems to be no end in sight to the plight of train passengers in Kerala, which has been a money-spinner for Indian Railways.
Passengers have also been demanding more services in the middle-distance category.
Passengers have also been demanding more services in the middle-distance category.

KOCHI: Overcrowded coaches, dirty toilets, unreliable food, reduction in sleeper coaches to add AC coaches, and Vande Bharat trains upsetting the schedule of other services. Add to this compartments that are rickety, and rat- and cockroach-infested, and the woes of the Kerala rail user are complete.

A recent video of an overcrowded Kerala Express, from Thiruvananthapuram to New Delhi, which showed passengers sleeping in compartment aisles and washrooms, was widely shared on social media. The total disregard for passengers is despite the fact that 11 railway stations in Kerala were among the top 25 under Southern Railway (SR) in terms of originating-passenger revenue in 2023-24. Thiruvananthapuram Central station stood fourth on the list with a revenue of Rs 262 crore.

According to SR data, Thiruvananthapuram division, the largest in Kerala in terms of train services, registered a passenger traffic of 7.37 crore in 2022-23. This was a sharp increase from about 60 lakh in 2020-21. Passenger numbers for 2021-22 were not available.

“The trains run jam-packed,” points out Thomas Simon, secretary of the Western India Passengers Association. According to him, the lack of services affects both long-distance travellers and daily commuters. “A mere 14 trains run between Mumbai and Kerala a week,” he says. In addition to Trivandrum-Mumbai Netravati Express, which runs daily, there are three biweekly services and a weekly train via Pune to Mumbai. “In comparison, Tamil Nadu has 50 trains a week to Mumbai,” Thomas adds.

Tourist traffic

The contrast is stark, given the number of passengers on the Mumbai-Kerala sector, vis-a-vis the Mumbai-Tamil Nadu route. “The demand for seats on the Mumbai-Kerala sector is three times more. This is despite the fact that the population of Kerala is around half of TN.” Thomas also cites how around 50% of passengers arriving in Kerala are tourists. “The state attracts around two crore tourists a year and 90% of this traffic is domestic,” he adds.

Gireesh Babu, who has been taking up issues related to the railways for many years, says, “There is a major shortage of super fast, express, passenger and MEMU services in the state.” Recently, social media was flooded with videos of overcrowded trains. “However, instead of introducing more services, the railway has tried to assuage ruffled feathers by adding a coach or two. But this has not solved the issue,” he adds.

‘Revenue-driven’

According to Babu, the sole goal of the national transporter in the last three-four years has been to increase revenue. For this, it devised a method of increasing the number of premium trains and AC coaches at the cost of general and sleeper coaches. “This has come as a big blow to travellers, especially students and those from economically backward sections, who can’t pay high fares,” he adds. The Western India Passengers Association reckons that the Mumbai-Kerala sector will require another five to seven long-distance trains.

Other destinations which are in demand for more services are Bengaluru and Hyderabad, where a good number of Keralites either go for studies or employment. “We need 10 daily trains to and from Bengaluru. At present, we have only Sabari Express to Hyderabad,” says Gireesh.

‘Short’ shrift

Passengers have also been demanding more services in the middle-distance category. “A train like Parasuram Express, which meets the requirement of officegoers in Kerala, is an urgent requirement. Once that happens, incidents like the one in which around 18 women travellers fainted due to overcrowding can be avoided. It should be noted that crowding will increase further since plans are afoot to extend Parasuram Express to Kanyakumari,” says Thomas. The train now starts its journey from Nagercoil.

There is also an urgent requirement for more trains originating from Thiruvananthapuram. Kottayam and Ernakulam. “Kottayam and Ernakulam stations can accommodate more trains following the development work that have been carried out,” says Gireesh who has been campaigning for the conversion of Kottayam into an originating terminal.

The middle-distance section needs at least three to four trains. “Why not start some services from Kasaragod to Thiruvananthapuram? More trains are needed besides Venad and Parasuram on this section,” says Thomas.

As for distances up to 200km, the best option is to run MEMUs. “The situation today is that for the short-distance travel, people in Kerala have to depend on express trains. This again causes crowding!” Liyons J, secretary of the Friends of Rails told TNIE recently.

According to Indian Railways, it operates 571 train services under Thiruvananthapuram (300) and Palakkad divisions (271). “The division operates 300 services including special trains that are pressed into service to tackle festival or annual holiday rush,” a spokesperson for Thiruvananthapuram division said.

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