CHENNAI: Even as regular train services continue to remain suspended for nearly eight months, thanks to the pandemic-induced lockdown, the Southern Railway’s move to permit a private player to run the toy train in the Nilgiris has drawn public flak.
A private company had hired the train and run the services on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway (NMR) route, between Mettupalayam and Udhagamandalam, on the weekend, charging a whopping Rs 3,000 per seat, for a single journey. The regular fare is Rs 600 for a first class ticket, and Rs 295 for second class.
This exorbitant fare led to an outrage among railway enthusiasts and passengers on social media. They have dubbed the move as a prelude to the privatisation of the heritage route.
However, a statement by the Salem Railway Division said they had only operated a chartered service and had not privatised the route. It stated: “The date of resumption of NMR train services will be notified to the public through a media release by the railway administration.”
THE release further stated: “The train operated on Saturday and Sunday were Chartered Special Trains, especially run for tourists, arranged by a private party. Such trains have been run earlier, and similar services may be operated in the future too.”
G Elangkavi, member of the Zonal Railway Users’ Consultative Committee (ZRUCC), Southern Railway, questioned the rationale behind permitting private companies to operate trains, when regular train services haven’t resumed yet.
“The ticket fare of Rs 3,000 cannot be justified, even if it was voluntarily paid by the tourists. If there is a demand, the railways could have introduced reserved NMR specials, benefitting both tourists and locals,” said Elangkavi.
The private company had paid the full tariff rate of Rs 4.9 lakh per day, for to and fro operations. Additionally, the company renamed it as TN-43, and painted parts of coaches. The loco pilot and the guard were railway employees, but the support staff were engaged by the company.
Elangkavi wondered how a company was allowed to promote its brand and to change the colour of the coaches. “It’s still not clear as to whether the company was charged for promoting its brand and making changes in rolling stock.”
Echoing similar views, K Baskar, former member of Divisional Rail User’s Consultative Committee (DRUCC), Chennai division, opined that the railways was merely reducing the NMR services only for tourists, without considering the needs of the locals. “They may even consider doing similar experiments in highly demanded sections like Chennai-Tirupati eventually, if not immediately,” he said.
Meanwhile, Coimbatore MP, PR Natarajan also condemned this move by the Southern Railway. In a statement, he said: “We have already registered our opposition against the railway’s decision and the authorities should stop it immediately since it will benefit only the operator and not the public.”
V Sivadass, managing trustee of Nilgiris Environment and Cultural Service Trust said, “Instead of looking at it as a revenue-generating exercise, the railways should think about the welfare of the public. It should not convert all the trains into chartered ones.” The residents of the Nilgiris too were not appreciative of the move. N Sadiq Ali, a resident of Ooty said, a heritage train should be accessible to all the people.
(With inputs from Coimbatore)