April 4, 2006

Lopsided Priorities of Indian Railways.

This article in the International Herald Tribune gives a glimpse of the efforts of Indian railway to woo and retain upper class passengers.

A few minutes after the Lucknow-bound [Shatabdi] express leaves Delhi, men in black suits, bow ties and baseball caps walk through the executive-class rail car, press their hands together in greeting, and - with theatrical politeness bordering on sycophancy - bow down to present every passenger with a red rose, wrapped in cellophane.

It is a gesture which leaves the passengers perplexed. No one can decide what to do with the flowers, most of which end up stuffed under the arm- rest.

The roses are the opening gambit in an all-out assault of hospitality on the first-class traveler. A few minutes later, individual thermos flasks are distributed at every seat, damp towels are offered to help wipe away the grime of the station, newspapers in Hindi and English appear, individual packets of cornflakes come on a tray with milk, snacks of potato-and- cashew cutlets follow, bananas are offered from a wicker basket, fresh fruit juice is poured.

This is perfectly understandable. Railways face a very real threat from the mushrooming low-cost airlines, and this threat pertains only to those passengers traveling in upper classes of trains. So there is a very strong incentive to improve the service.

I have always thought that the Indian railways is one government sector which is doing alright. Trains are dependable in that we can plan months ahead and things generally work out as planned. Moreover traveling in trains is a culturally vivid experience. All this is not to say that there is no room for improvement. On the contrary, there is an immense scope for improvement. However, in my opinion, it makes more sense to focus on improving the experience of middle or lower class travelers and the infrastructure.

It is true that upper class travelers generate lot of revenue. But in the long run it is pointless whether those travelers have a nice time in the trains or not. However comfortable a train journey is, it can never better a plane journey, for the simple reason that a plane journey takes far less time. Chennai to Mumbai Second AC fare is around Rs 1500 and First AC fare is around Rs 2600. On the other hand, one can fly for less than Rs 5000. It is conceivable that some one, pressed for time, opts for the (only slightly more expensive) plane journey. As plane fares fall further relative to upper class train fares, passengers will prefer planes more regularly no matter what. Railways will eventually have to look to substitute the revenue coming from upper class travelers.

On the other hand, of course, there is no incentive to improve the conditions for middle and lower class travel. These travelers have no other option but to use trains for long distance journeys. But the fact that railways is a monopoly means that we need to think outside the incentives-profit-free market box.


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