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Why the Railways' Figures Spell Doom for Economy Passengers

It appears that Indians will have to continue travelling in jam-packed General and Sleeper compartments for the next two years or more, after which, they will have to shell out higher fares if they wish to travel by train.

New Delhi: The Indian Railways went into a media overdrive last week, “fact checking” claims of overcrowding in trains around the Chhath Puja festival. As visuals of jam-packed railway platforms went viral, the Railways said, contrary to claims, that there had been no reduction in General and Sleeper coaches in either special trains launched during the festive seasons or in long-distance express trains.

An official circular dated October 14, detailing a revised schedule for long-distance express trains, was seen circulating on social media too. As per that circular, there are six to seven Sleeper coaches and four General or unreserved coaches in every 22-rake train. The implication is that this number has remained constant for the past three years.

The truth, however, is a little different.

The government’s own figures have shown that the production of General and Sleeper coaches is being drastically reduced in favour of air-conditioned ones. Significantly, figures have confirmed that this trend will continue into the next financial year.

Parsing these figures reveals a double whammy for economy passengers. For now, it appears that passengers will have to continue travelling in jam-packed compartments for the next two years or more, after which, they will have to shell out higher fares if they wish to travel by train.

Railways officials not wishing to be identified have told The Wire that the government’s announcement that there are adequate General and Sleeper coaches to go around is not the truth. “The rail coach factories (RCFs) across the country go by the schedule given to them for the manufacture of coaches. In this case, they are following the schedule issued in June last year when the production of General and Sleeper coaches was revised downwards,” a railway official told this correspondent.

Another official said, “If we are to go back to making these coaches in adequate capacity, then the RCFs will have to stop all production of the AC coaches to meet this revised schedule issued last month. So at least for the next two years, there is going to be no relief for passengers wishing to travel only in General and Sleeper classes. Therefore, such trains are going to be as crowded as they are now.”

The production schedule for 2023-24 and 2024-25 seen by The Wire indicates that 1,142 General and Sleeper coaches will be manufactured by RCFs. In contrast, 3,044 air-conditioned coaches will be produced during this time period.

To be precise, the production of General coaches, now renamed ‘Deen Dayalu’ after the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s icon, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, will be 438 for 2023-24 and 2024-25. That of Sleeper coaches, will be 704.

For air-conditioned coaches, the number of AC 3-tier economy coaches that will be manufactured by RCFs will be 2,253, clearly more than the General and Sleeper class coaches.

Notably, it is the economy coaches have come in for increased criticism over space constraints following the introduction of extra berths, but that has not stopped the railway board from going full steam ahead.

Besides economy, the production of AC 3-tier coaches is expected to be 402 and that of AC 2-tier is 389.

‘A different colour scheme’

“Even if we start manufacturing more General and Sleeper coaches, these will be prioritised for the new Vande Sadharan trains that are undergoing trial runs at the moment. These trains will have the standard 22 coaches, of which 12 will be sleeper and eight general compartments,” said an official at the Rail Coach Factory, Kapurthala.

Vande Sadharan or Amrit Bharat trains are in contrast to their more elite and expensive brethren, the Vande Bharat.

“Vande Sadharan are nothing but ordinary long-distance express trains whose design has been tweaked somewhat, and they come in a different colour scheme. The train is in answer to the criticism the government is facing about catering to only the rich,” Sarabjeet Singh, general secretary of the Rail Coach Factory, Kapurthala Employees Union, told The Wire.

The government has maintained a studied silence over the criticism regarding Vande Bharat and other premium trains and the Modi government’s alleged policy of turning the railways into a for-profit organisation at the cost of public service. 

‘Knee-jerk reactions, tinkerings’

There are also questions being raised at various rail coach factories – that produce a bulk of the railway stock – about the flip-flopping attitude of the government in its production of AC and non-AC coaches. Some called the government suddenly starting the production of non-AC coaches a knee-jerk reaction to the criticism.

The government has also been tinkering with production schedules and revising them frequently. A comparison of the last three schedules issued by the department of coaching throws up conflicting plans. The October 2023 schedule for a 22-coach rake has between six and seven sleeper coaches and four general compartments. There are six AC 3-tier and AC 3-tier economy coaches and two AC 2 tier coaches respectively.

As of October 2020, the number of Sleeper coaches in a 22-rake train was seven. AC 3-tier and AC 2-tier coaches were six and two respectively, and the number of unreserved compartments was four.

By June 2022, the number of sleeper coaches had come down to two while AC 3-tier and economy AC coaches had gone up to 10. The number of AC 2-tier coaches had doubled to four. There was no mention of General compartments.

While the Railway Board had a change of heart in October this year and increased the number of unreserved compartments, the question that is being asked is whether this is implementable.

“This policy decision is not at all viable and the revised schedule is more to fob off criticism of overcrowding,” said multiple Railway officials.

However, one official added, “The railways are hopeful that the shortage will be met. The minister has already said that infrastructure is being improved and more tracks will be laid, that the speed of trains will be increased and that at least 3,000 new trains will be manufactured to reduce the problem of waitlisted passengers.”

The Railway Board had in 2020 decided to upgrade non-AC coaches to AC ones for all trains running at 130 km per hour. This would cut out dust and noise, and improve speed, it had said.