By Arun Kumar Das
Cash-starved Indian Railways has increased the fare of 48 mail and express trains by upgrading them to "superfast" and raising their designated average speed by mere five kilometres per hour from 50 kmph, according to the new timetable released November 1. However, upgradation is no guarantee that these trains would run on time. Also, the new levy has been brought in just ahead of the cold season when all north-bound trains will be running late by several hours due to foggy weather.
At present, many trains, including premier services like Rajdhani, Duronto and Shatabdi, run late on a regular basis.
No additional passenger amenities have been provided in trains converted to the superfast level. But passengers will have to shell out Rs 30 more for Sleeper, Rs 45 for Second and Third AC and Rs 75 for First AC class as superfast charges.
The railways is expected to mop up an additional Rs 70 crore from these levies. The transporter possibly imposes these charges to avoid a backlash on passenger fare increases. With the addition of the 48 trains, the total number of trains designated as superfast has risen to 1,072.
The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), in its last report in July, had made critical observations about the superfast levy.
The CAG also found that passengers paid for superfast charge though the trains were not running at designated speeds. It also said that rules for refund of superfast surcharge to passengers, in cases where Superfast services have not been provided to the passengers, have not been framed by the Railway Board.
"On test check, Audit observed that in North Central and South Central Railways, superfast charges (Rs 11.17 crore) were levied and collected during the period 2013-14 to 2015-16 from the passengers on days, where 21 superfast trains did not attain the average speed of 55 kmph (on broad gauge) for a 'Superfast' train," the CAG observed in its report.
According to the data available with the railways, 890 superfast trains had run late during July, August and September this year.
As many as 129 superfast trains were delayed in July, 145 in August and 183 in September for one hour to three hours. However, 31 superfast trains were behind schedule by more than three hours in July and 37 in August. As many as 196 superfast trains were late by 30 minutes to 60 minutes in July, 186 in August, 240 in September.
Some 326 superfast trains were late by 15 minutes and 30 minutes in July, 287 in August and 267 in September. The overall punctuality of trains, at present, is hovering around 73 per cent -- not a good benchmark.
The new superfast trains include Pune-Amravati AC Express, Pataliputra-Chandigarh Express, Visakhapatnam-Nanded Express, Delhi-Pathankot Express, Kanpur-Udhampur Express, Chhapra-Mathura Express, Rock Fort Chennai-Tiruchirapally Express, Bangalore-Shivmogga Express, Tata-Visakhapatnam Express, Darbhanga-Jalandhar Express, Mumbai-Mathura Express and Mumbai-Patna Express.
According to information available with the Directorate of Safety, the railways had undertaken repair works of tracks, including renewal of aging rails, in almost all regions. As a result, trains are not allowed to run at high speeds in these sections because of concerns about passenger safety.
There are also capacity augmentation works going on to decongest over-saturated routes.
Delays are endemic to the system. Most trunk routes are heavily congested and a slight delay causes a ripple effect on the network. Trains run late ranging between one hour and 15 hours or more in many sections due to various reasons.
The Railways lists 33 categories of reasons for delays, of which seven, it says, are outside its direct control, such as the alarm chain being pulled, protests on the tracks, bad weather, accidents and law and order situation.
According to Railway norms, a train that is up to 15 minutes late is considered to be on time. Beyond that, the punctuality parameters are divided into brackets of minutes -- 16 to 30, 31 to 45 and 46 to 60. The last and most crucial segment is "more than an hour", which is open-ended -- it covers all trains that are late by more than an hour, irrespective of the delay.
(Arun Kumar Das is a Delhi-based freelance journalist. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)