Everyone loves a good express train

TS Ramakrishnan/Pranav Suresh | Updated on August 21, 2020

Express trains are popular because they are faster than ordinary trains. It is time to convert some ordinary trains into express ones

The Railway Board identified 508 slow-moving passenger trains, with presumably low occupancy, that ply beyond 200 km all over India and asked the opinion of the respective zonal railways regarding the potential conversion of these trains into express trains.

Essentially, there are three types of passenger services in Indian Railways. They are ordinary trains (slow-moving passenger trains), mail/express trains and premium trains, which run at an average speed of about 35 kmph, 50 kmph and 70 kmph respectively.

On expected lines, there was opposition against the Railway board circular stating that ordinary trains serve the poor, small traders and people from rural areas, and travellers may have to shell out higher fares if these are converted to mail/express trains. Those who obtained second-class tickets through the unreserved ticketing system (UTS) for ordinary trains and mail/express trains are usually permitted to travel in second-class compartments (generally unreserved compartments) of the respective trains. It is true the fares of UTS tickets for second-class travel in express/mail trains are greater than those for ordinary trains. But this difference is about 70 per cent for various distances, not as high as claimed by some.

The best way to assess whether some ordinary trains should be converted to express/mail trains is to collate the data of passenger travel in both these trains across classes, and in particular data of second-class passenger travel in both services, and analyse the ensuing patterns.

Passenger numbers

Passenger travel in ordinary trains at the all-India level reduced to 234 billion PKM ( one passenger travelling for one km) in 2018-19 from 292 billion PKM in 2013-14. Even in zonal railways, except for the North Frontier Railway, the passenger patronage have either been sliding or have remained stagnant. The increase of ordinary train travel in the North Frontier Railway from 20 billion PKM in 2010-11 to 95 billion PKM in 2019-20 is essentially due to the development of the Railways in the North-Eastern States in the last 10 years.

However, the patronage for mail/express and premium trains at the all-India level has increased from 698 billion PKM in FY 2013-14 to 773 billion PKM in 2018-19. The share of ordinary trains in passenger travel in terms of PKM decreased from 37.5 per cent in 2005-06 to 23.2 per cent in 2018-19, as shown in the Charts.

Even for second-class travel, the patronage for mail/express trains has been increasing over ordinary trains, as shown in the Charts. The share of second-class travel in terms of PKM in ordinary trains decreased from 52.6 per cent in 2005-06 to 37 per cent in 2018-19.


Service preference

Even though the second-class express/mail UTS ticket costs about 70 per cent more than the second-class ordinary train UTS ticket, passengers’ preference for the former has been increasing consistently over the years. Why is this?

There are essentially three factors that differentiate travel between ordinary trains and mail/express trains for second-class passengers. The first is the fare. As highlighted earlier, there is a difference in the fare. For instance, the current fare between Villupuram and Madurai (Train No 56705) for 335 km by ordinary train is ₹70, and express/mail train it is ₹120. However, ticket fare for the ordinary State Road Transport Corporation buses is about ₹ 270, much higher than even express/mail train fare.

The second factor is the connectivity to and from railway stations. For instance, the Villupuram-Madurai passenger has 40 stops, excluding the originating and arriving stations. The expansion of the road network initiated during the Vajpayee regime resulted in 25,000 km of four/six/eight-laned roads across the length and breadth of India now. Hence, passengers don’t depend on ordinary trains for shorter distances. Moreover, rail passengers understand that if they seek faster travel, trains are not as flexible as, say, shared auto rickshaws, which allow them to board and deboard at their whims and fancies.

The third factor is the on-board travel time. For instance, the Villupuram-Madurai passenger train originates at 3.30 pm and reaches Madurai at 12.40 am the next day, at a travel time of nine hours 10 minutes. The express trains take about five hours 40 minutes to cover the same distance. If the first two factors are beneficial to the passengers who use ordinary trains, the third factor nudges them toward the other services.



Shorter commute

What made even lower middle-class passengers prefer second-class travel by express/mail trains over ordinary trains, despite higher fare and less connectivity to stations? The general impression is that the travel time for the latter that eats into productive hours of the day, which are critical for those who earn higher income, and ordinary people with moderate-to-low income will not mind trading time for money. However, the reduction in travel time is as critical for low income groups as it is for others. When the commute into working hours, it means a lost opportunity to earn livelihood.

Say, a mason and a helper earn about ₹900 and ₹600 per day respectively. When they travel by an ordinary train between Villupuram and Madurai in lieu of a mail/express train to save ₹ 50 — or to save ₹200, in the case of State Road Transport Corporation buses — they lose their daily wage as the travel time clashes with the working hours of the day. Hence, it is clear that passengers prefer shorter travel times.

By converting some of the ordinary trains into mail/express trains with fewer stops, and then positioning them on patronage-rich origin-destination routes, these trains would achieve better patronage and reduce the overcrowding of passengers in second-class compartments. This could even lead to additional passenger reservation system (PRS) seats/berths for those who have been denied PRS travel in mail/express trains due to the paucity of tickets.

Recent statistics show that at least 15 per cent of Railway ticket holders end up on the wait-list and are denied rail travel due to want of seats and trains. The demand for mail/express trains alone is likely to be far more, even as ordinary passenger trains are less patronised these days.

The conversion of low-patronage ordinary trains into mail/express trains would help the Indian Railways overcome this supply shortage, and benefit both the travellers as well as the Railways.

Ramakrishnan is a railway expert and Suresh is a Stanford graduate

Published on August 21, 2020

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