Opinion

Shift to AC-only trains, a cool option

Sudhanshu Mani | Updated on November 25, 2021

With proper planning it is economically viable for the Railways. The common man deserves more comfort

Indian Railways recently announced that a new design of air-conditioned (AC) economy coach had been introduced in Prayagraj-Jaipur Express and within a year nearly 1,000 such coaches would be attached in many long-distance trains. While this new type of coach has 83 berths against 72 in a regular 3AC coach, the fare structure for this coach is 8 per cent lower than in the latter.

This development follows the rather equivocal announcement by the Railways last year that non-AC coaches would be replaced in mail/express trains, which would be made fully air-conditioned. The plan was not affirmed clearly and it was lost in the verbiage about developing a new AC economy coach, air-conditioning being a requirement for speeds above 130 km/hour and the need to provide all passengers a comfortable journey.

There was, however, a move towards AC-only coaches as the manufacturing units of the Railways were asked to boost manufacture of AC coaches while limiting manufacture of non-AC coaches to power/luggage vans and short-distance electrical multiple unit (EMU) type coaches and this policy continues.

Another significant announcement on trains was made by the Prime Minister on August 15, that 75 Vande Bharat Train 18s, the modern semi-high-speed train, would connect 75 cities of the country in 75 weeks. The announcement was indeed dramatic as even a third such train has not been manufactured after the first two prototypes in 2018-19, but it provides a glimpse into the direction of future train travel in the country.

This would require that a sleeper version Train 18 replace Rajdhanis. Integral Coach Factory, Chennai, had planned to design and turn this out in 2019 as Train 19 but the plan was shelved by the Railways. This project will need to be revived and some of these 75 trains should have improved Rajdhani-type sleepers to be turned out in 2022, say, as Train 22s.

The initial reactions have indeed been mixed with a common refrain that the Railways was working for richer passengers, sacrificing the interests of the common man. This discourse is unwittingly supported by the Railways as a welcome development, like the AC economy coach for mass travel is publicised not for its comfort but luxury in PIB’s press release on September 6: “economical and luxurious AC travel experience, @Railminindia 3AC economy coach begins its services…”

On the right path

In this common man versus privileged class debate, the truth, which lies somewhere in between, gets vitiated. The government is on the right path but is perhaps unable to put forward clinching arguments in favour of AC trains only.

Even if manufacture of non-AC coaches is stopped today and the useful life of such coaches manufactured in recent years is curtailed to 24 years instead of the specified 36, we would see the last of a non-AC coach in our trains only in 2045. Is it too far-fetched to picture India in 2045 with all Indians, including the common man, afforded long-distance travel in AC trains? As for short-distance, the trains of our metros, generally associated with common city-dwellers, are already fully air-conditioned, so why should it be inconceivable that all suburban and short-distance intercity trains be also all air-conditioned?

Countries like China, and even some poorer ones like Egypt, run only AC trains. The so-called aspirational India must reach an income level, as well technological finesse, to provide all its citizens this comfort. Is it implausible that Mumbai migrants, who travel like packed sardines in general coaches today, are also afforded a seat in ‘no-frills’ AC coaches? Yes, it should be possible without stressing the operating performance of the Railways.

Two type of AC coaches today, the 3AC and AC chair car, are already profitable. With AC economy coaches, which have 15 per cent more accommodation, the fare should be reduced by 20 per cent, and not 8 per cent, and they would still break even.

A janta chair car without luxuries like reclining chairs etc., can be introduced — like in Garib Rath trains — to cater to 50 per cent more passengers and with a 30 per cent reduction in fare without taxing the Railways’ finances.

What is surprising is that the higher AC classes are losing propositions and yet the passengers are not charged more. If higher charges result in loss of clientele to flights, so be it; reduce the number of such coaches, but why provide subsidised services to richer people? In any case, for a privileged clientele which has to choose between air and train travel, Vande Bharat trains with their reduced travel time and better comfort are the answer. These trains have proved to be profitable, with very high occupancy, as passenger see value for money. A win-win, for the Railways in terms of higher revenues, and for passengers, a more comfortable alternative to air travel.

That leaves us with the common man who travels in ordinary sleeper or general compartment. With revenues more or less settled in the profitable zone with the Vande Bharat and higher-class AC coaches, this is where a true subsidy must figure and the AC economy/janta fares should be gradually reduced. The Railways already subsidises the passenger segment to the extent of nearly 45 per cent from its freight earnings and it should be possible to move to only AC travel in the next 10-15 years by simply continuing with this subsidy.

Providing air-conditioned comfort to the commonest traveller at affordable fares is a distinct feasibility and the the Railways must strive to plan for it strongly.

The writer is retired GM, ICF, Chennai

Published on November 25, 2021

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