I love Indian Railways. Ok, not every journey is sheer joy but I have tremendous respect for these guys. It’s a mindboggling job and they do it, for the most part, adequately if not well.
Consider this: It’s the largest railway system under single management. It is the largest employer in the world: about 16 lakh people owe it their roti kapda. A system so colossal, it needs its own budget. IR makes possible about 4 billion passenger journeys a year, unofficially that figure should up considerably as anyone who’s set foot in a train in peak season knows, there a lot of ‘unreserveds’ taking their chances. 7,068 stations and a fleet of 7000 trains for passengers and 4000 for goods.
I’m equally amazed by the reservation system. It redefines complex. Volume: over 600,000 seat and berth reservations a day. Complications: 7 passenger train categories, 72 types of coaches, 7 classes of ‘reservable’ accommodation, over 40 quotas, and around 80 types of concessional fares. Plus, fares depend not only on the distance ('chargeable distances' being different from the actual distances travelled), but also accommodation type and transit time.
You can book your railway ticket from any part of the country, sixty days in advance. And from the day of booking to the date of travel, your ticket has a unique identification: the famous PNR number. No matter how complicated your travel plans, if you want to check your status at any booking interface, all you need is that 10-digit number. Amazing.
Why I’m talking about this is I’m irritated with people who incessantly complain about the system, who are critical as a policy. I’m not denying there are irritants, and by all means assert yourself, demand that towel that an AC ticket entitles you to, but surely you must see what these guys are dealing with.
The chai wallah walks up and down trains doing several kilometers everyday, blocked at every third step by bulging luggage, lounging passengers, acrobatic children and namazis. I don’t know how much he gets paid, but I can tell you it isn’t enough. It’s a bloody 44 degrees out there and if you haul your butt out you will know at once that the AC is working. There are at least 30 people on this coach alone who don’t have reservations, but who still need water and endless chais. No, the attendant does not have any more towels. Stop harassing the man, for heaven’s sake, and deal with it. No, the water is not cold, simply because the pantry does not have air conditioning. Oh, but you’re bored? Chalo, let’s play ‘is desh ka kuch nahin ho sakta.’
Not quite a propos but we got talking about this yesterday, Navin and I, and he says that the Railways is running a loss not because of ticketless travel as might be assumed but because of the pensioners it supports. About 40% of the expenditure, Navin says, goes to maintaining retirees and their medical bills. Phew! I confess my first thought was, hey, that’s my money!