Monday, June 23, 2014

Train travel is still affordable

How poor you think is the average Indian train traveller? I don't think he or she is very poor. And, if he or she can afford to travel by train, he or she can also manage to put in an extra of a maximum of around Rs 60, following the increase in train passenger fares announced by railway minister Sadananda Gowda on Friday and due to take effect on June 25.

Let us take one example, from the lowest class.

According to South Western Railway, Rs 60 is the increase in fare for General 2nd Class seat from Bangalore to New Delhi. It's currently Rs 395, and it has been raised to Rs 455. If the person, who has to travel to Delhi can manage to save Rs 395, I am sure he will find ways and means to put in another Rs 60, for his Delhi trip. I don't think an increase of Rs 60 is so prohibitive that he or she will have to cancel his travel plan. It may be hard, no doubt, but it is manageable and not impossible.

In the same class, the fare from Bangalore to Chennai is Rs 105. It will henceforth be Rs 119, an increase of Rs 14. Similarly to Mysore the hike is Rs 5, new fare is Rs 60.

I do understand that for the poor, even Re 1 is valuable. Why for only the poor? Even a sensible rich guy will greatly value his one rupee. My contention is that the average hike of Rs 14.2 per cent is not so steep that large numbers of people will have to actually stop travelling by train. That would probably have been the case if the increase was 100% or even 50%.

When everyone is coping up with price increase in consumer durables, and even essential commodities, why increase in train fares alone announced by the Narendra Modi government should be such a huge burden on common people, I don't understand. Look at the price of sugar, salt, rice, wheat, etc. In fact, the increase in those segments have a far greater impact on people's budget.

The protests against the train fare hike are largely political. And that too is not surprising, since even when Mallikarjun Kharge raised the fare by a nominal 2% last year, there were howls of protests from political parties.

It's also a common trend in India that when government raises prices of its services there are howls of protests. But we don't see protests when private sector manufacturers or service providers raise prices. Even poor people make use of services and goods of private players. Why should government be prevented from generating revenue for its services, I fail to understand. And no one has any complaints when private sector increases prices.

(By the way, everyone, the richest and the poorest pay the same rate for the ubiquitous mobile phone services -- even the guy who can afford to buy only the duplicate model from the grey market. May be the rich use it more than the poor.)

Indian Railways, the largest network in the world, also offers the least expensive fare for the passengers compared to many other countries. There is always a reluctance to increase the fares because trains are seen as the preferred mode of transport for the poor and middle class people. The poor financial resources has left serious infrastructural and safety issues unresolved. Our trains need to be cleaner and travel needs to be safer, Actually, it should go to the credit of the Railways that the number of accidents are quite minimal for the network of this size and complexity. But, that is no reason for complacency and passengers definitely deserve a better deal.

Railways, as a public service, and should not get caught in politics. It is as much the responsibility of the opposition as that of the government that the people get an efficient train service. Whichever party is in power, periodically there has to be increase in train fares. Train fares alone can't insulated.

One option the Narendra Modi government can try out is to have market-driven differential pricing for Super Fast and Express trains. That will bring in more revenue, without seriously affecting the lower middle class people.

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