Indian Rail Road innovation after 150 years

In last few weeks, I did not have new stories to share with my children and I decided to talk freely on infrastructure available and taken for granted by my children today. We touched based upon history of Rail Roads, electricity, Roads and Airplanes.

Here is summary outline of Rail Road Story said to children started with “The first rail road in India was build in 1851. Rails were developed to replace horse carriages and meter gauge trains.”. Followed with some examples of cool railways lines in India and talked of the money was spent to convert them to broad gauge. The story ended with discussion (as they went to sleep) around the coaches they travel,booking tickets in Tatkal mode & my own quote”how fortunate we are for what we have today”

When they started sleeping, my mind started how do I explain what I meant by”how fortunate we are for what we have today”. I first landed at the ineffectiveness of rail road infrastructure like booking and so on. Suddenly I was aware of saying to children “how fortunate we are for what we have” and started to contrast today with 150 years ago.

Prior to 1851,there was no rail transport. Except rich people and kings, people walked a long distance or went by bullock carts or horses. People need to do lot of planning to go to a far away places. Only few people were able to afford and travel across long distances.

Currently good number of places in India are connected by rail roads than before. Today rail roads help people, both rich and poor to travel to an extent. There are reservation counters at various location and online reservation portal to enable ticket purchase. There is Tatkal based booking on IRCTC, third party providers to book tickets and means to know the status of train during journey in real-time. Apps are coming to help people order food during their travel.

Why people are not happy considering this change from 1851 as great progress? Should we crib about slowness of IRCTC site and not getting quality food during travel? Have all basic problems related to different segment of commuters addressed so that the comfort needs have to be take care of. Few of us explain difficulty to fix existing system and come with or support innovation to create alternate ways of transport like app based cars or self driving cars.

When I book tickets at comfort of my home, people in India stand at the railways counters at 4 am (6 months before travel day) to make reservation at opening of the counter. People are worried of affordability to book Tatkal tickets, no power at home when the Tatkal time starts, and fear of the scenario (money gone, no ticket),

Earlier, railway station master could allot tickets in emergency quota for genuine reasons like death of close relative. This facility was misused for personal favours. Yes, there is need to verify the genuineness of the claim/person. Today personal favours have transformed in to Tatkal, VIP quota continues to exist. If  a normal person fails to get Tatkal ticket, he needs to spend more money to travel. On other hand, we realize the loss of compassion for another person suffering times. and there is no means of compassion build in the reservation system.

My experience in Trichy explains me the need of xerox copy of ID card to make booking. There are no xerox shops near counter and xerox shops open after counter. People need to do a lot of planning to book Tatkal ticket. Not easy as my booking from my home with my PC or mobile.

When I travel in my reserved compartment from Chennai to Bangalore,large commuters from some village climb in to reserved compartments in train. On enquiring, you learn that train is only means of transport accessible to them. The rail is only affordable for them with cheap monthly pass. There are only 2 or 4 rails that pass through village. They need to travel to earn their living in Bangalore and raise family in village. Not boarding train demands shelling more money to travel, not affordable for them. Will you not climb in to reserved compartments, if you were in their place and find unserved compartments have no place to get in?

Train drivers do not have toilets closer to engine and use the toilets in compartment of regular passengers. The unreserved compartments behind engine are crowded increasing waiting time. Will rail drivers need of  bathroom leads to accidents? Check  Passenger Train Toilet for more.

Now let me go back to 1851. Rail Roads was innovation in west and migrated to India. Some basic questions. What was problem getting solved? Who were target customers? What was value proposition? Other than speed of transport, what were other differentiation needs?

  • Why stations like Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi and Calcutta are different from other stations? What thinking influenced the way they have been developed? Did creators wanted to help people travel? Are they wanted a mechanism to transport goods? Chennai and Mumbai were small British outfits in those years. Why did they get selected to become hub for railways? Was it to serve needs of selling imported British goods to Indians in land locked regions of India?
  • Who were contractors to develop railway line? Did they invest profits from their business to develop more railway lines?While rail roads helped foreigners to sell their goods in India, it enabled Indians to export. Who was better placed to leverage to get best out of the opportunity?On a different note, I found ” History of Rail Transport in India” Wikipedia  page with a section called “Corruption in British Indian railways”.

While I agree that rail road innovation has significant impact in lives of many people , I see need for greater awareness on differences in experience/impact of rail road innovation on urban/rich people and rural/poor people..