Monisha Rajesh: Railways are a microcosm of society

After 100 train journeys across India, writerMonisha Rajesh knows the Indian Railwaysfairly well. Speaking with Srijana Mitra Das, Rajesh discussed what drove her to undertake several challenging trips, surprises on-board the Indian Railways - and the one thing that's endured amongst her co-travellers:
Why did you decide to undertake all these journeys?
I was born and brought up in the UK. Between 1991-93, my parents tried to live in India but found it difficult and returned. We only came back for family events. But i wanted to get a full feel of the country, not base my understanding on occasional visits. One day, i was reading an article about India's airline boom - but noticed that just below the air routes, there were train tracks that extended into every corner, no matter how small or remote. Airplanes seemed an incredibly expensive way to travel but trains were remarkably cheap and went simply everywhere. I came here in mid-January 2010 and ended up travelling for four months, taking 100 trains.
What does train travel reveal about a country?
Railways are a microcosm of society. A train contains everything, from first class with its AC, curtains, linen and cutlery, to general seating with people crow-ded onto wooden planks. Flying gets you stuck in a seat. You can only talk to one or two people near you. But walking up and down a train gives you a good idea of how Indian society is structured.
Was there a best journey - and a worst?
Well, in terms of sheer beauty, i'd say the Mandovi Express from Goa to Mumbai was my favourite because of the rivers, mango groves, coconut trees and villages we'd pass. I'd sit in the train doorway, at the feet of it all. The worst was towards April when it started getting hot. I took a passenger train from Jaisalmer to Bikaner at 11 am. I couldn't understand why the train was empty! There was no one to be seen except the ticket checker.
I understood when we began - red dust just came sweeping in through the bars! I ended drenched in pools of sweat.
Were there other problems on-board?
I was taken aback by the lack of cleanliness. It's not just on the trains. People would routinely throw plastic bags out of the door, adding to an ankle-deep sludge of plastic along the tracks. The toilets were often disgusting and the acid falling from them corrodes the tracks which have to be replaced much more often. I think it was a real shame that Dinesh Trivedi wasn't given a chance to install green toilets.
Finally, some remarkable things about India you've discovered?
I learnt that we may consider trains as just a means to commute - but a massive proportion of India is entirely dependent on the railways. It is the only way for rural areas to get anywhere or anything. Travelling by all sorts of trains, including India's only hospital train, i understood why the railways are called the lifeline of this country.
I was also struck by how people receive visitors. When they saw i was a young woman traveller, families would take me into their fold. I was in a compartment alone with men once and they were kind and helpful. People shared not only food but intimate details of their lives. They always wanted to chat! I found that such a contrast to London where people avoid even eye contact.
I think what India has is incredibly special. And travelling on its railways, i was glad it's stayed that way.
(Times of India, Mangalore, 13-8-2012)

MEMU Flagged off

(Mathrubhumi dt 19-3-2012)
(Malayala Manorama dt 19-3-2012)

Memu service fails to bring relief

Daily Commuters Disappointed With Inconvenient Train Timings

Kochi: Chief minister Oommen Chandy inaugurated the much-awaited main line electrical multiple unit (Memu) service on the Ernakulam-Kollam route at the Ernakulam South station on Sunday. But, commuters and passengers association were an unhappy lot after they were told about its service timings. 

    As per the current schedule — one service (via Alappuzha) will begin from Kollam at 9am, reach Ernakulam by 1.15pm and will leave for Kollam at 2pm. The other (via Kottayam) will begin at 10.05 am from Kollam, reach city by 2.25pm and leave by 2.45pm. Passengers say the timings do not help because they need to reach their destination (mainly offices) by around 10 am and since the trains return early, the evening passengers have no respite. 
    When Memu service was announced in the last railway budget, people welcomed it as a huge relief. Kerala Railway Users Association president K J Paul Manvattom said the current Memu schedule is a disappointment for daily com
muters who depend on trains to reach their office. “We were expecting a service that would benefit daily commuters because those who travel short distances do not have enough trains and the ones running now are overcrowded. I don’t see passengers reaching office by ten or heading home after work in the evening using Memu service,” he said. 
    However, railways pointed out that single track routes 
are already congested and they are helpless. Many commuters opined that Memu service should have started on the Palakkad – Ernakulam stretch, where the doubling work is complete. “Already a Memu service connects Coimbatore and Shoranur. It would have been easy to extend the same to Ernakulam,” said general secretary of Thrissur Railway Passengers Association P Krishnakumar. MP P Rajeev said the current timings for the service are odd. “I received a few calls from various passenger associations regarding Memu timings. I brought this to the notice of the divisional railway manager and he has given a favourable reply,” Rajeev said. He added that the manager said that the department is planning to introduce at least two services aday. 
    Meanwhile, a railway official said, the current timings are as per the revised time table released after the last year’s railway budget. “Service on the Ernakulam – Thrissur stretch, announced in this railway budget, will start as soon as we get a new rake,” he said. 

‘Govt to revive old railway station’ Union minister K V Thomas said that authorities will devise a plan to revive the old railway station near the Kerala high court. “I have told the chief minister about this, and he also has some plans. We will discuss the matter and take a favourable decision,” said the union minster.

(Times of India dt 19-3-2012)

Trivedi quits

(Mathrubhumi dt 19-3-2012)
(Businessline dt 19-3-2012)

Rly Board Chairman on Budget

(Businessline dt 19-3-2012)

Finally MEMU service begin

(Mathrubhumi dt 18-3-2012)
(The Hindu dt 16-3-2012)

Why Trivedi is right?

(Businessline dt 19-3-2012)

The Unrealistic Realist
Mr Dinesh Trivedi kept talking about five year projects in his record budget speech, and leading Railways through the transformation journey. The irony is that his own tenure may be less than a year (he took charge on July 13th 2011).
But within that short period, the laurels he has earned among the 13 lakh railway officials and some 11 lakh pensioners will be the envy of many in political circles.
Overnight, he has gifted the Indian Railways a Budget Document that presents the best option for railwaymen in the current backdrop.
Many Railway officials admit that they eyed him with the usual scepticism that they carry for politicians. But they were pleasantly surprised by the Minister's honest, transparent approach over time.
During the Budget speech preparation, he had told Railway officials, “I want each of the statement to be backed by action.”
Many officialsBusiness Linespoke to were pleasantly surprised by his honesty, transparency and bold decision to do what is best for the Railways. The officials were repeatedly told to ensure that there is no “window dressing” of the budget document.
“I am a professional. I have a job to do. I will do my best,” Mr Trivedi had toldBusiness Line. In the process he has also made it difficult for his successor by setting extremely high standards.
“This Budget speech will be one from heart. When you read it, you can hear me talk,” he had said.But, did he have an inkling of the fallout of what he was going to do? Just take a look at his recent statement: “In the cross-fire, if I lose my life, then so be it.”
He sure has made the job for his successor extremely tough by setting such high standards.
(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 16, 2012)

(The Hindu dt 16-3-2012)

Budget Analysis

(Times of India dt 16-3-2012)
(Mathrubhumi dt 16-3-2012)
(The Hindu dt 16-3-2012)