Has Vande Bharat thrown rail traffic haywire in Kerala?

Vande Bharat Express Kerala
With a majority of trains having a mere two unreserved coaches, passengers can barely step inside. Passengers have raised the demand that the number of general coaches has to be reverted to four. Photo: Manorama/Robert Vinod

Trains conducting services in Kerala are overcrowded, particularly on holidays. Several trains are also regulated for a considerable time at stations on the route. Many people blame the newly-introduced Vande Bharat service for this situation. Meanwhile, is there a deliberate attempt in the state to create the impression that Vande Bharat is the cause of all the trouble? What are the real facts? Onmanorama examines the issue in detail. During the recent puja holidays, severe rush on trains led some passengers to even swoon inside the compartments. Travellers complained that they couldn’t even breathe in the coaches. Hasn’t the railway resorted to any measure to alleviate this crisis?

Fewer general coaches
The Indian Railways is gradually reducing the number of general coaches. While earlier there were four such compartments in most trains, the number is now three or even two. This follows a policy decision taken by the Railway Board to attach fewer general and sleeper coaches to trains and to increase the number of air-conditioned compartments, which bring profits to the railway. However, passengers travelling on Mail and Express trains during daytime in Kerala are at the receiving end of this decision. With a majority of trains having a mere two unreserved coaches, passengers can barely step inside. Passengers have raised the demand that the number of general coaches has to be reverted to four.

Vande Bharat service
Complaints were raised that other trains were deliberately delayed to allow Vande Bharat to maintain time ever since the latter started its services. This was true during the initial days of the Vande Bharat services as well. Now, the railway claims that it later made arrangements to reduce the delays of the other trains and that the regulation time of other trains has decreased from 40 minutes to 15-20 minutes at present. However, regular commuters still object to Vande Bharat overtaking their train.

Responding to this matter, Railway authorities said that other trains are regulated at stations to allow premium trains to overtake them in all parts of the country. “Consider three trains – A, B and C – involved in an overtaking. The crossing is decided based on factors such as the arrival time of these trains and the distance between the two stations. The regulation time will increase if there is a delay by any of these three trains. If a passenger engages in chain-pulling on one of these trains, another 30 minutes will be wasted,” said a Railway official.

The official pointed out that as the Alappuzha route is a single track, overtaking was possible only when two trains travelling in opposite directions were regulated. This causes delays along the 69-km single track on the coastal route and passengers in this section are the worst-affected. Railway authorities also say that a political campaign is being carried out in Kerala to blame Vande Bharat for the delay by every train conducting service in the state.

“Delays occur owing to several reasons. All services, including Vande Bharat, were delayed by around 90 minutes recently after an engineering block to replace a girder on a bridge near Angamaly took more time than planned,” the official explained.

Situation in South Kerala
A survey by the Railways apparently said that the maximum crowding in south Kerala occurs in Venad and Palaruvi Express trains between Kayamkulam and Piravom Road. Palaruvi was introduced to reduce the number of passengers in Venad, but as it has 14 coaches only, the issue still persists.

The solution to this problem is to start a new MEMU service between Kayamkulam and Ernakulam ahead of Venad Express in the morning and evening. “The first measure should be to change the route of Venad along Ernakulam North, bypassing Ernakulam South. This will not be objected to as a Kochi Metro station will soon be opened at Tripunithura and a MEMU service will be conducted till Ernakulam South,” said a regular passenger. It is pointed out that such a move will enable Venad to pass Ernakulam before 10 am. A MEMU before Venad will help passengers avoid starting very early in the morning to board the Palaruvi Express.

Meanwhile, passengers suggest rescheduling the departure time of Ernad Express from Ernakulam to 4.40 pm to reduce travel woes on the Alappuzha route. They also want a speedy completion of the track-doubling work between Ernakulam and Kumbalam. Other suggestions to reduce overcrowding include an extension of the Ernakulam – Alappuzha MEMU service to Kollam and changing the departure time of Vande Bharat along Alappuzha from Thiruvananthapuram to 3.30 pm.

Travel woes in Malabar
There is a single reason for the difficulties faced by passengers in the northern Malabar area of Kerala – the lack of a sufficient number of trains. In fact, on many sections under the Palakkad division, there are no trains for several hours. Even though this has been the situation for decades, it came to the limelight only following the introduction of Vande Bharat. In fact, Vande Bharat has indeed affected the running time of the popular Parasuram Express and several passenger trains in North Kerala.

Earlier, daily commuters between Kozhikode and Kannur depended on the Chennai Egmore – Mangalore Express to reach their destinations. But, when the speed of the train was increased, this facility became unavailable. Protests by passengers soon led railway authorities to regulate Parasuram Express for around one hour at Kozhikode as an alternative. The solutions suggested for the travel woes in Malabar include:
Introduce a MEMU service ahead of Parasuram in the morning from Kannur to Kozhikode which departs at 7.10 am.
This train could reach Kozhikode by 8.30 am and start its return trip by 9.30 am. The return service could be conducted till Kanhangad with an arrival time of 12.45 pm.

From Kanhangad, the MEMU could depart by 1.15 pm and arrive in Kozhikode by 4.30 pm.
The last trip of the day could leave Kozhikode at 5 pm to reach Kannur by 6.30 pm. Such a MEMU service will help avoid regulation of Parasuram Express for an hour at Kozhikode, said passengers.

Another suggestion is to start a new train service with more general coaches leaving Ernakulam Town station at 2 pm to Kasaragod. It could arrive in the northernmost district of the state by 9 pm.
The return trip could leave Kasaragod by 10 pm and reach Ernakulam by 5 am the next day.

Passengers point out that such a train can reduce the crowds in Maveli and Malabar expresses. It would also be the solution to the complaint that there are no daily trains from Mangaluru to Kerala for several hours after 6.15 pm.

NH development
Long-distance travel along the road has gone out of gear in Kerala after the massive development work of the National Highway 66 started. This has forced many passengers to travel by train instead of buses. However, the trains in Kerala lack the capacity to accommodate these travellers.

Similarly, the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) currently conducts 30 per cent fewer services compared to earlier.

High bus fares
Another reason which compels travellers to switch from bus to train are the high bus fares, compared to travelling in general compartments in trains. For instance, a ticket on a KSRTC fast passenger bus between Kollam and Ernakulam costs Rs 179. For a round trip, the amount is Rs 358 and for travelling an entire month, a passenger has to pay Rs 10,740. At the same time, travelling the same route in a general compartment on a Mail or Express train costs Rs 65 one way and Rs 130 for a round trip.

Season tickets are also available on trains and the monthly fare is Rs 525. In short, a passenger can travel in one direction for a paltry Rs 8.75! By bus, a trip from Ernakulam railway station to Thevara in the city alone costs Rs 10. Similarly, a cup of tea could be purchased only at Rs 10-12. In other words, it is still possible for a passenger to travel 141 km from Kollam to Ernakulam by train by spending an amount less than a cup of tea!

Is SilverLine the alternative?
A massive social media campaign is underway to project SilverLine, the ambitious semi-high-speed project proposed by the state government, as a solution to the travel woes faced by passengers in Kerala. However, it is pointed out that few regular train commuters who travel 141 km at Rs 8 with a season ticket would be able to afford the minimum rate of Rs 2.5 per km mooted for SilverLine.

According to experts in the sector, the ideal solution would be to build a new double line across the state with few stations. Incidentally, the railway has already initiated a survey for such a track which would enable trains to travel at 160 kmph.

Other solutions mooted
Shift the services of all fast trains to the proposed new double-track.
Slow Express and passenger trains can use the existing track.
Conduct the following regular MEMU services at intervals of 30 minutes along the existing tracks: Kanyakumari – Kollam; Kollam – Ernakulam; Ernakulam – Shoranur; Shoranur – Kozhikode; Kozhikode – Kannur and Kannur – Mangalore.

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