06 July, 2009

Welcome aboard…

Welcome aboard, dear children, Ladies and Gentlemen. This is your Railway Minister speaking. Firstly, we thank you for choosing to travel through Indian Railways, the largest rail network in the world. You have contributed to the growth of our country in a way today, as Indian Railways is the single largest employer in this country – yes, over 1 million people are directly and indirectly employed with us. The new Shatabdi Express that you are about to travel today has been modified a lot than its earlier avtars. This train will cover a distance of 380 km between x and y cities in a little less than three hours. For your comfort, this new Shatabdi coach has centralized air conditioning, unlimited free wifi, music and video for every seat, a delicious food menu from the best chefs across the country and a team of smiling staff at your service. Apart from this, there is a multi-cuisine Restaurant and Bar with live bands, a Pizza and Ice-Cream joint, abundant shopping options and recreation areas at various locations within this train. Feel free to ask for any other assistance and our crew would be happy to look into them. I have instructed my crew to take care of you as you would be if you were a guest in my home. I am sure you would enjoy the new Shatabdi experience. Should you have any suggestions or feedback, please send me an email to railwayminister@indianrailwayministry.rail and your query would be answered within 7 working days. You have a choice of various other modes of transport, but we appreciate your decision to travel with us today and look forward to welcoming you once again to experience our fascinating offerring. Thank you again and have a nice evening.

This is not a paragraph I have written during deep slumber nor it is a copy-paste from the luxury trains that are already running across various Indian states; just a wish which occurred to me while I was travelling on a Shatabdi train a few days ago. The most important part is the possibility of Dining and Shopping within the train. When Titanic could have it, A380 could boast, then why can’t our super long trains, that carry over 500 pax at any given time! Of course, it could. The consumption story is sure to continue and what better than within the Railway system that carries millions of people everyday from one part of the country to another!

All the above wishes will come true, even if we make a start today. WE includes us, all of us. Quality is best achieved when it is demanded the most. We see that in every Industry today, from automobiles to hotels, electronics to household. For example, in the Aviation industry – Airlines and Airports are not people-carriers and places of transit anymore. They are examples of impeccable service and modern architecture providing various facilities on air and on ground. This, has largely been achieved not just because of the efforts of the staff in these sectors, organizations and work groups. It’s because their customers wanted nothing less – for what they pay, they better be treated like The King’s best friend, if not like The King himself. Today’s “best in quality businesses” are mainly because of their customers who have made them achieve.

We need more of such “customers” ala “rail passengers”. Time has come that we demand quality. While there is hue and cry for the airport taxes that are collected in hundreds of dollars worldwide, look at the way the Airports are well-maintained. There may be some exceptions – places that have over 100,000 people passing and using the services everyday. Debatable. But still, they try their best. Money spent is atleast put to use. Good use. Using the various commercial opportunities, Airports earn non-aero revenues and then try to subsidise the cost of operations to the airlines, who in turn pass on the savings to their fliers. And they increase the base and bring more pax. who pay a small price for the upkeep of the place. And spend loads of tonnes of money on shopping and dining at airports. BTW, the estimated size of the Travel Retail Industry worldwide is over USD 37 Billion.

And look at what we do at the Railway stations. The entry fee is Three Rupees. You don’t get a good 100 ml Tea for that price in most places in this country anymore. And for the three rupees, the visitor who comes to see-off or receive passengers wants to use a host of services, including high quality dining and MRP shopping. We must be kidding. Or over-expecting. The infrastructure crunch is so much so in our railway stations today, that many of us prefer to kiss and hug at the entrance itself, rather than wait till the train chugs. We complain of the stink coming from the tracks, but no one respects the fact not to use the loo when the train is stationery (nor when it is not – someone MUST fix it the way it is done mid-air!). People dodge paying that rupee while using the public toilets and even after, complain the odour and mis-management of these places.

You must be thinking that this guy is telling us not to complain and grin. Naah. I am saying we must complain. And demand. And be prepared to pay for it. (Remember, some one said “No Free Lunch” - In life, I guess it applies to almost everything). And one of the easiest ways to raise money is by commercializing these places. It’s high time that the Railway station management is handed over to the private guys – let the Railways Dept. focus on their core competence, managing the tracks. My Grandfathers (paternal and maternal) used to work for the Indian Railways between 1930-70. They would be shocked with my thoughts if they were alive today. But times have changed.

While Airports world over could work that way, why cannot Indian Railways? You may already know that Singapore and Hong Kong Metro are not only privately managed but are also public-listed companies! The money raised from such commercial activites should be put to use, good use. To manage the facilities at the Rail stations. Whilst most of us complain that the educated urban Indian public abhores using public transport, it’s because they are so difficult to use. We need multi-modal transport hubs all around, inter- and intra-city. And during the “Dwell Time”, use it for commercial activities. Pay and park your Car safely. Have a meal, get your clothes ironed or dry-cleaned, shop for your daily needs, grocery, vegetables and all that stuff. Meet your friends. Have a Coffee, crack a business deal, Celebrate with some champagne or even with tender coconut water. Whatever.

Let’s get the basics right Didi. It’s all nice to say that the Railways will work for public benefit rather than commercial gains, but public sympathy cannot buy a single tea, let alone voting again. The way the food is cooked and transported into trains is best avoided to be seen. Because, if you see it, you would never eat it. Sorry for exaggerating, but see the picture below. This was 15 minutes before the train commenced its journey. If this is how food is transported in front of your eyes, then imagine the other logistics patterns. Sad. Apart from some magazines and novels, there is nothing much to shop. And that’s the next wave of Travel Retail waiting to flow. Just a matter of time. We have been promised of “adarsh” or “model” stations, (a few in Bangalore to watch out too). They must include these facilities.

While my eyes are closing and am yawning for the 46th time over the last 30 minutes, I am off to sleep now. But my dream would continue. To hear the voice-over.
“Welcome aboard, dear children, Ladies and Gentlemen. This is your Railway Minister speaking…”

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