Crowds and enormous numbers have always been an essential part of the Indian Railways. As the fourth-largest network in the world, it transports nearly 23 million passengers every day on its 68,000 km of track. Put another way, in 2020, it operated 1.1 trillion km of passenger traffic.

But over the past few months, images that have surfaced on social media show passengers across classes crammed into trains at levels that seem inhuman.

The contrast is especially stark because other influential corners of social media are consistently propagating images of plush, roomy trains being flagged off by the score. When the Railways itself repeatedly refuses to acknowledge the problem or, worse still, outright denies it – for example, the X handle of the railways ministry in April refuted videos of overcrowding on a train as “misleading” – the dehumanisation seems complete.

Several recent decisions by Indian Railways seem to have been made to increase revenues in the passenger segment while perpetuating the illusion of development and an emulation of the first world.

However, it is worth noting that the passenger segment was never profitable and was always subsidised by freight earnings.

The mission statement of the Indian Railways does not make any reference to revenue generation either and only focuses on passenger safety and basic rights. However, after the Covid-19 lockdown, the Railways gradually discontinued the low-cost passenger trains used almost entirely by working-class Indians. They rebranded them as “express specials” and charged express category fares that were 50%-100% higher.

Earlier this year, however, in the face of protests and some media attention, they were forced to restore the second-class ordinary fares.

Apart from this, several other revenue-enhancing measures have been undertaken such as introducing airline-like surge pricing across key trains increasing ticket prices as demand for them rose, removing travel concessions for senior citizens, introducing Vande Bharat premium trains to attract a niche clientele in specific segments, ticket cancellation charges and the worst of all, replacing several sleeper and general coaches with air-conditioned coaches.

A case in point is the Howrah-Chennai Coromandel Express, with one of the longest rakes. It has 24 coaches compared to the 18 to 22 on most trains and eight or 16 coaches in the Vande Bharats. This is the train that was in the news in June 2023 as it was involved in one of India’s deadliest train accidents in recent times where the toll was close to 300.

Until some years ago, general and sleeper coaches made up close to 70% of its rake, while the rest were air-conditioned coaches. Today, that proportion stands inverted. Barely 25% of the rake is open to general and sleeper class travel.

Those who can afford only sleeper class tickets have far fewer seats that can be reserved. They end up buying unreserved tickets and travelling in the general compartments. They are also compelled to wrongfully occupy sleeper and air-conditioned compartments, including the toilets.

This story of compromised passenger safety and crushed human dignity repeats itself across many trains across India.

A boy sits on a trolley bag being pulled by his father upon their arrival from New Delhi at the Howrah Junction railway station in Kolkata in May 2020. Credit: Reuters.

There are ways to set this right – ways that are evident even to us laymen. Reverting to the older system in which rakes have more general and sleeper class coaches is an immediate solution that will ease the problem of overcrowding.

A more systemic solution will be to fast-track the Dedicated Freight Corridor – dedicated lines that will only service goods trains – to free up space for more passenger trains. In 2006, approvals were given for 2,770 km to be implemented by 2011 at an estimated cost of 21,140 crore. The estimated project cost ballooned to Rs 81,459 crore as of 2015 from 21,140 crore in 2006.

After years of delay due to systemic inefficiencies, budget overruns and land acquisition troubles, this crucial project is yet to be fully operational. Eighteen years after the initial approval, about 12% of the corridor is still under construction, and a critical 500-km extension on the Eastern Corridor is still pending.

India has, meanwhile, moved on to a more shiny bullet train project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad that will cater to 35,000 passengers daily – 0.15% of the Railways’ present clientele, at an estimated cost of Rs 1,10,000 crore.

Lastly, the dedicated Railway Budget presentation, which was last tabled as a standalone speech in Parliament on February 25, 2016, must return so that the policies and allocations get more attention and scrutiny and the people can hold the ministry accountable for something that impacts them so directly.

The Railways does not feature prominently in either election manifestos of the two largest political parties in India for the 2024 general elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto and the “Modi ki Guarantee” slogan, while seeking a third term in office, highlights achievements that are verifiably false.

It claims large strides in rail safety over the last 10 years while, in fact, even the basic safety requirement of track renewal was less than 10% of the planned budget of Rs 58,459 crore, as explained in this article in Scroll written four months before the manifesto was published.

“More than a quarter of the 1,129 derailments that took place between 2017-’18 and 2020-’21 were linked to track renewals, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General,” states the article. It also explains what ails the Railways, from passenger overcrowding to poor finances leading to the failing rail infrastructure health and abysmal safety standards.

Several measures such as the introduction of numerous Vande Bharat and Namo Bharat trains do not benefit the average Indian traveller. A second seating or sleeper class ticket from Bangalore to Dharwad would cost less than Rs 300 whereas a Vande Bharat for the same route costs Rs 1,100. These train tickets are several times the cost of a sleeper or second seating coach, making it viable only for the rich.

The Congress’s manifesto speaks about the Railways only briefly. While it makes the right noises about upgrading the infrastructure to cater to the “common people and commuter” there is alarmingly little to explain how this will be achieved.

The unsettling images of hapless rail travelers are an indication that our trains are once again becoming the “lokhandi rakshas” of the British Raj – painfully real iron demons, petrifying and unattainable.

For a government that wishes to project an image of being a decoloniser, what we see today is a willful recolonisation of our Railways where the majority of its users just do not have a level playing field.

Kalyan Sundareswaran and G Sriram Iyer are corporate professionals and lovers of the Indian Railways.