Anyone who actually travels by train is bound to be a little baffled by recent comments on railway policy in Parliament and the mainstream media.

For instance, according to the Union Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu, “It is the wish and dream of every Indian that India runs a bullet train as early as possible”.

Really? Frankly, the average Indian is more likely to dream about a train that runs on time. That may not apply to those who use expensive priority trains such as Rajdhanis, because these trains are relatively punctual (at the cost of delaying other trains if need be). But the ordinary traveller is familiar with the debilitating frustration of sitting in trains that routinely reach their destination hours behind schedule.

Packed to the rafters

For different classes of travellers, it is interesting to compare the state of the Indian Railways today with what it was around three decades ago. For privileged travellers, there have been major improvements: internet bookings, SMS enquiry services, tatkal quotas, food plazas, and a whole fleet of priority trains (not only the old Rajdhani but also Shatabdis, Durontos, Yuvas, and the oddly-named Garib Rath).

If you have money, the Indian Railways is great fun, bullet or no bullet. But the lesser mortal who travels without reservation is exactly where she was 35 years ago: she has to queue for up to an hour in agonising heat to buy a ticket, there is no functional board to tell her where or when the train is likely to arrive, the enquiry counter is jammed, and more often than not the train is so packed that boarding it is a feat of acrobatics.

Crowding in unreserved coaches has reached crisis proportions. Three decades ago, it was possible to travel unreserved on most routes and have a reasonably pleasant journey. That is still possible on some routes, especially in south and western India. But in north India, unreserved travel has become a relentless nightmare. Passenger traffic has shot up, but the number of unreserved coaches has barely increased even as numerous priority trains were launched. On the more crowded routes, the boarding of unreserved coaches is now policed by constables with lathis – it is a pathetic sight to see people being herded like cattle into coaches that are already jam-packed.

Needs of the hour

If the focus were on the convenience of ordinary passengers rather than national prestige (at the cost of Rs 60,000 crore per bullet train), big improvements would be possible within a few weeks. Train delays are now tracked to the minute on the net – is anyone using this data to ease the bottlenecks? The queuing system at ticket counters is a disgrace. A single snake queue leading to multiple counters, with railings on each side to prevent leap-frogging, would work wonders. That’s how it works in many airports – why not railway stations?

And how about a functional display board? Even in New Delhi railway station, I can testify that the electronic board rarely works. Sometimes it gives wrong or irrelevant information, like the departure time of trains that have already departed. Sometimes it flashes at random like a Christmas tree, or looks plain dead. What does work, in New Delhi and elsewhere, is the good old manual board where a sleepy employee writes down the expected arrival time of each train with a chalk or marker. To read the board, however, you have to hack your way through the crowd of anxious passengers who are trying to get close to it.

Catering is another sad song of the Indian Railways. In the good old days, you could get a safe and sound puri-sabjee anywhere for a few rupees, aside from seasonal goodies (cucumber, mangoes, jamun, among other things) from a steady stream of local vendors. Now, food contractors have taken over, and often kicked out the barefoot vendors. They sell mainly branded products, from biscuits to bottled water. In textbook fashion, they segment the market and make money by catering to the well-off. Not only are sabjee-puris off the shelf, so are cheap glucose biscuits, because stocking fancy cream biscuits is more profitable. In many stations, there is literally nothing to eat for the aam aadmi, aam mahila or aam baccha.

Better tomorrows

Perhaps all this sounds unkind. All said and done, I love the Indian Railways and have high hopes of it. I doubt that railway services in any other country can match the experience of a long-distance train journey in India – the stunning landscapes, the soothing breezes, the animated discussions, the long hours of peaceful reading punctuated by freelance entertainment from wandering musicians, enigmatic sadhus or fellow travellers.

But I yearn for this great enterprise of public service to flourish even more, for everyone’s benefit. The bullet train syndrome perpetuates an elitist approach to the Indian Railways, which consists of creating a pleasant fast track for a privileged minority at the cost of slumdog treatment for the rest. It is, alas, a metaphor for public policy in many other fields as well.

Jean Drèze is Visiting Professor at the Department of Economics, Ranchi University.