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Baby food, TV screens and double-decker trains: Suresh Prabhu wants to make Indian Railways cool

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AP Photo/Rajanish Kakade
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  • Harish Pullanoor
By Harish Pullanoor

Co-editor, Quartz India

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Indian railway minister Suresh Prabhu unveiled a slew of measures today (Feb. 25) to woo customers, promising an overall improvement in travel experience on trains.

Prabhu’s plans could potentially transform train travel in India over the medium to long term. They follow his initiatives from his last year’s railway budget—from something as simple but vital as better maintained platforms and railway premises to use of social media to reach out to customers.

Yet, interestingly, Prabhu has kept away from tinkering with passenger tariffs.

The following are some of the new measures the minister proposed to introduce in the coming financial year.

Cleanliness

Prabhu began his second budget speech referring to a grateful cleaning staffer at one of the railway stations he visited. In the past year, Indian Railways has focused on keeping train stations and compartments clean.

In keeping with this approach, the minister announced several steps, including:

  • “Clean my coach”: Passengers can request cleaning of coaches and toilets on demand through text messages
  • An additional 30,000 bio-toilets to be installed this financial year
  • Portable bio-toilets at all platforms of select stations

Food

The railways had in its last budget proposed having private food companies providing catering services on trains. This budget goes beyond those services:

  • E-catering services to be extended from the current 45 big stations to 408
  • Stations to have multi-purpose stalls vending products ranging from milk to over-the-counter medicines
  • Kulhads, or eco-friendly earthen tea cups—an idea first introduced by former railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav but subsequently forgotten—may be re-introduced

Women and children

“We would like to mitigate the hardships that mothers undergo while travelling with their infants,” Prabhu said in his speech, indicating his focus on women and children. For this, the railways would make available:

  • Baby foods, hot milk and water at stations
  • Changing boards for babies in train toilets
  • Children’s menu on trains

Besides, the railways will also enforce reservation in catering units for scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, other backward classes, and those with physical disabilities. There would be a sub-quota of 33% for women in each of these reserved categories.

Comfort

In keeping with Prabhu’s emphasis on passengers’ travelling experience, plans are afoot to change the very design of compartments.

  • The new coach design will ensure higher carrying capacity and provision of new amenities such as automatic doors, bar-code readers, water-level indicators, accessible dustbins, ergonomic seating, and improved aesthetics
  • Hourly booking of retiring rooms instead of the existing minimum of 12 hours. The retiring rooms will be handed over to IRCTC for better professional management
  • Ensuring hassle-free travel and dealing with ticketless travel by introducing bar-coded tickets, scanners and access control (on a pilot basis) at major stations
  • E-ticketing facilities will be opened in the next three months for foreign tourists and NRIs

Communication and entertainment

There is a distinct attempt on the government’s part to improve its communication with customers. Hence, we have:

  • A proposal to have FM radio stations providing entertainment through public address systems in trains
  • The railways’ bi-lingual onboard magazine, Rail Bandhu—now available only on Shatabdi, Rajdhani, and Duronto trains—would be extended to all reserved classes, and even in regional languages
  • Compartments to have GPS-enabled display boards that will show approaching stations
  • Onboard information boards to appraise passengers of facilities and services available
  • A centralised hi-tech network of 20,000 screens to be installed across 2,000 stations. This will enable real-time flow of information to passengers and unlock huge advertising potential
  • All ticketing, grievance redressal and other issues to be integrated into two separate mobile apps

Customer care

“Porters play a key role in making our journeys comfortable. We intend to provide them with new uniforms and train them in soft skills,” Prabhu said in his speech. Indian Railways will ensure:

  • Adoption of modern technology by porters. Yet, Prabhu said, they will maintain the “traditional ethos” of treating passengers with respect. The porters will now have group insurance facility and will, henceforth, be called sahayaks, as opposed to the current, somewhat derogatory, “coolies”
  •  Arrangements to be made to impart skills to front-end staff and those the railways employs through its service providers
  • Uniforms of all those in customer-facing roles will be refurbished to distinguish them from others

New trains

Prabhu announced a few new categories of trains, although the routes on which they would ply were not mentioned. These are some of them:

  • Antyodaya Express: A long-distance, fully unreserved, super fast service
  • Utkrisht DoubleDecker Air-Conditioned Yatri (UDAY) Express: An overnight double-decker that will run on the “busiest routes”
  • Tejas: A proposed service that “will showcase the future of train travel in India. Operating at speeds of 130 kmph and above, it will offer onboard services such as entertainment, local cuisine, Wi-Fi”
  • Humsafar: Fully air-conditioned third AC service, targeting middle-class customers

Read all our stories on Budget 2016 here.

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