Those manning the booths say it is not profitable to operate them round the clock

It is middle of the night at Chennai Central and a passenger is not carrying a mobile phone but has to make an urgent call.

Or, the passenger's mobile phone has run out of charge. There is little chance that one would find a phone booth open. Besides the fact that the number of booths with pay phones has decreased in number, the existing ones at the station are closed by 10 p.m.

There is no phone booth on platform 1 and 2; platform number 3 has two booths but they close by 9 p.m.; and for platforms 4 and 5 there is one booth open till 10 p.m.

The growing number of cell phones is the main reason for the fall in the number of STD/ISD/PCO booths. Most of the people manning these booths say with cell phone getting ubiquitous, it is not profitable to run the kiosk round the clock. These booths earn between Rs. 200 and Rs. 500 a day.

“I pay a monthly rent of Rs. 5,000 to run the stall. I need to pay the Railways commission depending on the profit I make and then, the electricity charges have to be paid. Also, there are fewer trains post 11.30 p.m., so it does not make sense to keep it open waiting for passengers,” says K. Sivakumar, who runs a booth at platform 8.

He adds, “I sometimes make a collection of Rs. 300. I am not sure if I would continue running a booth at this rate after a few years.”

Platform 11 has at least half-a-dozen phone booths, but those running them say they generally close by 9 p.m. P. Ramdas, who manages a booth, says when he is on duty he would keep it open till the wee hours of the morning. He also lends the electricity point in his booth for charging phones. “As there are not many mobile charging points, we charge Rs.10 for the service,” he adds.

Regular passengers such as J. James, who came from Gujarat on Thursday, seem to have learnt that Chennai Central does not have many booths running late at night. He knows where he would find them during the day time.

“Last time, I had a tough time looking for a booth. I later found a coin box, but that did not work and I lost my money too,” says Mr. James.

He says that unlike other stations, there are hardly any mobile charging points either.

A railway official says that many a time they get frenzied passengers who would want them to lend their mobile phone.

“These booths must be open round the clock and should not cause any inconvenience to passengers,” he said, requesting anonymity.

A senior railway official says operators at the booths wanted to close down the STD/ISD/PCO booths. “We can make some arrangement to ensure at least one or two booths function through the night,” said the official.

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