People desperately waiting at the ticket counters in suburban railway stations routinely ignore the big, red machine that is supposed to bring them relief. And most have a reason to do so.
“It works only occasionally. Sometimes, it detects money but does not even give you a ticket. And there is nobody in sight to help if it is not working,” said Radhakrishnan, a passenger at Egmore station.
Here, the machines have been moved to one side of the station to help people stand comfortably in long queues. “You notice it only when you are running to catch the train,” says R. Mahilvahanan, another passenger.
In 2008, Southern Railway had installed several ATVMs in 40 stations. But today they account for less than two per cent of the total daily ticket sales. The dismal performance is attributed to not only the poor functioning of the machines and lack of patronage, but also opposition from the employees' union.
Recently, the Southern Railway decided to engage retired railway employees to help commuters obtain tickets from the machines. These workers are paid on a contract basis and have to sell 400 tickets a day and they can work for 20 days a month. “We do not have the support of the union. Last month, after an altercation with union members, some of us stopped going to Mambalam and Saidapet,” said one such worker.
The Southern Railway Mazdoor Union, however, feels the process is without any accountability.
“Each ATVM costs about Rs.3.5 lakh but the number of tickets bought through an ATVM using smartcards is consistently on the decline. Even in the nineties, the machines failed because passengers here want a human interface.” said a Southern Railway Mazdoor Union official. He demanded that instead of investing in the machines, the Railways fill up the 130 vacancies in ticket counter jobs.
“90 per cent of people in suburban stations have season passes. Staff members in ticket counters are using obsolete technology as they handle queues of people who also have enquiries. The management needs to create more positions in additional job counters and improve the machines inside,” says a union official.