Vasudha Venugopal stops at Chennai’s suburban stations to find the same story: shortage of railway staff to dispense tickets, but no dearth of woes for passengers whose numbers have only shot up after Metro Rail began digging up roads

The entrance to Park station is cluttered with shops, and when it rains, there is slush to negotiate as well. But for those who make it to the platform thinking they will get a ticket quickly, the ordeal has just begun.

There are at least 60 people standing in each of the two queues for tickets — only two of the three counters remain open at the station. “The journey by train is fifteen minutes, but I have to wait for at least twenty minutes to get a ticket. The situation is worse at other stations like Guindy and Saidapet,” said Subburaman, 53, who was on his way to Nungambakkam. His statement is only slightly exaggerated because at the stations of Guindy, Mambalam, Tambaram and Saidapet, getting a ticket requires the passenger to wait for at least fifteen minutes or more.

The increase in bus fares and the on-going metro rail work has made people like him turn to trains and it is not just the busy stations where the queues are spilling over. “It’s a struggle to buy a ticket at Beach station. There are three counters and at least 70-80 people in front of each,” said Aramughan Kumar, a salesman. “It is very difficult when you come with family because it takes a long time and children get restless. Earlier, it was much better and faster.”

Chetpet, which saw relatively fewer passengers until a few years ago, has two ticket counters now, one functional since last month. “Over the last two months, the crowd here too has increased because people think getting a ticket here will be faster,” a clerk at the station, who did not want to be named, said.

At most stations, the Automatic Ticket-Vending Machines (ATVMs) lie unutilised. Even at the busiest of all stations, Egmore, only one of the three machines is working. A senior railway official said the touch-screen machine was capable of handling over 2,500 transactions per day but it recorded barely 300. “We are looking for ways to utilise the machines better to ease the queues,” the official said.

According to sources, the suburban railway network in Chennai registered a spurt in passenger traffic after the state government hiked bus fares last November. In Tambaram alone, a total of 7.5 lakh tickets were sold in November 2011 which rose to 8.37 lakh in December last, and to 9.21 lakh this April.

In an attempt to reduce the queues at ticket counters, Southern Railway, three months ago, decided to sell tickets to even those who do not possess a smart card through ATVMs. “But this is not helping as there is a problem with the machines. Many, despite being serviced everyday, are not functioning properly. Sometimes, they debit the account but don’t issue the ticket. This has enraged passengers,” said the railway official.

Raja Kumaran, a clerk at a counter says, though he has only 8-hour shifts, he cannot take leave even during emergencies at home, because there is no one to take his place. “We have to work continuously. The fifteen-minute break we were promised has been long forgotten,” he said. “Since the ticket fare has not been rounded off, at Rs. 4, Rs. 6 and Rs. 8, getting change is extremely difficult and takes time. Of late, there has been an increase in brawls between passengers so we request RPF personnel to be here during peak hours,” says another clerk at Mambalam station.

Railway employees say the issue of lengthy queues at suburban railway stations has to do with the severe shortage of ticketing clerks in booking offices. “The railway administration to take urgent steps to fill up the vacancies and deploy enough ticketing personnel at suburban railway stations,” said a member of Southern Railway Mazdoor Union.

He says the only way to solve the problem is increasing the number of counters at all railway stations. “There are over 150 vacancies in the ticket vending area of the commercial section but only a few posts have been sanctioned. Unless they fill up the vacancies, passengers and staff at ticket counters will be stressed,” he said.

A senior railway official said it was not certain if issuing appointments would solve the issue because not many were ready to work at railway ticket counters. “They prefer to work in banks instead because the working conditions and chances of promotion are better,” he said.

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012

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