The Indian Railways should get its priorities right and first improve conditions of travel
Yes, we need high-speed train travel in India, and we need it everywhere. But should we rush into building high-speed bullet trains and the required lines for them? Not at this moment, I think. Before that we deserve many more things on the Indian Railways so that we can travel fast, safe and with comfort and dignity.
Instead of investing huge resources to construct a relatively short stretch of track for a bullet train, there is a need to do many more things for the network throughout the country.
There should be no pressure on us to introduce bullet trains just because many other countries have such showpiece systems. But there ought to be pressure on us to have the kind of general train services that those countries have.
There is a need to improve safety standards here. Cleanliness and hygiene should improve inside trains, on platforms and along tracks. We should complete all unfinished projects that are waiting for too long; they are a drain on the budget.
Why should not train travel be a pleasure? Why should making a ticket reservation be an unpleasant experience? Do we need the Tatkal system of making reservations at all? Should it not become possible to book a ticket at short notice and travel comfortably? And can I travel in a reserved compartment without a large number of unauthorised passengers entering and sitting everywhere, while the ticket examiner walks around helplessly or looks the other way? Is travel safe for women, children, the differently abled, foreigners, the elderly and, of course, everyone else?
And how about punctuality? A train running late should become the exception rather than the rule. Should not two clocks in a station show the same time? Why should it be so difficult to find out if my train is late when I am on the platform? Why should one have to enquire with a porter which platform a train is going to arrive on, especially when it is late? Why should one have to wait so long even to buy a platform ticket? If you doubt this, or suggest an automatic machine, you should experience it at the Bangalore railway station.
Why cannot we have a simple handrail at every staircase in every station, so that it supports passengers and porters carrying luggage? Why cannot I enter a train when it is raining without crossing a sheet of rainwater falling from the platform roof?
Why cannot we improve the conditions of tracks everywhere so that the general speed of trains can be increased, keeping safety in mind?
All these need to be done, and can be done. The Indian Railways, which follows robust engineering practices, can do all these and more. With a national will and matching resources it can be done. It does not need any new technology. It does not need much additional space to lay new tracks. It requires determination and training of personnel. It requires discipline, a change in attitude and a sense of accountability. Without such general improvement, the bullet train project has little chance of success.
The Indian Railways system is a working system. It is functioning. But it is far below the standards that exist in countries that are pouring money into bullet trains. Let us first improve general standards and then consider the bullet train, if it would still be feasible.
For now, we should improve the safety, quality and speed for all. Those who need still higher speed can travel by air for now.