Life on the other track

A scene during a rush hour in New Delhi. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar  

It was 5.15 p.m. when I reached Tilak Bridge railway station, almost panting as I followed the trail — an uphill trek amidst wild bushes — of working people on their way home. This was not the actual entry to the station. I had indeed tried finding out and even asked a woman who was rushing to catch the EMU going to Faridabad.

“Everybody takes this route, even the hawkers. You will be safe, don’t worry,” she said as she grabbed my hand dragging me to the station before I could even react. By the time I made my way to platform number 2 after nervously walking on the tracks for about a minute, I spotted a train Palwal-Haryana train arriving on the opposite side. At least a hundred people, many of them carrying a jute bag with their lunchboxes tucked in safely, crossed the tracks hurriedly to catch the train.

“They have done it again! The train was supposed to come on this platform. They don’t even make an announcement. My knees hurt while negotiating the drop off the platform and landing on the tracks,” said the woman in her late 40s. As she lugged herself onto the platform with a final push, I noticed a dilapidated foot over bridge leading to the other platform, with only a few youngsters using it.

“It was in Faridabad New Town station, a month or two ago, when a guy crossed over the tracks to catch a crowded local train. He missed a step and got run over by the train,” recalled 27-year old Amit Jindal. It was literally a battlefield for those boarding and getting off the train that halted at the station for less than a minute. Within seconds, the train got packed with people spilling out and random heads popping out of the windows. Some of them precariously perched themselves on the vestibules. The rush reminded me of the busy Rajiv Chowk metro station and compelled me to question if the Delhi Metro was indeed the only lifeline of Delhi and the NCR.

It was 5:23 p.m. and I quickly walked towards the ticket counter wading my way through a sea of passengers. I was relieved to spot an ATVM (automatic ticket vending machine), which promised a five per cent discount on each journey. As I promptly reached the machine, I noticed a thick layer of dust. “This does not work. Take it from the counter,” 52-year-old Ram Narayan told me. He worked as a clerk in the Public Works Department and has been taking the local trains since 1985.

The attention of people was abruptly diverted to a blaring loudspeaker. A groggy voice alerted people about a one-hour delay in the arrival of the Agra Inter-city Express train. “This is a routine affair. It’s been three decades since I have been taking these trains and nothing has changed. Governments have come and gone. Nobody cares for local trains anymore. They all look up to the metro and other high-tech systems,” said a grouchy Narayan.

A few minutes later, the loudspeaker blared something more interesting — an angry woman was hurling a tirade of abuse at her colleagues in the room swearing to God that she was not lying. While the announcer made an unsuccessful attempt to cover up on the pretext of another announcement, it provoked a bout of giggle around.

As I spoke to more people, I found out that the Delhi to Faridabad and Palwal sections were the busiest ones. Data provided by the Delhi Division of the Northern Railways indicated that the section witnessed 3.26 crore passengers between April 2014 and March 2015. This was followed by the Delhi-Panipat section which carried 2.83 crore passengers during the same time. Delhi to Shahdara and Ghaziabad was in the third position with 2.78 crore passengers in the last fiscal.

Decades ago, before the metro started, the sub-urban railway system, quite like in Mumbai, reflected the aspirations of those residing around Delhi. “As the need for housing surged beyond the Capital reaching out to satellite areas like Faridabad, Ghaziabad, Khurja, Aligarh and so on, the railway system had given us the confidence to work in Delhi despite being 80 kilometres away. Even now, the metro has not reached to the interiors of these places, so people still have to heavily rely on the local trains,” said Paramjeet Kaur, working with the AGCR. She has been taking the EMU to Faridabad since the last 28 years.

It was 5:55 p.m. and my train, which would take me to Ghaziabad arrived 10 minutes late, which Gulab Singh insisted, I should feel fortunate about. “I work at the Family Court in Patiala House and my office begins from 10 am. Initially, I used to board the 9 a.m. Shakurbasti-Nizamuddin EMU train, but always ended up being late for office as the train wouldn’t reach the Sarai Rohilla station before 9:20 a.m. So, now, I take the 8:20 a.m. Rewari train to reach on time,” he said as we settled in the train.

Meanwhile, a group of old women were singing bhajans on one side and two women were selling artificial jewellery. “It will blossom on you as you are fair,” Asha Devi showed a golden chain to a woman sitting by the window.

Delhi’s local trains were her lifeline, she said. “On good days, I earn around Rs.150-200 per trip. At times, I end up earning around Rs.18,000 a month, if I do at least four trips a day,” she said adding that through this, she managed to open a small shop in Ghaziabad.

For 60-year old Prasadi Paswan, a rickshaw puller, the local train was a huge blessing. “At Rs.5-10 this is the cheapest way for me and my family can travel,” he said and later smiled and whispered “sometimes even without ticket.”

The crowd thinned out towards the end of the journey. Getting off at Ghaziabad station at around 6:50 pm, I smiled to myself convinced that there was a life beyond the Delhi metro and the DTC buses.

The forgotten network

The once ambitious Ring Railway network of Delhi is dying a slow death. From running 24 additional trains to tackling the increased passenger load during the 1982 ASIAD Games to running just four trains, the 35.36 kilometre corridor is reeling under encroachments and absolute neglect from the railway authorities.

With a ridership of just 4,000 and the metro coming up along the outer ring road by 2016, it is almost certain that the Railway Board has shelved all plans for revival of the Ring Railway. “The number of passengers is decreasing every year. At present, we do not have any plan to revamp the network,” said Arun Arora, Divisional Railway Manager, Delhi Division of the Northern Railway.

He added that the main problem is lack of connectivity to these stations which are located in obscure places. “The Metro through the 59-km Mukundpur-Shiv Vihar corridor is going to cover the whole outer ring road. We hope that would boost our ring railway. Feeder buses are required,” said Mr Arora.

Presently, on Ring Railway, five trains run in clockwise direction and five in anti-clockwise direction. However, only two trains run the entire stretch from Nizamuddin to Nizamuddin in clockwise and anti-clockwise direction.

The total end-to end travel time is 90 minutes.

The railway network covers Lajpat Nagar, Sewa Nagar, Lodhi Colony, Sarojini Nagar, Delhi Safdarjung, Chanakyapuri, Delhi Inderpuri, Brar Square, Sardar Patel Marg, Naraina Vihar, Kirti Nagar, Patel Nagar, Hazrat Nizamuddin, Pragati Maidan, Tilak Bridge, Shivaji Bridge, New Delhi, Sadar Bazaar, Delhi Kisanganj, Vivekanand Puri and Daya Basti.

Wheels within wheels

Delhi’s sub-urban railway network seems to be caught in politics with its commuters being the ultimate sufferers. As The Hindu spoke to a number of officials in the Northern Railways, it found that the city’s sub-urban railway network has been left to die a slow death while the Metro and the Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) are being pursued at war-footing. “The focus is now shifting to faster and sophisticated modes of transportation. The local trains, including the Delhi Ring Railway cannot be discontinued for political reasons. As metro and RRTS’ network would expand, the lines would automatically phase out,” said an official on condition of anonymity.

Propagating the two news means of rapid transport is not wrong. Everybody would prefer modes of transport that save time and promise a comfortable journey. But what could lead to potential unplanned development is to keep the sub-urban railway network running while grossly neglecting it.

The Railway Board should devise a blueprint wherein all the three can co-exist together, at least until the metro and the RRTS spreads its wings across the national capital region (NCR).

There is an urgent need to upgrade the trains and other facilities in the sub-urban railway network. With the Metro coming up along the outer ring road, the Railway Board also needs to reconstruct its plan regarding the Delhi Ring Railway.

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Printable version | Aug 6, 2021 2:07:30 AM |

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