On the wrong track | Why daily commute is an ordeal for train passengers in northern Kerala

While more people in Malabar region have taken to rail travel, there has not been a concurrent rise in the number of trains or coaches. Aabha Raveendran travels in Parasuram Express to find out why daily commute is an ordeal for train passengers in northern Kerala

November 02, 2023 07:48 pm | Updated February 08, 2024 04:03 pm IST

Passengers on Parasuram Express moving to the exit of the Kozhikode railway station. The train coming from Mangaluru nearly empties at Kozhikode with most of the office-goers disembarking.

Passengers on Parasuram Express moving to the exit of the Kozhikode railway station. The train coming from Mangaluru nearly empties at Kozhikode with most of the office-goers disembarking. | Photo Credit: K. Ragesh

It’s November 1, Kerala Formation Day, and Ranjini wanted to wear a traditional Kerala sari to work, like numerous others. But she had to nip the idea in the bud the moment she thought of her daily commute between Vadakara and Kozhikode.

“It’s an ordeal squeezing oneself in and out of a packed unreserved coach of Parasuram Express for an hour’s journey. To wear a sari in that situation would be nightmarish,” exclaims the young accountant at the Government Medical College Hospital, Kozhikode. The sari would be wrinkled by the time she reached office. That apart, what deterred her was the threat of wandering hands on the prowl on crowded trains. So she chucked the sari for her usual jeans-kurta combo. 

As the train chugs into Vadakara station at 7.50 a.m., there is a commotion on the platform. The passengers gear themselves up for the unavoidable struggle to board. Dhotis are secured, the ends of dupattas tied together, daypacks worn on the front or back, and straps of footwear fastened. A sea of people rushes forward as if in a wave to crash on the door as there is a mad scramble to get in even as several passengers are trying to disembark. Someone mumbles about breaking his spectacles thrice this year already in the rush to board. “I shouldn’t wear them on the train,” he is heard reprimanding himself. 

The unreserved coaches are all crammed with passengers from Kasaragod and Kannur, Kerala’s northernmost districts. It is stuffy inside. People cling to the door as the train begins to move after a minute’s stop. Unreserved passengers who couldn’t get a toehold on coaches meant for them have flung themselves into reserved compartments. 

The condition inside reserved coaches is only slightly better. A family of four, including two toddlers and with large trolley bags , find it tough to negotiate with the milling crowd to reach their seats. The husband soon gets busy pleading with those who have occupied the family’s seats to vacate while Sairabi, his wife, is consoling the young children gasping for fresh air. 

But Mahima K.V., a schoolteacher, is happy to have boarded one of the reserved coaches. Clad in an off-white Kerala sari, she says there’s enough elbow room on this coach. “But we [those with unreserved tickets] are not supposed to be in this. That’s alright, as many of us find refuge here routinely. Only, if the ticket examiner is in a foul mood, we will be thrown out,” she beams, as the train slows at Koyilandi station. Much to her relief, and that of many other unreserved passengers on that coach, the ticket examiner doesn’t turn up until the train reaches Kozhikode. 

Unreserved passengers struggling to board Parasuram Express at Vadakara railway station.

Unreserved passengers struggling to board Parasuram Express at Vadakara railway station.

The day is just another in the life of a daily rail commuter, an officegoer or a student in most cases, in northern Kerala. The rush is heavy in the morning and evening hours. While travelling on the Mangaluru-bound Parasuram Express, which has some 10 unreserved coaches, is a strenuous exercise, the experience is much worse in Netravati Express, which runs around the same time with just two unreserved coaches. 

At least four cases of travellers fainting due to suffocation have been reported in the region in the past month. The sight of the crowd often forces passengers to cancel their trip. Reserved passengers sometimes seek the help of the Railway Protection Force (RPF) personnel to escort them to their seats. 

Reasons are many for overcrowded trains in northern Kerala. The ongoing expansion of National Highway-66, which has considerably slowed down road traffic in the region, has left daily commuters with little option other than to switch to rail travel.

“It was just an hour’s travel by road from Payyannur to Kannur earlier. It sometimes takes up to two hours now. Further, traffic diversions through narrow service roads have made the arrangement more chaotic. This is what prompts people to travel by train,” says Bijeesh Kumar, a private sector employee who’s been a regular commuter between Payyannur and Kannur for the past 10 years. 

An increase in the speed of trains thanks to double-laning has also pulled more passengers to this mode. And it is relatively cheaper too. “There is an increase in the number of passengers, but not in the number of trains or coaches which has resulted in an unprecedented rush in the available trains,” remarks Rasheed Kavvayi, a member of the Zonal Railway Consultative Committee and a regular passenger for the past 17 years.

But some others cite the change in train timings made during COVID-19 — which has not been reversed — as the reason for crowding in the rush hours. Earlier, Netravati Express would depart Kozhikode at 6.40 p.m., but that was advanced to 6.05 p.m. during the pandemic. With no other Kannur-bound train apart from the long-distance ones available after 6.05 pm, it has terribly inconvenienced many, says a passenger.

Earlier, Parasuram Express used to leave Kozhikode at 3.50 p.m. which was appropriate for the office crowd at Koyilandi and Vadakara stations. Chennai Egmore-Mangaluru Express used to leave at 5 p.m. earlier. But it was advanced to 2.40 p.m. and is of no use to the office crowd. The 5 p.m. slot was taken by Parasuram Express. 

“In effect, there are no regular trains from Kozhikode to the north at a convenient time after the Netravati Express departs at 6.05 p.m. Passengers are forced to depend heavily on this and Parasuram Express. Hence, the issue of overcrowding,” says Ranjith P.V, a regular commuter for 10 years.

While the newly introduced Vande Bharat trains are fully booked in Kerala, delaying other trains to make way for Vande Bharat is something that has irked passengers all over Kerala. “Parasuram Express from Mangaluru used to reach Kozhikode by 8.40 a.m., but now it reaches between 9 and 9.30 a.m. as it almost always gets held up at Mahe or Thalassery stations for 20 to 25 minutes to keep Vande Bharat on schedule,” laments Bijeesh Kumar. 

On crowded trains, women are at the receiving end of unwanted advances. “It’s a daily occurrence and we are tired of retaliating,” Varsha Prasad, a bank employee who travels between Vadakara and Kozhikode daily, shakes her head disapprovingly. 

Homemakers travelling for work to Parappanangadi or Tirur in Malappuram, south of Kozhikode, are troubled by the Vande Bharat-forced late running of Parasuram Express. Sreekala, a teacher at Parappanangadi, says Parasuram Express used to ferry her in time for school earlier. But she has now been forced to take a local train that leaves Koyilandi as early as 6 40 a.m. “For women from interior areas such as Ayancheri or Maniyur, it’s quite a task to reach the railway station at the crack of dawn,” adds Varsha. 

Passengers on Parasuram Express moving to the exit of Kozhikode Railway station. The train coming from Mangaluru nearly empties at Kozhikode with most of the office-goers disembarking.

Passengers on Parasuram Express moving to the exit of Kozhikode Railway station. The train coming from Mangaluru nearly empties at Kozhikode with most of the office-goers disembarking.

Multiple short-distance trains, passenger trains or MEMUs (electric multiple unit trains), during rush hours has been suggested by passengers as the easiest solution to decongest trains in the region. “Including more coaches on the existing trains may help to a certain extent, but not much. A coach can accommodate only about 150 people,” says Bijeesh Kumar. 

“Rescheduling trains to suit office timings could be of help,” points out Ranjith. Rasheed Kavvayi feels the same and demands that trains to Mangaluru from the Malabar region be rescheduled.

“Every day, hundreds of patients from north Kerala, especially Kannur and north of it, travel to the seven medical colleges in Mangaluru for treatment. But there are no regular trains to Mangaluru from Kannur after Netravati Express departs around 6.40 p.m. The next train is at 2.40 a.m. These are all quite inconvenient timings for passengers,” he argues.

Rasheed, who is also the chairman of the North Malabar Railway Passengers’ Coordination Committee, feels that trains terminating at Mangaluru could be extended to Kannur or Kozhikode. 

Passengers took out marches and held sit-ins to force the Railways to agree to their demands. But their call went unheeded. The coordination committee also suggested reintroducing designated reserved coaches on which season ticket holders can travel. Similar demands were also raised by the Confederation of All India Rail Users’ Association.

The Railways say they are pretty much helpless at the moment. A few coaches have been added to some of the most crowded trains in Kerala recently. Accordingly, a general compartment has been sanctioned for each of the day trains such as Parasuram Express. Additional coaches were accommodated by removing pantry cars from some of these trains. 

Arun Kumar Chaturvedi, Divisional Railway Manager at Palakkad Division of Southern Railway, says immediate changes cannot be made now. “We have plans to add one more coach to Parasuram Express, but only in the next couple of months,” he says. 

There are plans for more short-distance trains and MEMUs, but their introduction is delayed by coach shortage. “With the recent train accidents in many parts of the country, we are seriously focussing on safety. Making major changes while the safety works are going on, is risky,” Chaturvedi adds.

“A change in the schedule of long-distance trains will impact train timetables across zones and divisions and cannot be done at the drop of a hat,” he says. “At best, we may be able to revise the timings of the trains under the Palakkad division or Southern Railways.”

Which in a nutshell means there is no end in sight to the woes of rail passengers in northern Kerala.

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