Ticket to a sleepless night

THE INDIAN Railways is truly a modern day wonder, for the number of people it carries everyday, and the rapid advances it is making in improving passenger amenities by providing internet booking, on-line enquiry, cab booking over phone and internet kiosks at premier stations. But curiously, it is also in a time warp. As its trains rumble on, across the hinterland, passengers have to brace themselves for unexpected shocks and surprises.

Though 2002-03 is being celebrated as the `Year of passenger amenities', assuring that there are many new schemes in the pipeline to increase comfort levels, a recent trip on the Kanyakumari Express to Tirunelveli showed up the vast gaps between precept and practice.

The passengers' ordeal starts right from the moment the train departs Egmore. The moment the train leaves the station, unauthorised vendors materialise seemingly from thin air and the train is virtually converted into a mobile supermarket. Almost anything you could imagine is available on the running train. Fruits, mini toys, stickers of different sizes, and life size posters of leaders to Indian, Chinese and continental food, all sold by vendors on the move.

Vestibules between the compartments come in handy for these hawkers to move from one end to the other to sell their merchandise. They often indulge in aggressive marketing techniques, especially with passengers travelling with children. Hawkers selling fruits, biscuits and toys make a fast buck as the passengers are a captive market, unable to move away, and finally persuaded to part with their money. The hawkers make it a point to challenge the ego of a passenger in the presence of co-passengers. The mobile traders continue their trade till 9 p.m. and milk vendors then take over, doing brisk business till 11 p.m. when the train rolls into Tiruchi.

Thanks to travelling ticket examiners, no further disturbance is allowed, at least temporarily as the vendors are driven away briefly and the compartments locked. For those who heave a sigh of relief a second shock is only a couple of hours away. Coffee and tea vendors enter the compartment much before dawn, announcing their presence loudly all ready to hand out hot coffee or tea.

But TTEs say they are sworn to silence at this time, because of the powerful lobby that the vendors represent. "If I do not allow them today then tomorrow I will be in some hospital nursing my injuries. I have informed higher officials. Unfortunately they themselves are helpless. I have to save my life," said one of the examiners.

The story was the same on the return leg to Chennai by the Pandiyan Express with vendors making good business. One added inconvenience on the return journey is private bedroll suppliers. Young boys carrying bedrolls start pestering passengers to hire a roll for a good night's sleep.

"If you are good at bargaining then you can get it for Rs. 15 per night. But remember you will not be allowed to sleep till the train reaches Egmore as he will wake you up at Chengalpattu itself for return of the roll. You have no choice as you have already paid the charge," notes a passenger.

Passengers are of course left puzzled that when the Southern Railway routinely fines travellers without ticket or without proper ticket, how do they virtually lay out a red carpet for these vendors, who claim a right to enter and sell in the express trains? Does such practice also not affect those who have paid licence fees to the railway to sell food, drink and other items at railway stations en route?

A senior railway official admits that the hawking is done often with the connivance of the railway staff. "No doubt the administration levies heavy fine and seizes the goods. But they reappear after ten or 15 days much to the inconvenience of passengers."

By Vydhianathan S.