Double-deckers are unviable

At one of its recent meetings, the parliamentary committee on railways recommended that “keeping in view the burden on the existing infrastructure of railways, the introduction of double-decker trains will help to increase two-fold the existing passenger capacity of the Indian Railways”.

Recent years have witnessed a spurt in the growth of passenger traffic in railways. The number of non-suburban originating passengers has almost doubled during the past decade — from 1,972 million (2000-01) to 3,847 million (2011-12). This can be attributed to an increase in the number of passenger trains, particularly medium and long-distance, increase in the frequency of many trains, and strengthening of several trains to 24 coach rakes, leading to an overall increase in availability of seats and berths. The increase in the number of passengers has also led to a rise in the occupancy ratios of the trains.

However, while the occupancy in second class ordinary (which accounts for the bulk of passenger traffic) has far exceeded the availability of seats, it has not been so for the higher classes. For instance, for 2AC chair car — used predominantly for short-distance inter-city services — the average occupancy ratio during 2010-11 was only around 75 per cent. Notwithstanding this, it has been decided to introduce AC double-decker train services on Howrah-Dhanbad, Chennai-Bangalore, Delhi-Jaipur, Mumbai-Ahmedabad and Bhopal-Indore sections. Overtly, this has been justified to meet the heavy rush on the corridors, and to provide AC travel at lower cost, because of higher seating capacity (128 passengers compared to 78 in say, a Shatabdi chair car) of the bi-level coaches.

Already, superfast trains like the Shatabdi are running on some of the sections selected for AC double-decker services, and, therefore, by adding double-deckers on these routes the occupancy ratios of existing superfast services and the new double-deckers might result in a sub-optimal utilisation for both. No statistics on route-wise passenger flows are officially available to arrive at any definite conclusion, but not long ago, in a reply to the Lok Sabha, the railway ministry had said “an analysis of the utilisation of these trains for the period April 2012 to October 2012 has revealed that barring one pair of train, i.e. Howrah-Dhanbad AC Express, the occupancy of all the trains is quite good”. It remains uncertain, therefore, to what extent the introduction of these trains has really helped, or will help, mitigate the problem of overcrowding on routes.

Historically, double-decker trains are not a new phenomenon for Indian Railways. In the eighties, non-AC double-decker coaches were being used on Sinhagad Express between Bombay and Pune. Due to public opposition, they were withdrawn. Then the same coaches were tried on Venad Express between Trivandrum and Ernakulam. Here also due to public opposition, they had to be taken off. The Flying Ranee between Mumbai and Pune, however, still continues to run these coaches. The main trouble with the old design was that the lowest level seatings were below platform level. Not only while travelling, even while halting at platforms, due to convection air flow, dust always entered the lowest level in abundance. It was mainly to overcome this drawback that it was decided to introduce AC double-decker trains, and to have them manufactured indigenously.

The newly designed AC double-decker coaches have yet to get the thumbs up from the users. Commuters on the recently introduced Chennai-Bangalore train complain that cramming 120-plus seats in a tight space leaves them sore after a six-hour journey, provision of only four toilets for a much higher number of passengers in a coach is inadequate, and the quality of food served is far from satisfactory. On the double-decker running between Howrah and Dhanbad, there are complaints that the seats are uncomfortable, push-backs hardly work, and some of the seat locations are very odd. On the Delhi-Jaipur train, commuters have a grudge against low headroom on both the decks — because of the storage compartments (of very little utility to passengers) having been placed above their seats. The upkeep and maintenance of the coaches have also drawn adverse comments.

This leaves one somewhat unsure if railways is fully geared to launch double-deckers on its network on a larger scale, within a predictable time frame. It is also a matter of conjecture if the passenger demand on the routes so far selected is genuinely so overwhelming as to warrant introduction of the bi-level trains. Could it be that Indian Railways is merely driven by a desire to project itself as an entrant in the league of countries that run similar trains on their systems?

Double-decker passenger rolling stock is a good solution to meet the growing demands of traffic on certain over-saturated routes, and can prove to be a good alternative to increasing the number of coaches in a train that will demand an extensive and expensive platform lengthening programme. However, where it requires bridges and tunnels to be lifted or track to be lowered, it could again be expensive. Thus, double-deckers may not be the best option — both for technical and financial reasons — in all cases, nor is their presence an indication of superior technology when compared to the single-level stock. Double-decker trains provide high capacity on an operating system with lower frequencies and longer spacing between stations, but are not considered appropriate for high frequency/frequent stop services, which require high acceleration and short dwell time at stations.

It would be best if the railways take a pause at this stage, assess the financial viability of running double-decker trains, and carry out necessary improvements in the design of coaches to make them more comfortable for the passengers. Let this then be declared only as an experimental phase of the programme, and further investments in manufacture of similar rolling stock be put on hold till the railways is fully satisfied about its viability and acceptability by the public.

Strangely enough, neither the Rakesh Mohan Committee Report on Railways (2001) nor the Pitroda Committee Report on Modernisation of Indian Railways (2012) mentions double-decker passenger service or views it as integral to the future growth of Indian Railways.

The author is a former MD of Railway Finance Corporation. E-mail: mathur.surendra@gmail.com

http://newindianexpress.com/opinion/Double-deckers-are-unviable/2013/07/22/article1695040.ece

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