IR’s Blossoming Affair with Holiday Special Trains

Peak travel season for Indians is well underway. With summer vacations for school children beginning, urban nuclear families will now begin their annual but temporary migration back to their hometowns. Also heading home will be workers who leave their families back in rural India to earn a living in the cruel urban world.

Like with most things in India, the scale of this flow is enormous. For most, trains are a natural choice. They are cheap, services leave often and are fairly regular. Road travel is impractical for long distances and air travel is often out of reach, especially with inflated fares on important sectors.

For more than a decade, IR has struggled to cope with this deluge of humanity first going one way, and within the span of a couple of months, returning with equal force

The Reluctant Passenger Service Operator

The Indian Railways have always run holiday specials. However, attitude towards the introduction of specials was begrudging, and it showed. These trains were few in number, were announced at the last moment, often a day or two before departure. They were also poorly publicised. One would often witness situations where the regular trains would go full, with people hanging out the doors all night.

In contrast, the holiday special meant to run on the same route, with the same stops, would go empty. I’ve personally witnessed several such instances. It didn’t help that the trains also had poor schedules and often ran with very low priority for section managers. Naturally, they would often be late.

Because the trains were unscheduled, staff en route would ‘forget’ to water and clean the trains at designated points. Holiday Specials would arrive at a station and leave quietly, unannounced, unnoticed. Or flawed communication meant staff simply would not know that such a train was meant to pass through and would need attention.

Capacity Limitations

To be fair, there may have been operational constraints that made IR so reluctant to try and benefit from such huge traffic flows. Shortages of coaches and locomotives may have been possible reasons. So could limitations of section capacity and staff to man, to run and to attend to these trains.

It is also likely that no one in IR thought to look at historical reservation data to plan trains well in advance.

Times Are Changing

Happily, things seem to have changed over the past few years. IR has actually started planning for each peak season. Someone in system has perhaps started to look at historical reservation data to conclude which sectors need more holiday special trains to handle traffic. They seem to understand the need.

A look at the number of holiday specials announced well in advance this year should tell you a story. We estimate there are well over a thousand additional runs of trains on various sectors to cater to the additional traffic.

There are so many announcements that we at figured it was simpler to create a tracker with the list of trains with their details instead of writing wordy pieces about each wave of holiday special announcements.

You can visit the special train tracker here, and some of the earlier announcements here

With coach production ramping up from somewhere around 1,000 a decade ago to around 6,000 last year, and locomotive production shooting up to 350 units or more from a mere 150 a decade ago, zonal railways now have significantly more flexibility to run special trains as and when needed.

Distance to Cover

But not everything is fixed. It isn’t yet clear if the additional announcements come anywhere close to addressing the demand. After all, a thousand train runs can realistically carry a million passengers in all, a drop in the 1.7 billion reserved passenger ocean that IR pipes across the country every year. It is also not clear if the trains running are profitable when they can be.

Announcements of special trains need to come sooner. Communication on the existence of such trains needs to improve and become available in a standard format at a central source apart from the PRS. This is one of the reasons the special train tracker exists but still does not have an exhaustive list of such trains.

Zonal railways still work in silos and special trains do not receive appropriate publicity en route. There continue to be complaints about trains not being attended to or watered. Holiday specials still receive low priority and tend to accumulate delays on the run.

Thankfully, one of IR’s greatest service initiatives of all time – its Twitter complaint resolution mechanism – comes to the rescue of passengers whenever possible, and even in some unusual situations.

Profitable Pricing

Pricing is also something IR has not come to grips with. Special trains can, and should, run with special fares that cover costs of operation for all classes. There are enough non-AC sleeper passengers with paying capacity for more comfort in less crowded special trains or an upgrade to a 3 tier AC berth.

IR has been trying out special fares on some special trains, but the effort seems ad-hoc for now. The fact that passengers continue to pay touts good money to snag tickets in peak seasons is a good indicator of that IR continues to under-price tickets despite demand and willingness to pay more.

Special fares could help recover money earned by touts and bring it back to IR, the rightful beneficiary. This will also incentivise zonal railways to start more holiday specials, thus benefiting everyone.

With luck, the national transport behemoth will make better use of the opportunity it has in its hands.

Photo courtesy: IRI

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About the Author: Alok Patel

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