Monday, November 9, 2015

Why Indian train travel still leaves a lot to desire

Whereas a flight travel is an anodyne affair, a train journey is always lively and colorful. Through a train window you see a world constantly receding away.  You strike interesting conversations (and even friendships) with people who were strangers a little while earlier and would be strangers again. You frequently eat things keeping your health concern on hold as long as the journey lasts.

The romanticism of the journey gets rudely interrupted when you visit the loo or look at the litter caused by fellow passengers (us) on the tracks and inside the train. This is the worst part of travelling by train.

Partly the blame goes to us who travel and litter, but partly (and substantially) it’s waste management to blame. When you travel by train you feel there is complete absence of an efficient garbage management system. Either there are no bins in compartments or they are so far from the seats, located next to washrooms, that it takes quite an effort going to them and dropping something. Even if you make that effort (at least while on your way back to seat from loos) there is no guarantee that you will be able to drop anything into the bin: mostly they are filled to the brim; their contents are not removed frequently enough.

So people just chuck things on the floor or out of the window. The latter leads to another problem: filth on tracks. This practice is sometimes even encouraged by train cleaning staff who often ask people to just chuck things out of the window and themselves accumulate litter on the passageway between two compartments and push it into the track. The old Indian practices of defecating on train tracks is very much alive. The poor tracks are also recipients of human waste offloaded by trains.

All these make rail lines unsightly and a source of stench. Imagine being stuck interminably long, it’s hot and stuffy inside the train and you are not able to open the window to avoid being hit by a blast of stink!

As far as discharge of human excreta on the rails is concerned, after doing a Google search, I realized it’s a global problem.  An article reported that in the UK there is a concern over train toilet sewage offloaded on tracks which hamper repairs and cause hygiene concerns. Some other countries, in the West, also contend with the same problem. Restroom Association of Singapore, an association which aims to improve toilet behavior in Singapore, ran a campaign called Let's Observe Ourselves (LOO) to educate users about basic things related to public health, hygiene and toilet etiquette.

The UK article says that the solution to trains having to offload their fecal waste on tracks is putting chambers underneath the toilets; but the problem is old trains don’t have enough space between the axels to accommodate a chamber.

That leaves us with litter disposal. One can say cleanliness comes at a price. Travel in an AC coach and you will not find so many cleanliness issues. But that’s not right. The cleaning staff for both AC and non-AC coaches are same: just that they pay less attention to the non-AC ones, but they collect tips from all the compartments nonetheless.

But the good news is the Indian Railways has outsourced cleaning to private parties. So you can see accountability with the cleaners – towards the end of the journey they come and check if things were all right and ask for tips; but as far as the non-AC compartments are concerned, that’s among the one or two times they appear during, say, a one and half day journey. The non-AC travelers, additionally, are approached by hijras (transgenders) at every station – they don’t contribute to the lack of cleanliness, but surely are one of the reasons why travelling by train in India is an unforgettable affair, albeit for the wrong reasons.

But frankly, on a broader scale, trains have improved a lot since the 80s and 90s. You have fewer people without reservation onboard. Some trains, in fact, don't allow anyone on waiting list on board - and go at considerable length to enforce that. The bathrooms may leave a lot to desire but generally they are much cleaner than in the earlier decades. 

There are more train options nowadays. Getting a ticket is easier, much easier, than before, thanks to the fact that they can be purchased online (and although many still prefer buying tickets the old way, the online option really works). And as my mini online research revealed many problems we traditionally complain about are also to be found in other countries. It's only that things could get better. 

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