In India, railways and tourism are interconnected. Indian railways is one of the largest and busiest rail networks in the world, transporting over 18 million passengers and more than two million tons of freight daily. It is the world’s largest commercial utility employer with more than 1.4 million employees. Indian Railways provides services, amenities, facilities and tourism packages to international and domestic tourists in addition to operating tourist and special trains for promoting tourism.
Indian Railways has grown into a gigantic network that spreads over 64460 kms, 7133 railway stations, 9213 locomotives and 11824 trains. More than 7651 million passengers are travelling through Indian Railways. Indian railway services are well-equipped to meet the travel needs of domestic and foreign tourists, providing them infrastructural facilities in terms of accommodation, destination development, catering and restaurants and also linking them with tourist destinations in various locations in India.
Promoting rail tourism
With a view to promote rail tourism, Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) has been set up as a nodal wing of Indian Railways to provide quality and upgraded services to rail users and for enhancing rail based tourism potentials. IRCTC has already launched special tourist trains and coaches, cab services, tour packages, rail passes and budget accommodation to the passengers and tourists. IRCTC has brought in some welcome changes in Indian Railways by providing web-based services such as e-ticketing, development of rail portals, call centres, and others.
Luxury trains like Golden Chariot, Maharaja Express, Place on Wheels and others were also introduced by the Indian Railways to mainly generate foreign income. The cost of a luxury train accommodation can vary from $3,850 to more than $28,070. However, according to government sources, this cost will be reduced considerably in future. With airlines providing attractive offers, luxury trains and many premium trains like Rajdhani, Duranto and Shatabdi have experienced reduced occupancy rates.
During the festive seasons, IRCTC offers attractive tour packages to promote tourism. For instance, this year IRCTC has offered trips to Doars and Darjeeling along with the heritage toy train ride for its West Bengal clientele during Durga Puja. Apart from these, the railways run several special trains and extra trains to boost the tourism sector during peak seasons. According to a report published in The Economic Times, in 2017-18, IRCTC sold `28,475 crore of train tickets online which was a 14% increase but its overall income dipped due to withdrawal of service fee charges.
Problems and initiatives
The functioning of the Indian Railways is not completely hitch-free. Rohit Mazumder, a university student, who recently returned from a vacation in Uttarakhand, shared his experience. He told BE, “There is a lack of maintenance – the seats, berths and washrooms are not clean. There is an immense pressure on the railways which gives rise to corruption. The railways should make the ambience in the coaches more attractive because it is the main mode of tourism in India.” He also pointed out that the delay in schedule is another major problem. Mazumder added, “The train was supposed to reach our destination by four in the evening but we reached at mid-night.”
In 2018, Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India looked into the reasons for this delay. It found some serious flaws in government’s station redevelopment plans. In the report, CAG stated, “The station development/redevelopment plans mainly address the facilities for the passengers on the station premises and facade of stations only and not on removing constraints and bottlenecks for ensuring timely arrival and departure of trains to/from the stations, which should be one of the most important parameters of the quality of service being provided to the passengers.”
According to a railway source, a lot of initiatives are being undertaken in the railway stations for passenger welfare. The source stated, “In the eastern region, at Sealdah station, the con courses and the food plazas are being renovated. A VIP lounge has been opened recently. Apart from this, battery-operated vehicles have been introduced at the station. A new platform (9D) is under construction while another new platform (9C) has been opened. All these will help the passengers and the tourists.”