Ten years ago, around 280 crore people used the Railways to travel an average of 229 km per year over long distances across cities. Last year, around 360 crore non-suburban passengers took trains to travel an average of 273 km per person.
But the real story of change lies between those numbers — of new routes mirroring new life choices, of how travel evolved over the last decade from track to runway.
Consider what records obtained by The Indian Express, of the top 10 trains in terms of passenger demand, show:
* In 2008-09, there were four trains running on established domestic migration routes: two linking Mumbai to UP, one connecting Delhi with Bihar, and one taking passengers from Mumbai to Kolkata via Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. In 2016-17, there were eight trains plying on such routes: five linking Bihar to Delhi, including two return trains, one connecting Mumbai with UP, one from Mumbai to Kolkata and one linking Jharkhand to Kerala, which has emerged as a preferred destination for workers from the east.
* In 2008-09, two trains that featured on the top 10 linked Delhi to Bengaluru and Goa, respectively. By 2016-17, both had fallen off the list, even as air connectivity from Delhi to these cities — one a software hub, the other a tourist hotspot — have surged.
Railway Board chairman A K Mital agrees that passenger pattern on the rail network is broadly in sync with economic and industrial activity. “That is why trains linking Bihar to Punjab remain popular as they have traditionally catered to the movement of agriculture labour. Similarly, trains linking eastern Indian states with Kerala and other southern states have emerged as popular sectors,” says Mital.
According to a 2013 Unesco study, Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India, there are “conspicuous migration corridors within the country: Bihar to National Capital Region, Bihar to Haryana and Punjab, Uttar Pradesh to Maharashtra, Odisha to Gujarat, Odisha to Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan to Gujarat”.
In this context, a typical example is the Sampark Kranti Express from Darbhanga in Bihar to Delhi via Lucknow, Gorakhpur and Patna, which has zoomed to the top (see box) from ninth position 10 years ago.
Records show that in 2008-09, the 24-coach train carried 5.74 lakh passengers a year. Today, it carries at least a lakh more with its average waiting list per day swelling from 357 to 564. So popular is this sector and this train that the pair, which runs to and from Delhi, occupy the first and the second spot in terms of waiting lists.
Then, there’s the Kerala connection.
In 2013, researcher M P Joseph found that 75 per cent of migrant workers in Kerala come from West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha. And that’s possibly why a train connecting Dhanbad in Jharkhand to Alappuzha in Kerala, covering 2,546 km over 57 hours with close to 100 halts, figures on the list of trains with the most passenger demand.
“This sector was not so prime a decade ago. A new product Antodaya Express with all unreserved coaches, between Howrah and Ernakulam, was launched recently keeping this movement in mind,” says Mital, who heads the Railway Board.
Over a decade ago, Goa Express, an ordinary superfast train linking Delhi to Goa was one of the 10 most popular, carrying 6.6 lakh passengers in a year with a 141 per cent occupancy rate. In 2017, it doesn’t figure on the list. It’s the same story for the once-popular Karnataka Express between Bengaluru and Delhi.
“Some sectors that were in heavy demand earlier are now equally served by airlines. That’s a major shift,” says S S Khurana, former chairman, Railway Board.
Other popular trains, such as Katihar-Amritsar Express, have only reinforced the perception that large-scale inter-city migration is here to stay — and that the Railways remains the primary transporter for this segment.
And yet, one train that has stood the test of time is the Mumbai-Howrah Gitanjali Express. Started in 1977 by the then Railway Minister Madhu Dandavate, it completes the 1,971-km journey in 31 hours with 26 halts at a leisurely average speed of 65 km per hour.
But with an occupancy level of 161 per cent against berth potential and an average waiting list per day of 490, this train has actually climbed a notch over the decade to reach number four in 2017. And this, when domestic airlines carry over 8.54 lakh passengers per year on this sector — one way.