VIP requests have forced trains to halt at stations they would have otherwise breezed past. After Rs 300 cr losses a year, the Railways is planning to cut these 2,400 ‘experimental stoppages’ or ‘MP stations’ by more than half. The story of four such stations.
BY: Avishek G Dastidar
Officially they are called ‘experimental stoppages’. That’s just a euphemism for hundreds of halts allowed on thousands of trains across India on the request of VIPs, mostly members of Parliament, citing massive demand from locals.
The last count put the number of these stations at 2,400. Based on ticket sale data and feedback from the local administration, both indicating very low demand, the Railways has decided to do away with more than half (1,250) of them.
Apart from slowing down the network and affecting punctuality of trains, these stoppages are a big drain on resources. The official figure of losses on account of these halts is Rs 1 crore a day. That includes Rs 8,000 extra spent on fuel per halt, apart from other operational costs associated with stoppages. The money recovered, in contrast, is less than Rs 500 per halt.
The minimum number of ticket sales required daily for a stoppage to be commercially viable is 40 or more for sleeper class per train, for a distance of 500 km or its equivalent in terms of cost.
But the road to removing the stoppages is still fraught with hurdles. Fearing a political backlash, the government has decided to write letters to each MP, past and present, on whose requests the 1,250 stoppages were granted, to explain the reasons for scrapping the stop. Over 250 such letters have been written and will be sent soon.
While most of the MPs on whose wishes these stoppages were granted lost the election in 2014, the government is not taking chances.
Sources say the idea of the writing the letters justifying scrapping the stops came from the Prime Minister’s Office itself.
No. of trains halting here: 20
Nearest railway station: gadag,
25 km away
At the crack of dawn, the Gol Gumbaz Express from Mysore to Solapur lurches into the eerie emptiness of Annigeri railway station in north Karnataka. It halts for a minute, a stop that would have been too fleeting had it not been almost pointless. A lone passenger disembarks and the train, like a passing breeze, departs, plunging the station in silence once again.
Ramesh Lankennavar, a 31-year-old who works as a printing machine operator in south Bangalore, stands on the red-and-grey-tiled platform, gazing across the tracks at the wide expanse of Byadgi chilli fields. He is visiting his mother in this town of about 3,000 in Navalgund taluk, Dharwad district, that is largely dependent on chilli and BT cotton. “There are only two things we wait for in Annigeri. The rain and the train,” Lankennavar says.
Though the sleeper-class rail fare from Bangalore to Annigeri is only Rs 280, which is a third of the cost of a bus ticket, there aren’t many who make this journey. What the people of Annigeri wait for are the passenger trains that ferry them to Hubli-Dharwad and Gadag, neighbouring towns 40 km and 25 km away, respectively, where they find work as labourers, painters and electricians. “This station serves over 20 villages. Every day, about a thousand people board and de-board here. Most of them are daily commuters and pilgrims headed for holy centres,” says Srikant B Hodlur, a pointsman at Annigeri station for the past 11 years.
As morning breaks through a bank of clouds, a stream of locals marches into the station, chewing gutka and re-adjusting voluminous dhotis and saris. They are here for the 6.35 am train from Hubli to Tirupati, says G G Belavattagi, a 64-year-old agriculturist from Shishvinhalli, a village 13 km away. He buys five tickets of Rs 155 each for his family and they squeeze into a bench on the platform. “We make this pilgrimage twice a year. The train is a blessing,” he says. When Hodlur strikes a gong — on a two-feet-long slab of hardened steel from an old track — the Belavattagis spring to attention like startled deer.
There are 20 trains that halt at Annigeri, eight of them express trains and none stopping for more than a couple of minutes. Mornings can get frenetic, with passenger trains to Hubli and Bijapur arriving in quick succession, all of them inevitably late. “There is demand for five to six more trains to stop here,” Hodlur says. “The Barmer-Yesvantpur Express, for instance, doesn’t stop here but we would like it to.”
On an average, the station collects Rs 10,000 in revenue a day. It employs 12, including three station masters, a commercial clerk, seven pointsmen and a sweeper. “The monthly salary outlay is about Rs 3 lakh,” says station master D K Singh, watching the control room instruments blink and groan as a train whizzes past.
A British-era building with high ceilings and arched doorways, the railway station is the perfect ingress into a town wrapped in layers of history. Here, time stands still on the 76 pillars of the Amruteshwara temple — one of the earliest Chalukya structures to be built of soapstone in 1050 AD — and hints at a grander scale of living in Deshpande Wadi, a 400-year-old haveli said to be built on the site where Adikavi Pampa, the father of Kannada poetry, was born. Sprawled over an acre and a half, the fortress-like home with thick mud walls has a lone occupant: caretaker Sivappa Amruthappa Pujari, 64, who sleeps on a cot where the stables used to be.
Like the Deshpandes, the Desais, the other landed gentry in Annigeri, no longer live in their haveli; they let it out for movie shoots and occupy a row of cottages built in the early-1900s at the edge of town and cultivate over 200 acres of Bt cotton and chilli.
Annigeri’s moment in the spotlight came in 2010, when an archaeological excavation of a drain revealed over 400 human skulls of indeterminate antiquity buried en masse. “We think that it was ritual burial to honour men who fell in battle. They were found aligned neatly like tiles,” says S S Harlapur, a Kannada professor at an English-medium college in town and secretary of the Adikavi Pampa Pratishthana.
Annigeri is full of enigmas — ancient inscriptions, old dwellings, a Jain temple — and yet, it doesn’t attract tourists, rues B F Jiddi, chief officer at the Annigeri municipal corporation. “A proposal to carve out a taluk around Annigeri has been pending for years. It has two more wards and a bigger population than Navalgund,” he says.
The British valued the fertile black soil of the region as though it were gold, Harlapur says. “Perhaps that is why they built a railway station here — to stock and ship goods from and cotton to Bombay directly,” he says.
As dark curtains Annigeri, a JCB is at work on the other platform, relentless as the staff at the station. Hodlur is back on duty, waving to habitués and brandishing a soiled green flag. “During occasions like the Yellamma festival in Saundatti, the station draws huge crowds and collects Rs 50,000 in a day,” he says hopefully.
Before the NH63 was laid in the ’60s, rail was the only connectivity Annigeri had. Now with proposals for four-laning the road, which stretches from Goa to Hampi, skirting the cotton fields of Annigeri, the town may no longer pivot around the railway station.
No. of trains
halting here: 6
station: RUDRAPUR CITY, 18 km away
BY: RAMENDRA SINGH
It is the last town of Uttar Pradesh on the eastern border with Uttarakhand; a dusty patch in the plains before the verdant hills of Kumaon begin. A town of 40,000 people, 40 per cent of whom are Muslim and a sizeable number Punjabis, Bilaspur could be any another small town in India.
As one enters the town by road from Bareilly, a big, popular dhaba in multi-colour greets you. The ambitiously named Punjabi Rasoi almost blanks out what lies right opposite it — a barely noticeable yellow plaque with the words ‘Bilaspur Road’. It guides you to another non-descript yellow building 200 metres away, standing on an elevated platform and surrounded by green fields.
This is the Bilaspur Road railway station, located almost mid-distance between Rudrapur city station to its north (about 18 km away) and Rampur station to its south (about 27 km away).
Bilaspur Road first became a train halt in 1984, though the station building came up much later. A commemoration plaque says the foundation stone was laid by former UP chief minister N D Tiwari in 1988.
Six trains halt at the Bilaspur Road station. Of these, four have this as a permanent stoppage, while two have been halting here temporarily, securing extensions apparently under pressure from local politicians, including then MP Jaya Prada, between 2009 and 2013. The station sees a sale of 400 tickets per day on an average.
Officials at the station say of the two trains halting temporarily at Bilaspur Road — the daily Uttarakhand Sampark Kranti from Kathgodam to Delhi and the weekly Kathgodam Garib Rath from Kathgodam to Jammu Tawi — the former draws the maximum passengers to the station. The latter, they say, is “just stopped to facilitate the Punjabis based around Bilaspur easy travel to Punjab”.
With one platform, a dozen vacant benches, only a few passengers and three handpumps, the station appears deserted for most part. As dusk sets in, it plunges into darkness. The office of Station Superintendent S S Dungriyal, though, is lit. Dungriyal and his team sit inside talking about the poor power supply in the area, and whether things have become worse under the current government.
The Station Superintendent and the 16 others, including booking clerks, gatemen, pointsmen and porters, stay in the employees’ quarters next to the building.
At 8 pm, power returns and the station is finally lit. Deep Kumar, 18, is sprawled on a bench at one end of the station, a bag on his laps. He is waiting for the Kathgodam-Dehradun Express to go to Haridwar. His father died a week earlier and he is carrying his ashes to be immersed in the Ganga.
Kumar, who belongs to Milak Khanam village about 10 km away, is nervous. “This will be my first time on a train. The train ticket to Haridwar is Rs 80 while the Roadways (UP State Road Transport Corporation) bus charges over Rs 200,” he reasons.
It starts drizzling and the station plunges into darkness again. This time, the station employees light two tube lights, one at the main entrance and the other outside the station master’s room.
As the time for the arrival of the Delhi-Kathgodam train nears, people start trickling into the station. Many have come to receive family or friends, most of them young men working in Delhi. Two tempos are parked outside to carry passengers to Bilaspur or Kemri, a town 10 km away.
Siraj Miyan, a resident of nearby Punjab Nagar village, has come to receive elder brother Naseer who works at a sewing unit in Delhi. “I have come on a motorcycle; there is no other mode of transport to my village,” he says.
The train, however, is an hour late, and people disperse, looking for ways to while away time.
It’s half-past eight, and the ticket counter opens. Among the passengers rushing to buy unreserved tickets are brothers Tarachand and Pannalal, from Inayat Nagar village, 15 km away. They are also on their way to Haridwar to submerge their mother’s ashes in the Ganga. Tarachand buys three tickets for the Kathgodam-Dehradun Express, including one for his mother’s ashes.
As they sit on a bench and light a beedi, Ram Bharose, from a neighbouring village, joins them. He asks Tarachand why he has bought a ticket for the ashes. “So that I can show the ticket to the TTE if he objects to my carrying ashes in the train,” says the illiterate Tarachand.
Though the government could eliminate stoppage of long-distance trains at Bilaspur Road station, Tarachand, who voted for the BJP this time impressed by Narendra Modi — Rampur got a BJP MP after 16 years — hopes that the even smaller Kemri railway station gets more trains as it is closer to his village.
Sanjay Kapoor, Congress MLA from Bilaspur, says he has “personally met Soniaji” to request for the halt of two trains. “Uttarakhand Sampark Kranti and Garib Rath will stop halting here from October 1. I have given a memorandum to the district magistrate and will meet the divisional railway manager. We will hold a road blockade if the Railways scraps stoppage of these trains at Bilaspur Road as it will inconvenience a large number of people who travel to Punjab and Delhi,” he says.
Jagdish Yadav and Lokesh Yadav are engaged in an animated discussion at the far end of the platform. “The emphasis on English in the civil services exam is a way of keeping Hindi-speaking students at a disadvantage,” says Jagdish. “Modi should do something about it,” agrees Lokesh. The two, from nearby Kotha Jagir village, have no train to catch but come to the platform to hang out. They are college students in Bareilly and are home for the holidays.
It’s 8.34 pm, the arrival time of Uttarakhand Sampark Kranti, but the train is indefinitely late. As it gets colder and breezier, a woman spreads a bedsheet on the platform and attempts to put her children to sleep.
Rajpal has come from Bilaspur and has parked his tempo at the station. “The Uttarakhand Sampark Kranti brings many passengers to Bilaspur as it comes from Delhi. I will leave the station when the last train, the Howrah-bound Bagh Express, departs at 11.37 pm, and will return at 3 am for the arrival of the Moradabad-Kathgodam passenger,” he says.
A few minutes later, a horn blares in the distance. The Delhi-Kathgodam train, which was scheduled to arrive at 8.34 pm but is an hour late, is approaching, and people walk closer to the tracks. Station Master Surjeet Singh Rana says the train draws maximum passengers to the station. “About 90 tickets of the train are sold everyday from here,” he says.
As the train stops, about a dozen passengers alight and a few headed towards Kathgodam board it. In two minutes, the train starts moving. Among those who have alighted is Zubair, 29, a resident of Kemri.
As he waits for his brother outside the station, Zubair, who works in a private bank in Delhi, says, “I often take this train from Delhi to visit my native place. If this train stoppage is scrapped, I will have to travel by train up to Rampur and then take a bus to Kemri.”
No. of trains halting here: 16
Nearest railway station: kokpara,
9 km away
BY: Deepu Sebastian Edmond
It is 4.40 in the evening. People who had come to town in the morning mill about the platform. Some routinely walk to the edge of platform No. 2 and peek far into the right. When the Gitanjali Express approaches, everyone perks up, only for shoulders to slump when it passes by, horn blaring. There is still no sign of Tata MEMU, the train which was scheduled to arrive at 4.31 pm, and take passengers out of Chakulia.
Eighty km from Jamshedpur in East Singhbhum district, Chakulia is the last railway station in Jharkhand before trains enter West Midnapore district of West Bengal. Famous in the region for its rice mills, Chakulia has a population of 16,306 — 18.2 per cent of them Adivasis, mostly Santhal.
Nestled between the forests of Jhargram in West Bengal and the verdant hills of Dalma in Jharkhand, Chakulia is difficult to reach by road. The uneven, bumpy track from Dhalbhumgarh, a small town 20 km away, takes an hour and a half to cover. And to think that this town had an airfield during World War II, and has 3G connectivity today!
In the absence of a proper road, train is the only way into and out of Chakulia. Sixteen trains halt here — eight local/EMU and eight superfast/express.
“Coming to Chakulia means spending a day here. Even if you have only five minutes’ work, you have to be prepared to spend a day at the platform,” says Binapani Mahato, an Accredited Social Health Activist who has come from Kokpara, a small town 10 km away, to attend a meeting.
Mahato had started at 8 am from her village, Shyamsundarpur Panchayat, and taken an autorickshaw to Kokpara railway station. From there, she boarded the Tata MEMU, which runs between Kharagpur and Tatanagar junction (in Jamshedpur city), and got down at Chakulia at 10.17 am. With her work done, she has to take the Tata MEMU again back home.
But the train is running late, and Mahato and colleague Lina Paul are worried. The ASHAs do not get travel allowance for their meetings. “We all voted for Narendra Modi. But after he came to power, the ticket fare doubled from Rs 5 to Rs 10,” says Paul.
For all that gruelling journey and the steeper fare, Paul still has to make another trip the next day to Chakulia. This time not for work, but for the weekly market held in the town on Saturdays. “People from Dhalbhumgarh and Jhargram come here to buy everyday products as they are cheaper and of better quality,” she says.
Mangal Mardi too has come to Chakulia from his village to buy pots and pans. Lugging the heavy utensils, he waits impatiently for Tata MEMU. “My work got done in 30 minutes. I have been walking around the market all day,” says the 25-year-old farmer. He cycled 7 km from his village to the Rakha (Copper) Mines station, 60 km away, and boarded the Tata MEMU at around 9.30 am, for Chakulia. “Plantation of rice is going on and I came only because we had to buy some things urgently. I woke up this morning, saw the rain and decided today would be a good day to come here as there would be less work in the fields,” he says.
D K Pal, a doctor, stands under an Alstonia tree, where chirpy sparrows are returning for the night. “Look at the Jhargram sub-division in West Bengal, and look at our Ghatshila sub-division (under which Chakulia falls). Roads get built in this state only when the government has to tackle Maoists,” he grumbles. Pal has to endure the tiring journey from Ghatshila, 40 km away, to Chakulia about seven times a month in order to hold screening camps for malaria and TB.
Pal and other waiting passengers are kept in good humour by tea hawker Bhagwan Das. He is not accredited by the Railways to sell tea at the platform and fears that his Rs 250-a-day earnings could come to an end any day, and that he may end up paying court fines and spending time in lock-up.
He lives near Rakha Mines and will take the 6.46 pm Kurla Express back home. “All of us hawkers start with an older man and take over when he dies. I started doing this when I was 16. I don’t want my children to do this work,” he says.
It is 5.30 pm, and the Tata MEMU from Kharagpur finally rolls in. Melee ensues, as those on the platform jostle with those alighting. Rickshaws crowd about to ferry people to their homes. In a matter of minutes, the Chakulia station is quiet and near-empty.
No. of trains halting here: 15
Nearest railway station: Nilokheri,
3.7 km away
BY: Aleesha Matharu
With two platforms, and few people waiting, Taraori station stands desolate. Some 200 trains whiz by, but only 15 stop. Once the Railway Ministry’s decision to scrap 1,250 stoppages comes through, even fewer trains will stop at Taraori station.
But Taraori is no quaint small town. Some 140 km from Delhi, this industrial town in Haryana’s Karnal district has large, modern rice mills, with patches of lush rice fields in between. Famous for its Basmati rice, Taraori is also known for a gurdwara dedicated to Guru Teg Bahadur, and for being the battleground where Prithviraj Chauhan famously fought Muhammad of Ghor.
Its railway station is at its busiest for a few hours each in the morning and evening when two trains — the Bhatinda and Dadar Express — halt. During these hours, the two 550-metre platforms bustle with labourers, students and traders. The platforms are connected by a cobbled path —more frequently used than the overbridge at the far end of the station.
At 5 pm, Bhatinda Express halts for two minutes. Sandeep Kumar has come from Fazilka, Punjab, to trade in rice and paddy. He travels to Taraori 10 times a month by the train. “I won’t be able to do the journey in a single day if the Bhatinda Express no longer stops here. I’ll have to take a passenger train to Ambala and then catch a bus to get here,” he says.
Taraori’s residents have, for 18 years, petitioned local MPs for more halts at the station. In March this year, they were granted access to the Bhatinda Express. In six months, it has become a lifeline for nearly 400 people, who use it daily.
If the halt is cancelled, passengers would have to also pay more to travel by bus. “A ticket on an express train to Delhi costs Rs 60, and on a passenger train Rs 30. A bus ticket costs at least Rs 120,” says R P Kalyan, station superintendent. Kalyan, 59, has worked at the station since 1979. He barely leaves his seat as he constantly notes down in a ledger the time of each train passing by.
“The most popular trains here are Bhatinda Express, Dadar Express and H Nizamuddin Kurukshetra MEMU train. The station’s average monthly income is Rs 6 lakh,” he says, wiping sweat off his brow. Kalyan complains about the lack of electricity and water at the station and says he had to buy himself a cooler because of the unbearable summer heat.
The station has no canteen or lavatory. Nor any stall selling chai or snacks. There’s only one stall, on platform No.1, but it’s vacant and rusted. Dharamveer, a local wholesale sweets dealer, who is at the station to catch Bhatinda Express, says renting the stall costs Rs 10,000 per month. “The previous vendor couldn’t afford it and shifted down the road three-four years ago. This is one of Asia’s largest markets for the export of Basmati rice and our station does not even have a functional toilet,” he says.
Kalyan says they make approximately Rs 25,000 a day in ticket sales, with a footfall of 1,400. “We’re short on staff. Between station masters, cabinmen, pointsmen and safai karamcharis, there are 14 employees when there should be 23,” he says.
Sompal, the 52-year-old pointsman, pipes in, “Agar machine 12 ghante chalegi, toh garam ho jaati hai. Socho aadmi ka kya hota hai (If you use a machine for 12 hours, it heats up. Think what happens to a man),” he says. He adds that it’s not safe to work such long hours on a job like theirs where one careless mistake can be fatal.
Taraori exports 90 per cent of its rice to countries such as South Africa and Kuwait, for which it pays a large tax to the Centre. A few commuters say they have “never” seen the rice that grows locally as it is too expensive.
“They should give us facilities similar to those at Karnal station — a lavatory, a snacks counter and a bookshop — since we pay such a large tax,” says Sandeep Joshi, a lecturer at Karnal University who travels 14 km every day by Bhatinda Express to Karnal. “Access to public transport should be increased, not reduced. Cancelling trains would affect businesses here,” he says.
Rumours of cancellation of Bhatinda Express and Himalyan Queen, which stops at nearby Gharounda, have been swirling about town for a while. At a sabzi mandi, in central Taraori, 39-year-old grocer Gulshan Luthra says, “I read in the papers that these trains may be cancelled.”
Dharamveer says a collective letter, written by those who regularly use the Bhatinda Express, has been sent to new MP Ashwini Kumar Chopra of the BJP petitioning that the decision be revoked. If nothing comes through, it may be time to start catching buses.