On a chilly, breezy evening earlier this month, platform number 1 at the Safdarjung station in the heart of Lutyens Delhi looked forlorn and empty, save for a stray dog that howled and ran along. On another platform, stood the ‘Palace on Wheels’, a luxury train of the Indian Railways that does a 8 days/7 nights tourist circuit of Rajasthan. Railway officials wearing colourful turbans could be seen helping foreign tourists as they hobbled with wine glasses in their hands on their way into the train.
It was 6:30 pm and there was still no sign of my train.
“Yeh Nizamuddin EMU kab aayegi?,” I enquired. A guy wearing a shiny black coat, ostensibly worn to impress the foreign tourists, inside the panel room of the station replied nonchalantly, “Kabhi 7:30 baje ya 8 baje. Jab woh aana chahega. Waise bhi saari gaadiya band hai. Yeh bhi ho jayegi.” (Sometimes, 7:30 pm or 8 pm, it will come when it wants to come. All the trains are getting cancelled, this will be too.)
The winter light was fast fading and soon the tiny station was wrapped in darkness, save for the many flickering tube lights at the two platforms. A roaring Rajdhani bound for Ahmedabad whizzed past.
Finally at 7:25 pm, an hour late, the ten-coach local train crawled into platform number 1 as if in no mood to go any further. Eight out of ten coaches were empty with a bunch of 25-30 people sitting in the last two coaches. Twenty seconds later, the train swung into motion, rattling off into the darkness breaking the silence in the air.
This train, overwhelmingly behind schedule and devoid of passengers, tells the story of Delhi’s Ring Railway – a ghost service left behind in an ever-expanding Delhi.
Unknown to many Delhiites, the ring railway is a 35-kilometre circular railway network that was laid back in 1975 primarily to service freight trains that could bypass the crowded and passenger-heavy old Delhi and New Delhi railway stations. It was upgraded for the 1982 Asian Games with fresh suburban trains introduced from Hazrat Nizamuddin station that would wound its way through some of the city’s heritage and leafy neighbourhoods and come back to its originating station in a circular fashion with a travel time of about 90 minutes. This service should however not be confused with the larger Suburban Railway – which also uses a part of the ring railway tracks, but operates trains to faraway distances like Faridabad, Palwal, Aligarh and Kosi Kalan – destinations that fall outside of the city limits of Delhi.
The ring railway service may have been popular through the 80s and 90s when the city’s transport infrastructure was just gathering pace, but since then with the rapid expansion of the Delhi Metro coupled by an extensive bus network, the ring railway has remained neglected by the city as well as the Railways.
NUMBERS TELL THE STORY
Currently, the Railways operates five trains in clockwise and anti-clockwise directions from Nizamuddin, but as of February 15, 2016, four of those services remain cancelled leaving just one train in the evening that still operates.
Senior railway officials maintained the winter fog, and not low ridership, was the reason for cancellation of some of the trains. But they admitted serious issues plaguing the service.
“The biggest problem is the feeder network. These stations are situated at remote locations and difficult to access for passengers. The Metro on the other hand passes through CBD and that’s why the trains cannot compete with the Metro. The ring railway can only be complementary. Also, a number of stations have been encroached and so there is the problem of security,” said Anil Arora, Divisional Railway Manager, Delhi.
“If the feeder service can be improved, the service can become popular,” he added.
Trains running behind schedule and the presence of pickpockets and anti-social elements especially on night services are also regularly cited by commuters to give the trains a miss.
Officials confirmed that on an average, 3,700 passengers take the trains every day – a David-esque figure when compared to a whopping 20 lakh people who use the Metro.
“Nobody rides these trains…they run empty most of the time. On top of that, very few people take tickets as there is virtually no ticket-checking on this route,” said Zaheer Khan, a train guard. “Once, a guy was caught at Faridabad for ticket-less travel and he admitted that he had never taken a ticket in his life.”
THE OTHER SIDE
In a contrast of sorts, on a recent weekday evening at the Tilak Bridge station, there was a hustle and bustle of commuters. The station is part of the ring railway network but is used more by the frequent Suburban trains to faraway destinations in the NCR (National Capital Region.)
People, in ones, twos and threes, could be seen dodging hedges and bushes as they trudged their way beside the tracks to the station. While female passengers could be heard chatting about rising household costs and cocky maids, older male passengers (many of whom are clearly babus with tiffin bags on their shoulders) argued vehemently about whether Modi-ji (a reference to the Prime Minister) was doing any work at all. Others sipped chai standing beside a stall which sold raunchy magazines with half-naked women on their covers and a Hindi translated copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
When enquired about the cancellation of a ring railway train, a man said, “The trains are running, aren’t they? I got no such intimation,” ostensibly confusing for the suburban services. When prodded further about the trains, which run inside Delhi, he said exasperatingly, “I don’t know about it son.” At least a dozen people gave similar responses pointing to a clear lack of awareness.
If that’s not enough, sample this: A loco pilot (engine driver in local parlance) at the New Delhi Railway Station when enquired about the schedule of the ring railway trains said casually, “Saari hari rang ki gaadiya jo dikh rahi hai aapko, sab ring rail hi hai.” (All the green trains that you see are part of ring railway.)
The fact that the ring railway (which uses the same EMU units with green livery) is confused even by railway officials for the Suburban Rail is indeed telling.
A LOW-COST OPTION
Mohammad Khalid stared into the darkness as the train left Safdarjung station while his friends were busy immersed in a cards game. A passenger of ten years, for Khalid, the Nizamuddin EMU on the ring railway is a low-cost option for his daily home-work commute, costing just about Rs 5 from Kirti Nagar to Nizamuddin, compared to the Metro.
“Everyone is going to the Metro. Its crowded. Somebody should use this service right? Besides, my company does not pay for my conveyance,” said Khalid, who works in a garments factory.
For passengers like Khalid who are possibly unable to fathom the fast-changing urban landscape of Delhi, the trains on the ring railway appear accommodating as they meander silently and listlessly through the city.
Khalid went on talking about his daily commuting problems, but his voice soon trailed off as the train gathered pace, rata-tatting into the night covering the last mile before Nizamuddin.