Moreover, the long diversions were not a result of congestion but poor planning by the railways.

The Union government has claimed that it is offering an 85% subsidy for Shramik trains being run to transport stranded migrants back to their home states.

However, an analysis of the numbers shows this is not true. On the contrary, states are being charged excess ticket prices when compared to the railway’s own notified fare chart.

The 85% subsidy is a hypothetical concept that imagines a model that only has passenger trains and includes the entire cost of railways infrastructure as well as employee wages. Moreover, this 85% number has not been confirmed by any independent audit.

It is also unclear for which base fare this figure has been calculated. The fare of a mail/express train is itself 80% higher than that of a local/passenger train. Moreover, even in a mail/express train, fares of different classes are different. For example, the base fare for a 501 km journey in any mail/express train would be:

To add to this, additional costs such as reservation charge would also apply as per the class of travel. For example, gross ticket prices of Rajdhani, Duronto and Shatabdi trains are almost 40% higher than the base fares above. As a result, the attempt to claim an 85% subsidy is misleading.

Railways charging excessively
In an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court, the Chhattisgarh government said it paid Rs 38,331,330 to Indian Railways for 40 Shramik trains. State officials say cash-starved states are being forced not only to pay the full fare but in fact pay more than the normal fare.

For example, when the Indian Railways ran a May 24 train from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala to Ambikapur in Chhattisgarh, it charged the Chhattisgarh government Rs 13 lakh for 1,200 passengers. This works out to Rs. 1,083 per passenger. However, the regular sleeper class ticket fare for any mail/express train for that distance (2,675 km) is just Rs 813.

From Gujarat, a total of 16 trains have been run to Chhattisgarh between May 9 and May 28, with the state paying a total of Rs 147,74,405 for 23,770 passengers ­– an average of Rs. 621 per passenger. However, the sleeper class fare for that approximate distance (assuming an average journey of 1,350 km) is only Rs 535.

To add to this, the claim that food and water were provided without charge is also untrue. In most trains, analysis shows that Rs 50 to 100 has been charged over and above the normal fare. In spite of this charge, however, the supply of food and water was irregular. For example, on an Ahmedabad (Gujarat) to Champa (Chhattisgarh) train that reached Chhattisgarh on May 27, passenger complained that they were given food only once, even though the journey lasted for 26 hours.

‘Special’ diversions
To add insult to injury, apart from overcharging, many Shramik Special Trains were late – and even wandered far from their usual routes on occasions.

The Union minister of railways Piyush Goyal has claimed that trains had not got lost but had been diverted due to congestion, since most trains were heading to Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. This logic is untenable because there is far less congestion now than pre lockdown. During times of normal operations, the Indian Railways runs 13,000 passenger trains per day. But in the past month, only 4,000 Special Shramik Trains have been run. To add to this, given the slump in economic activity there are even fewer goods trains running.

The explanation for why trains got diverted via such long routes lies in the fact that these worker trains were classified as “special trains”. In the Indian Railways, special trains have the lowest priority since they don’t run according to a notified timetable or route. This leaves them at the mercy of operating department of different zonal railways, which deal them as per their own priorities – leading to chaos.

“The reason for Shramik Trains getting so late lies in the fact that there is no notified time table for Special Trains,” explained Ravi Banerjee, former secretary of South East Central Railway Trade Union Council. “It’s beyond our understanding why the Railways did not opt for regular trains which more or less run between same cities [as Shramik trains], barring a few exception.”

In normal times, when issues like congestion or accidents block routes, train diversion sticks to certain principles that ensure the least deviation from the timetable. If, say, an accident has occurred between Delhi and Aligarh, the diversion for any Delhi-Uttar Pradesh train would be small. In this case, if the Aligarh route is blocked, the Uttar Pradesh-bound train would either go via Agra Cantonment or proceed via Bareilly. In no case would the train’s diversion route encircle half the country.

One of the most infamous cases of Shramik train diversion was one that had departed from Vasai (in Mumbai) and was headed to Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. However, passengers found themselves in in Rourkela, Odisha instead – an astonishing 700 kilometres southeast of Gorakhpur.

During the normal course of operations, Mumbai to Gorakhpur can be travelled via two routes: Mumbai-Bhusawal-Itarasi-Jhansi-Kanpur-Gorakhpur or Mumbai-Itarsai-Jabalpur-Allahabad-Gorakhpur. This train travelled from Mumbai to Bhuswal, but then inexplicably got diverted onto the Nagpur-Bilaspur-Rourkela-Asansol-Varanasi-Gorakhpur route. This meant the train ended up travelling almost double the original distance of 1,600 km.

Sudiep Shrivastava

Courtesy Scroll.in