Only a decade ago, any invitation to travel would have meant looking at train options, thinking about reservations. For official travel, one could look at flights, but traveling with family meant trains. Not any more.
January 2018 may be the first month when the combined AC passenger traffic on Indian Railways may be surpassed by the number of airline passengers – and we are only counting domestic passengers. Airlines flew 11.2 million passengers in December 2017. If the past is a guideline, we should have between 11.1 million and 11.3 million passengers this month. The Railways do not release their monthly figures, but as per their annual report for 2015-16, the total number of AC passengers that year was 140 million. Assuming about 5 per cent growth rate, the total number of AC passengers in 2017-18 would be about 155 million. January is their lean period, and indeed the worst period, due to fog.
One must note here that almost half of AC passenger traffic either originates within a 500 km radius of Delhi or terminates in this region (25 per cent of AC passenger traffic originated at Northern Railways alone in 2015-16; add to that North Central, North Western, North Eastern traffic and also traffic from all other zones which come here). This is a region affected severely by fog in January, leading to disruption and cancellation of trains. So, if the traffic was equally distributed, January would see 13 million AC passengers. But if there is disruption in half of this traffic, and even for the rest of the country it is a lean season for the Railways, it seems reasonable to assume that we may have less than 11.2 million AC passengers in January 2018.
Of course, this is comparing the best month of airlines with the worst of the Railways. But even on an annualised basis, the number of flyers in 2017-18 would exceed the number of AC sleeper passengers (that is, AC-1st, AC-2T and AC-3T combined), which means that middle- and long-distance passengers are preferring airlines over trains.
In addition, on an annualised basis, 2017-18 would see kilometres travelled by passengers to be more on flights than on trains, including AC chair car (CC) and executive chair car (EC) passengers. Airlines have flown 111 billion passenger-kilometres in 2017, a figure similar to what trains have done, counting only AC passengers, but are expected to complete 116 billion passenger-kilometres on a financial year basis.
The average distance flown by an airline passenger is 950 km, while the average distance travelled by an AC passenger is 750 km. If we consider seated versus sleeping berths, the average distance travelled by CC/EC passengers is 400 km, while for AC1/AC2/AC3 is more than 800 km. (One may note that airline distance is the straight line distance, which is not the case for trains.)
One could dismiss this development by saying trains are running full capacity, which means airlines are only meeting the unmet demand. As and when capacity enhancement occurs in the case of Indian Railways (like when the two freight corridors are completed and many of the electrification and doubling projects are wrapped up), and we are able to run additional passenger trains, the middle class will flock to trains. So, there is nothing to worry.
I am not so hopeful. I think this change is permanent. When people get used to valuing their time in a certain way, they don’t go back on it. If we look at the distribution of traffic by Indian Railways (only AC passengers), there are three segments it is essentially holding on to.
One is the short-distance passenger, mainly CC/EC classes, where the destination is within three to six hours or so, and primarily the CC segment, since it is very cheap. EC class is less than 1 per cent of AC passengers anyway. Note that the traffic in distance of less than three hours is eroding due to good-quality highways that have come up over the last 10-15 years. And as highways improve, this segment will be further under attack. Also, as the short-distance flights become available, the five-to-six-hour distance will get competition. For example, the Delhi-Kanpur pair has about 3,000 CC/EC passengers every day, which will be impacted if sometime in future there are multiple flights to/from Kanpur.
The second segment is overnight journey, six to 12 hours. This is the primary segment in which AC-2T/AC-3T is going strong. This segment will be retained in the foreseeable future since people don’t consider sleeping in train as a time cost. But this segment is facing competition from overnight buses in many parts of the country. Also, once the frequency of flights increases further, and in particular, if we can go in the morning and come back in the night, the 10-12 hour train journeys will be impacted. Railways can remain strong in this segment only if there is reliability in the service. Delays take up part of the valuable day time and spoil plans.
The third segment is journey between a pair of cities without a flight connection. People are willing to travel even 15-16 hours if that includes night time, since flying to a distant airport and then changing the mode of transport would take as many day-time hours and would be inconvenient. But this is clearly the segment which is temporary. Once schemes like UDAN become operational, more people will take up those flights. So, if we consider the city pairs where trains take more than 12 hours, and they are connected by reasonable flight options (at least a flight each in morning/afternoon/evening in each direction), the trains are no match at all. The extreme example is Delhi-Mumbai, which has become the third busiest city-pair in the world for air traffic with more than 10,000 passengers travelling in each direction every day.
There is another segment, which is tiny and shrinking. People travel by trains because they value the experience of the journey and are not in a hurry to reach the destination. The AC-1 experience in a Rajdhani is something that this writer would be glad to have, compared to any airline. The problem is that the overall experience, including cleanliness on stations, good waiting areas and lack of punctuality is on a decline. But I think this is one segment which the Railways should care for, since these are people who are not just comparing the fare, but comparing the overall experience.
As of 24 January, the data in the annual reports, as is known to this writer, is of passenger reservation system (PRS) booking and not of the actual number of passengers. So, the total number of bookings is 140 million in 2015-16. The total number of passengers could be somewhat different, since people would have booked for, say, May in January. In fact, January typically has the lowest number of passengers but maximum bookings, since the school vacations are in May, and with 120-day advance reservations, the maximum reservations are done in January.
In addition, this writer has been told that railway passengers would be somewhat higher since the PRS does not count infants and children below five years of age, while airlines do count them. Also, reservations done by train ticket examiner (TTE) on the platform or in the running train are not entered back in the PRS. Further, people with passes, particularly staff members, sometimes don’t do reservations in the PRS. So they don't get counted, while airlines will count any free ticket holder as a passenger.
On the other hand, PRS bookings include passengers who cancel tickets, which is quite substantial. So their names should be subtracted, but they are not.
Overall, the number of train passengers should be less than what this writer has quoted, but even if they are somewhat higher, the fact remains that only a decade ago, airline traffic was a fraction of the AC passenger traffic on Indian Railways, and now it is comparable.
This article first appeared in Dheeraj Sanghi's blog and has been republished here with permission.
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!