New Delhi, Lucknow: Palpable excitement, child-like curiosity and a tinge of cynicism — this is what marked the mood of passengers boarding the Tejas Express, touted to be India’s first ‘private’ train, on the third day of its operation Sunday.
ThePrint also hopped onto the train to get a sense of what drives people to opt for something like Tejas, and whether their experience justified the hype around it. While many passengers disembarked beaming with pride, many others weren’t nearly as satisfied.
The newly-inaugurated Tejas runs from New Delhi Railway Station to Lucknow Junction in the Uttar Pradesh capital. Operating on one of the country’s busiest routes, the train, run by the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), is being seen as a potential disrupter of the monopoly of the Indian Railways on trains in India.
Soon after boarding the train, several passengers began clicking photographs and video calling their families and showing them around — the excitement ubiquitous.
“I had an Indigo flight ticket to Varanasi, but when I heard about Tejas, I cancelled that ticket and decided to take the train instead,” said businessman P.N. Singh, who chose to get down at Lucknow Junction and take a cab to Varanasi instead of a direct flight to his hometown.
“I know it will take me more time, but it’s worth it,” Singh told ThePrint. “I had a lot of curiosity about this train and unless we opt for these newer, faster trains, how else will we partake in India’s development?”
While the actual infrastructure of the Tejas Express, which includes locomotives, coaches, loco pilots, guards and security personnel, are under the Indian Railways, the services provided, such as ticketing and refunds, catering and housekeeping, are contracted to private players by the IRCTC under the public-private partnership (PPP) model.
According to the agreement between IRCTC and the private service providers, the private players will share the profits they make with IRCTC, which will then pay haulage charges to the Indian Railways.
‘Serve like this is an airplane on tracks’
The standout feature of the Tejas are the staff who appear to resemble an airline crew — both in attire and in manner. That, however, shouldn’t come as a surprise as it turns out that most of them have been hired from air hostess training academies.
Vaishnavi Gupta and Deepa Singh are two of the many crew members hired from the FlyWay Air Hostess Training Institute, Aviation Academy in Lucknow. They had to sit through a three-round selection process for IRCTC to hire them especially for Tejas.
“We were told to think of this as exactly an airplane, only that it doesn’t fly but operates on the rail. Our hospitality and customer service needs to match that of an airplane staff,” Gupta and Singh tell ThePrint.
Their badges read ‘coach crew’ (presumably taking off from ‘cabin crew’) as they go around asking passengers if they are interested in buying products such as bluetooth speakers, headphones, chargers and hand creams — much like merchandise sold on flights.
Not surprisingly, the passengers are mighty impressed by the polite and amiable service.
“One really doesn’t expect such service from Indian Railways. They are giving everyone a warm welcome and treating the passengers with such politeness — it’s pretty impressive,” said 19-year-old Shaiq Rehman, a Delhi University student on his way to visit relatives in Kanpur.
But the crew on Tejas is at present getting no off days, barring Tuesday, when the train doesn’t run, as the train is grossly understaffed.
Gupta is on the third consecutive day of her job, and she along with other crew members have to report at 4:30 am at Lucknow Junction to prepare for the 6:10 am train that arrives in New Delhi at 12:25 pm. The same crew then heads back from New Delhi via the 3:35 pm train that arrives in Lucknow at 10:05 pm. The same routine is repeated the next day.
“But IRCTC is hiring more staff for Tejas, once they do, we will be working on alternate days,” she told ThePrint.
‘Ticket price not worth it’
Beyond the impressive optics of it, what most passengers were looking for was speed that would be worth the money. Many, however, were left disappointed on that score.
The New Delhi to Lucknow Tejas Express ticket is priced at Rs 1,280 for the AC chair car or the economy class but passengers eventually have to pay Rs 1,660 with all add-ons. On the other hand, a ticket of the Swarna Shatabdi — the fastest train on this route before Tejas — sells for around Rs 1,160. But given that the Tejas was expected to cut the time between Delhi and Lucknow from six hours 40 minutes taken by the Swarna Shatabdi to six hours 15 minutes, most passengers were willing to give this a shot.
“The train isn’t as fast as we had expected,” said Anwar Ameen, a businessman traveling from New Delhi to Kanpur. “Given how it is Rs 500-700 more than the Shatabdi, it should have taken significantly less time. Ultimately, what matters is how much time a train journey can help us save.”
Also, since the Tejas is a private train, the fares will be dynamic and dictated by the market, which means they could also increase further.
The Tejas has two stoppages before Lucknow — one at Ghaziabad and the other at Kanpur.
For passengers heading to Kanpur, there already exists India’s first semi-high speed self-propelled train, the Vande Bharat Express, besides the Shatabdi.
While the Vande Bharat takes four hours at a ticket price of Rs 1,080 to reach Kanpur from New Delhi, the Tejas takes five hours and Rs 1,155 to reach Kanpur, while the Shatabdi also takes five hours and costs almost as much as Tejas.
“I will go back to Shatabdi or Vande Bharat over Tejas, since there isn’t much difference in time taken even though Tejas is more expensive,” said Ameen. “It doesn’t make any sense to then opt for Tejas when there are cheaper, better options.”
Even for some passengers travelling up to the last stop — Lucknow — the Shatabdi seemed to be their train of choice.
“If I have to choose between a Rs 1,000 Shatabdi ticket and a Rs 1,700 Tejas ticket, I’d definitely go for Shatabdi,” said Aparna, assistant professor at Dr Shakuntala Misra National Rehabilitation University (DSMNRU).
“While Tejas does has more polite staff, there isn’t much else to it. Shatabdi is also clean like the Tejas and their food is also as good.”
The flipside of privatisation
One of the aspects that makes Tejas exciting is its unique, promising features — passengers will get a compensation of Rs 100 for a delay of over an hour and that of Rs 250 for delay of two hours and more. The IRCTC is also offering free insurance of Rs 25 lakh for the passengers of Tejas, which includes insurance against theft or robbery during the travel.
The privatisation also means that passengers will not be able to avail of any concessions they get on regular trains — no subsidised fares for senior citizens, cancer patients, students or even railway staff.
This stuck out like a sore thumb for some of the passengers.
“I have always been given a senior citizen discount on a Shatabdi,” said 70-year-old Satish Chand Sighal traveling from Delhi to Lucknow. “Tejas must also extend a subsidy of this sort — the senior citizens of the country really require it.”
But not everyone seems to mind the privatisation and the increasing costs.
“If the government would be running the Railways fine, then the very need for privatisation wouldn’t have arisen,” Singh, the businessman, said. “This means a private train was certainly needed.
“Moreover, even Tejas is contributing to the country — by hiring citizens and giving people a chance to earn a livelihood,” he added.
The emphasis on cleanliness was evident in how the coaches were being swept at regular intervals to keep it spick and span.
“Even Shatabdi started off being very clean,” said Ameen. “Ultimately, it’s up to the passengers to keep the train clean and tidy. This is the newer, more expensive Shatabdi. Let’s see how long this one remains clean.”