The superfast train, which recently turned 50, has established itself as a premium brand. But its redesigning 25 years ago was what made it more accessible
The Rajdhani Express, running between New Delhi and Howrah, recently completed 50 years in service. But it is no longer the same train that was introduced on March 1, 1969 as 101 Up and 102 Dn between New Delhi and Howrah. It has become a brand and proliferated on a number of routes connecting different state capitals with New Delhi. Its current avatar reflects the socio-economic and mental transformation of the Indian society as much as the technological evolution of the Indian Railways.
The time taken to travel between New Delhi and Howrah has remained more or less the same though. It was 17 hours and 20 minutes in 1969, when the train ran at a maximum speed of 115 km per hour. It is in the vicinity of 17 hours now (unless one gets trapped for an extra hour between Ghaziabad and Delhi as is often the case) running at a maximum of 120 km per hour. But way back then, the engine could haul only five coaches to meet that speed requirement. Out of the five, only one was the AC Sleeper Car having 18 berths while the remaining four were AC Chair Car compartments, each having 71 chairs. The fares of two categories were as different as Rs 280 and Rs 90. But it was still able to find 96 per cent occupancy within three years.
Chair cars are not conducive for long and overnight journeys. But few complained about it for auxiliary advantages that the Rajdhani Express entailed like end-to-end air conditioning, great speed, complimentary quality food, books and magazines and excellent upkeep. It was like a flight on the rails. Only one had to endure it for 17 hours too long. But chair cars were not intentional on the part of the Indian Railways. Just that in those days, it was not possible to manufacture coaches having enough safety features to accommodate sleepers and simultaneously travel at such a high speed.
On May 17, 1972, the first Rajdhani Express between New Delhi and Bombay Central was introduced. Since both New Delhi-Howrah and New Delhi-Bombay ran twice a week, both trains were oversubscribed. For a long time, there was a demand to increase the accommodating capacity by adding coaches, increasing the frequency of trains and introducing Rajdhani Expresses on new routes. These demands pointed towards the growing clout of the Rajdhani brand. By the 1980s, Indian Railways was reportedly developing high speed coaches. But high speed locomotives were still not there. Thus on April 1, 1981, when another AC Chair Car coach (in view of increased demand) was added on the New Delhi-Bombay Central route, authorities conceded that the speed would be reduced, which could be compensated by putting an additional locomotive.
Since the mid-1980s, powerful locomotives took over gradually. The Express hauled no less than 16 habitable coaches without suffering retardation in speed. Madhav Rao Scindia, Rajiv Gandhi’s Railway Minister, is considered one of the best ever. Under him, the railway locomotion, dominated by steam engines until the middle of the 1980s, gave way to diesel engines. But it was a barren period as far as Rajdhani Express was concerned. There were clamouring voices in Parliament to introduce Rajdhani Express to Madras (now Chennai), Secunderabad and Bangalore which he sternly rejected. He rather introduced the Shatabdi Express in 1988, which ran faster than the Rajdhani but for a lesser distance without the need for an overnight journey.
But a new phase opened up in the early 1990s, when C.K. Jaffer Sharief became the Railway Minister. Sharief, perhaps being from Karnataka, treated those voices from the South with sympathy. In his first railway budget on February 25, 1992, he announced weekly Rajdhani Expresses from New Delhi to Secunderabad and Bangalore respectively. Based on passengers’ response, he even announced that new Rajdhani services would be introduced on the Madras and Thiruvananthapuram routes. In 1993, a weekly Rajdhani Express was started from Hazrat Nizamuddin to Madras. Simultaneously, both the original Rajdhani Expresses to Howrah and Bombay Central respectively became a daily phenomenon.
Sharief was somehow determined to play Santa Claus with the Rajdhani Express. By the end of his term in 1996, the premium train was operating on 11 different routes from New Delhi. He also took an important decision to replace the AC chair cars with AC 3-tier on all Rajdhani Expresses. The bedrolls were to be supplied by the Indian Railways. This, however, had a cost to the customer, which was 25 per cent higher.
The AC 3-tier coaches (with 67 berths) manufactured at Railway Coach Factory at Kapurthala (estd.1986) around 1994 were innovative products that became extremely popular. By the end of 1996, they had been introduced on 46 trains, including 11 Rajdhani Express routes. It was a game-changer for the Indian Railways.
The advent of AC 3 tier, replacing the chair car, signified a reconceptualisation of the Rajdhani Express. It was the end of that elite train as one knew it for 25 years. It was now a “normal” super fast train where passengers could spend their nights sleeping rather than be seated. It was actually this feature that made the Rajdhani Express India’s favourite train whereas earlier it was just exotic. Today it is a brand among long distance AC superfast trains. The demand for introducing the service on new routes is constantly heard in both houses of Parliament. In October 2017, the present government introduced a weekly service on the New Delhi-Agartala route, the longest distance covered by any Rajdhani Express. But at the same time the frequency of the New Delhi-Bhubaneswar Rajdhani via Bhadrak and Adra was reduced from thrice to twice a week as an alternate route was opened up through Sambalpur City.
With the introduction of dynamic pricing, a berth in Rajdhani Express could be dearer by 150 per cent than its notified price. But on the other hand the government is experimenting with cost-cutting measures that hit service quality. For instance, from last year, snacks and soups have been reduced or taken off from the menu. Is Rajdhani Express still evolving or scrambling?
(The writer is an independent researcher based in New Delhi. The views expressed herein are his personal)