Gatiman Express, the first semi high-speed train of the country, launched amidst much fanfare on April 6, 2016 from Delhi to Agra completed almost four years of operations before the pandemic hit the entire world in 2020. During this time however the train did not fare well vis-à-vis its ridership. Between April 2016 and October 2019, the train failed to achieve 100% occupancy in any of the four years when starting from Hazrat Nizamuddin station in Delhi. This information has been provided by the Indian Railways in response to an RTI application filed by this reporter.
The train recorded only 64.4% and 65.7% occupancy in 2016 and 2017 respectively when its destination was Agra. On its return to Delhi the same day, the train did marginally better with 65.2% and 76% occupancy in its first two years. Subsequently its route was extended to Gwalior in February 2018 and eventually to Jhansi in April the same year and the occupancy improved significantly. The train recorded 96.5% and 93.9% of occupancy in 2018 and 2019 respectively when travelling from Delhi. On its return journey the occupancy was 103% and 104.8% in these two years.
The RTI application also asked for information on ridership of Taj Express and Bhopal Shatabdi Express for the same time period. Both the trains have exclusively chair car coaches and start from Delhi. Shatabdi Express which is an all-AC chair car train like Gatiman, starts from Delhi in the early morning and reaches Bhopal in the afternoon and returns to Delhi in the evening the same day. Taj Express with both AC and non-AC chair car coaches also starts from Delhi in the morning and travels to Jhansi and returns to Delhi in the evening the same day.
Both trains recorded much higher occupancy than Gatiman when starting from Delhi at more than 100% for all four years as shown in Graph 1. While returning Shatabdi Express records far greater occupancy than both trains while Taj since 2018 has recorded lesser occupancy than Gatiman, illustrated in Graph 2.
Gatiman Express fares poorly than Shatabdi in occupancy even though it has 736 total available berths almost half that of the Shatabdi with 1204 berths. Both trains have lesser number of berths than the Taj Express which has a total of 1662 berths available as per the latest information available in the RTI response.
Multiple short-distance trains launched amidst “push for tourism”
All three trains were launched in different decades in the name of “push for tourism”. Taj Express was the first ever dedicated tourist train of the country launched in 1964 with in-train meal service, swanky chair cars and travel bookings to monuments in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri available alongside booking of train berths. Though named after Taj Mahal in Agra the destination of the train was changed to Gwalior in 1985 and eventually to Jhansi in 2006.
The first in the series of Shatabdi Express was launched from Delhi to Jhansi in 1988 on the occasion of the birth centenary of Jawaharlal Nehru. The fastest train yet, Shatabdi became synonymous with speed in common parlance and a symbol for luxury travel. Its stretch was later extended to Bhopal and as is evident it maintains considerable popularity with a consistently high occupancy rate. More Shatabdi trains were introduced on various routes across the country in the coming years often connecting important tourist destinations, capital cities and other important cities with each other.
Gatiman Express was launched as the first semi-high speed train of the country in 2016. The then Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu in his speech at the launch event of the train regarded the running of the train as a fulfilment of PM Narendra Modi’s dream. He added that there were plans to run more Gatiman trains in the future on other routes in a “push for tourism”. Gatiman clocked a slightly better travel time than Shatabdi between Delhi and Agra. Introduction of more Gatiman trains has yet to be materialised.
All three trains depart from Delhi in the early morning within hours of each other with Shatabdi departing the earliest followed by Taj and Gatiman respectively. Gatiman returns to Delhi in the evening the earliest followed by Taj and Shatabdi, a few hours apart from each other. The failure of Gatiman to achieve 100% occupancy in all four years when starting from Delhi and that of Taj in three out of four years when returning to the national capital indicates that the supply of train services for tourists exceeds the demand for the same.
Neglecting the non-tourist commuters
While Indian railways has been mindful of the need for tourists starting from Delhi on short-distance journeys enroute Agra-Gwalior-Jhansi-Bhopal stretch over the years, similar attention has not been given to regular commuters who travel to the national capital for various reasons. These commuters include students, professionals, businessmen and entrepreneurs and those travelling for miscellaneous reasons such as catching domestic or international flights from Delhi.
For such travellers starting from their respective cities in the early morning and reaching Delhi during working hours is important. Yet there is a dearth or complete absence of short-distance trains express on this route which reach Delhi in the morning belying expectations of non-tourist commuters. In the absence of short-distance express trains many passengers have to rely upon long and medium distance trains travelling towards Delhi in the morning which often get late due to their long journeys resulting in the passengers missing their scheduled appointments.
Indian railways is yet to evolve a policy based approach in planning short-distance routes for express trains to and from Delhi. Over scheduling train services for tourists is resulting in empty seats while lack of services for non-tourist commuters continues to cause inconvenience for many.