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A letter to Mr Ram Naik

Mr Ram Naik,
Minister of State for Railways,
Government of India,
New Delhi.

Like many opposition leaders you were fond of pointing out that the Mumbai suburban railway is the only one in the country that is not subsidised. Yet soon after you assumed office you did not hesitate to raise suburban fares. If this means that you were wrong in complaining about high fares while in the opposition, you must promise not to agitate on this matter when you will once again be in the opposition, as you will no doubt soon be if the prices of onions and vegetables rise any higher.

On the other hand, it may simply be that the higher fares were intended to raise funds to improve the suburban railway system. For months we waited to see evidence of this but were only rewarded with news of more stone throwing at commuters, accidents and assault in broad daylight.

Recently, however, we heard about the fancy coupon validating machines that were launched on the central railway at a cost that makes the mind boggle. No doubt you believe that if you throw sufficient money at a problem it will go away. Permit me to suggest that in most instances the problem is not money.

I will begin by talking about the coupon validating machines now installed on the western railway route. When they were first launched I never tired of telling people to buy coupons. They were an indication that the western railway was serious about providing good service to commuters. But my hopes were soon belied. And you will realise why if you accompany me on any day to Andheri station, or indeed to any other railway station.

On the average day, barely one of the coupon validating machine will be in working condition.If you are unlucky your coupons will get stuck and tear in the machine. That means a few rupees gone down the drain; no doubt this is a good way of augmenting railway revenues. Some of the machines will print the date and time so faintly that you are not sure whether the coupons will be regarded as valid. The trouble is that in the time you spend finding a validating machine that works, you could have got yourself a ticket by standing in an old-fashioned queue. That is what I do now.

Installing machines that light up alternative routes in a fancy way won't solve this problem. It will only make a big hole in the railway budget while not benefiting commuters in any way. Pasting up plain posters with the prices of various distances would have worked equally effectively. To make the coupon system work, what you really need is a team of technicians who will regularly check validating machines at all stations and respond to complaints about non-working machines.

To continue on the theme that money is not the problem, take a look at Platform No 6. Getting out of this platform on a crowded day can be quite a pain. Yet two benches are placed square in the middle of the platform; the aim seems to be to make it even more difficult for commuters to leave the platform. Two years ago when the railways put up notices inviting suggestions from the public I went to the station master's office to write that the benches be moved back. I was informed that Suggestion Week was over and that suggestions could not therefore be accepted. I hope this amuses you. Moving the benches back won't cost much money but it will benefit commuters immensely. While on the question of space, I also wonder whose bright idea it was to allot space to a stall on this platform. Similarly, levelling the platforms and bridges will ensure that water does not collect in pools and obstruct movement during the monsoons. Also, I don't see what purpose the knee high iron poles at the entrance to the station serves, except to damage knee caps and slow down movement.

Some problems of course call for heavy capital investments. So I must end by asking why the new bridge at Andheri station has not been opened to the public although work on it seems to have been going on for ages.