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Business Travel Still On Track

Railways Revamp, VIE For Travel PIE
Pic: Express Archives

Low-cost carriers have, no doubt, spread their wings far and wide. But when it comes to short distance travel, it is the Indian Railways that still holds sway for the business traveller, especially after the Railway Budget 2006-07. Reema Sisodia finds out why

Picture this. Mr X living in Mumbai has a morning appointment in Pune. He takes a cab to the airport to take his morning flight, which takes 45 minutes from his house in South Mumbai. He reaches 45 minutes before his scheduled departure and on concluding the 35-minute flight, he goes through the mandatory 'check-out' drill at the Pune airport, located on the outskirts. He finally takes a cab to reach his meeting venue in the city.

Grand edifice of Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus, Mumbai
Pic: Express Archives

On the other hand, Mr Y decides to hop into the early morning train that would take him to Pune into the heart of the city in time for his morning appointment. All he did was reach the platform 10 minutes before departure, caught up on work on his laptop, enjoyed the scenic beauty of the Western Ghats and reached his destination hassle-free, clocking approximately the same time that it would take for his counterpart who opted to fly down.

Like Mr Y here, there are many across the country who swear by the railways as the preferred mode of transport especially on short distance routes, and routes that offer the facility and convenience of travelling overnight city to city. One of them is Manojeet Chowdhury, sales director, Hexaware Technologies who says, "My job at one point required me to travel between Mumbai and Pune on a regular basis. I was a routine traveller on the Mumbai-Pune Shatabdi Express and found it to be extremely comfortable when compared to the option of travelling by air. Though I had the choice to fly, it was the trains for me all through. Hassle-free is how I would like to describe the journey. The bonus is that one can catch up on work en route, with your laptop by your side, which is difficult if one decides to fly, as it entails a number of breaks in the journey. Also, the chances of delayed schedules are much greater in flights as compared to the trains. Without doubt I would vote for the train rather than air, especially on short distance routes."

Seconding his view is Ferris Caustill, regional sales executive, Pune-based Shaw Wallace. "I travel to Mumbai on the weekend and this is possible only because of the convenience that the trains offer. The Indrayani Express takes me to work on time on a Monday morning," he says.

Connectivity Convenience Cost
Route: Mumbai - Ahmedabad
Train: 2009 Shatabdi Express, except Friday
Time: Mumbai (Dep) 6.25
Surat (Dep) 10.01
Vadodara (Dep) 11.52
Ahmedabad (Arr) 13.35
Class: A C Executive chair car A C chair car
Fare: 810/- 410/- (Mumbai-Surat)
1295/- 675/- (Mumbai- Ahmebadad)
Route: New Delhi - Kalka (via Chandigarh)
Train: 2011 Shatabdi Express
Time: New Delhi (Dep) 7:40 AM
Chandigarh (Arr) 11:15 AM
Class: A C Executive chair car A C chair car
Fare: 620/- 415/- (Chandigarh)
Route: Howrah - Ranchi (via Dhanbad)
Train: 2019 Shatabdi Express, except Sunday
Time: Howrah (Dep) 06:05 am
Dhanbad (Dep) 09:16 am
Bokaro Steel City (Dep) 10:42 AM
Ranchi (Arr) 13:15
Class: A C Executive Class chair car A C chair car
Fare: 825/- 420/- (Dhandad)
1000/- 530/- (Bokaro Steel city)
----- 635/-(Ranchi)
(Fares could change from 1st April, 2006, in accordance with the announcement made in the Rail Budget 2006-07 leading to reduction in fares)
Route: Mumbai - Surat (No airlines on this route)
Mumbai - Ahmedabad
Airline: SpiceJet 106
Time: Mumbai (BOM) (Dep) 8:50:AM
Ahmedabad (AMD) (Arr) 9:50:AM
Class: Economy
Fare: 1799/-
Airline: Air Sahara 207
Time: Mumbai (BOM) (Dep) 7:20 AM
Ahmedabad (AMD) (Arr) 8:20:AM
Class: Economy
Fare: 1999/-
Airline: Jet Airways 327
Time: Mumbai (BOM) (Dep) 9:55 AM
Ahmedabad (AMD) (Arr) 10:55:AM
Class: Economy
Fare: 2387/-
Route: New Delhi - Chandigarh
Airline: Indian Airlines 864
Time: New Delhi (Del) (Dep)1:15 PM
Chandigarh (Ixc)) (Arr) 1: 55 PM
Class: Economy
Fare: 3084/-
Airline: Jet Airways 3303
Time: New Delhi (Del) (Dep)12:40 PM
Chandigarh (Ixc)) (Arr) 1: 40 PM
Class: Economy
Fare: 3173/-
Airline: Air Deccan - DN-537
Time: New Delhi (Del) (Dep) 12:50 PM
Chandigarh (Ixc)) (Arr) 1: 40 PM
Class: Economy
Fare: 1,179/-

Short And Sweet

Cutting across the length and the breath of the country, the Indian Railways touches four zones, namely North, South, East and West. The Shatabdi Express has risen up the popularity charts especially for business travellers as it connects leading cities and business zones, within a 500 kilometre radius. One of the hottest selling Shatabdi routes in the western zone is between Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

With a strike rate of approximately 80 per cent occupancy, it is the most preferred mode of transport for businessmen travelling to Surat. The route also passes through the industrial belts, namely Vapi, from where destinations such as the Union Territories of Daman, Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli are accessible. A number of companies find it convenient to carry out bulk bookings for their staff who travel on the sector regularly. Expressing his views on the same is Jason Samuel, head of travel operations, Essar Group. He says, "We have our business connections in the Surat belt, which calls for around 40 people from our company travelling to Surat from Mumbai almost every day. Our travel to Jamnagar is also extremely frequent for which we rely on the railways."

What makes rail travel attractive is also the option of venturing on a comfortable overnight journey without sacrificing a good night's sleep, which is always the case when one opts to take an early morning or late night flight. Says J Harikrishnan, a software professional from iGate Technologies, Bangalore, "I may be conventional in my thinking, but in my opinion, there is nothing more comfortable than a train journey. I'd rather relax in the train with a full night's sleep and reach my destination fresh and fine, rather than having to go through the rituals at the airports. To top everything, Bangalore has only one runway and most of the flights are delayed. Unless and until it is an emergency, I would choose to travel by train at all times. Of course, when the distance stretches beyond 500 kilometres, it doesn't make sense travelling by trains. However, I still vouch for the fact that for short distances, no low cost carrier can match the comfort of train travel."

Dr K M Cherian, CEO of Chennai-based Dr K M Cherian Foundation and Frontier Lifeline Hospitals, visits the St Gregorious Hospital, Parumala, in Kerala almost every weekend. Though the distance between Chennai and Parumala is more than 600 kilometres, the renowned cardiologist prefers taking a train instead of a flight to Kochi. His logic is very simple. "Taking a flight is a lot more effort," he reasons. It takes an hour to reach the airport from his hospital and another hour is spent at the airport before the flight takes off. The flight travel of almost two hours, luggage waiting time and the road journey of more than two hours from Trivandrum or Kochi airport totals to more than six hours, while the Trivandrum Mail takes about 12 hours to reach Chengannur (the station closest to Parumala) but is a fairly direct journey.

Though there are people like Harikrishnan and Dr Cherian who consider the railways as a practical and convenient mode of transport especially on short haul trips, one cannot deny the fact that a sizeable number of travellers have opted for low cost carriers especially on longer routes. Dr R Gupta, senior cardiac surgeon who has to travel between Kolkata and Delhi or Mumbai, twice or thrice a month and Jayaraman, program manager, IBM Global Services, India belong to this genre. Says Gupta, "I would still opt to fly, keeping in view the distance and the cost factor. The fares offered by airlines still remain attractive. Flight costs between Delhi and Kolkata or Mumbai start from about Rs 1,500 and can go up to about Rs 3,500. Fares for Rajdhani Express' second AC between Delhi and Kolkata is about Rs 2,000, while the first AC would cost nearly Rs 3,700. But initiatives like setting up of ATMs and cyber cafes at major stations by the Railways is a commendable move."

Waking Up To Competition

Sensing competition from the low cost carriers, relating to passenger viewpoints, and without getting into the over-confident mode about being popular on the short distance routes, the railways gave a fitting reply to its newly emerged competition through its Rail Budget 2006-07. The budget announced a slew of proposals aimed at wooing back passengers from the low-cost carriers.

In addition, I K Chari, director (Public Relations) at Ministry of Railways, says, "We are focussing on providing passengers with faster trains and better services, which will be comparable to international standards. In trains like Rajdhanis and Shatabdis, new technology LHB design passenger coaches will be introduced. A lot of importance has also been given to the amenities provided onboard. IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Corporation Limited) will be soon awarding licenses for onboard services through open bids. In order to enhance services at railway stations, pilot projects will be undertaken to improve waiting room conditions in stations under public-private partnerships. Moreover, pantry cars and catering units at big stations would also fall under the purview of open bidding by private parties and would be managed independently by IRCTC."

On Track
The Indian Railways have declared Year 2006 as the ‘Year of Passenger Service with a Smile.’ It has introduced a slew of facilities and services and also made number of announcements in the Rail Budget 2006-'07 for the same

Reduction in Fares and Travel Time

  • 18 per cent reduction in AC First Class and 10 per cent in two tier AC fares.
  • Journey time of the majority of the Shatabdis, Rajdhanis and certain Mail/Express will be reduced.
  • Over 200 Mail and Express trains to be made Super Fast.

Introduction of New Trains

55 new trains (27 weekly, 5 bi-weekly, 5-tri-weekly and 14 daily) have been announced in the Rail Budget for different destinations across the country.

Special upgradation schemes

Effective from February 26, 2006 the scheme of up gradation of full fare passengers to next higher class against the availability of vacant seats at no extra cost for accommodating waitlisted passengers has been extended to all Mail/Express Trains including Rajdhani and Shatabdi.

On-line booking

  • Charges leviable on issue of e-tickets reduced.
  • i-ticket and e-ticket can also be bought through Rail Travel Service Agents.
  • 800 more UTS centres to be opened.

Improvement in passenger amenities

  • All 'A' & 'B' category stations to be made model stations.
  • Modern facilities such as ATM, cyber cafes, etc. to be provided at all major stations.
  • Pilot project started to upgrade retiring rooms, waiting rooms, station buildings, lavatories, etc. under public-private partnership schemes at a few stations, to be expanded further.
  • Four popular trains to be provided with world-class passenger amenities and interiors.
  • IRCTC to award license through open bidding to provide all on board services.

“Shubh Yatra” for frequent travellers

Shubh Yatra scheme has been launched for frequent travellers through Indian Railways' subsidiary Indian Railway Catering & Tourism Corporation Limited (IRCTC) in joint partnership with SBI Card. Applicable only for those booking tickets online (www.irctc.co.in) entitles them up to 10 per cent of their ticket fare as Railway Points on all AC class travel except 3AC depending on their date of travel. The points so accrued can then be used to purchase free railway tickets booked online.

A Welcome Move

The railway budget has received applauds from all quarters, business travellers included. Corporate travellers have expressed their happiness on these new changes. Sanjay Chaudhary, managing director, Reliable Infotech Pvt. Ltd based in Kolkata, says "Our company provides IT solution to clients, so we have to always travel to client locations in the industrial Durgapur-Asansol region in West Bengal and Dhanbad in Jharkhand at least thrice a week. Shatabdi proves to be a great option due to its convenient schedule and quality service such as providing the morning newspaper, packaged drinking water, breakfast, tea/coffee, etc. The new changes are only welcome and I am looking forward to them."

Words of Caution

Though corporates have voted the 2006-07 Railway Budget as positive, they are also of the option that few changes are vital to make railways all the more attractive. C Venkat Subramanayam, director, Veda Corporate Advisors Pvt Ltd, frequents Bangalore and Coimbatore on work and prefers to take the train especially the Chennai-Bangalore route which is about 470 kilometres with travel time of five hours if travelling by the super fast Shatabdi Express.

In the fully air-conditioned train, passengers can opt to take the chair car costing Rs 505 or the Rs 990 executive class ticket where passengers are provided with breakfast and other snacks while travelling. "We do believe in cost cutting and trains are a better option for short distances, especially if it is like the Shatabdi Express, as trains also help in connecting even remote destinations," he avers.

But, he also puts in a word of caution and complains against the lack of hygiene in trains. He states, "The budget might make fares cheaper but it is important for the railways to upgrade its facilities if it wants to lure back the air traveller." Supporting his views is Dr Cherian, "While trains are definitely a preferred option for short distance travel, it is important to improve the amenities. The services need to be modernised and hygiene and sanitation should be taken into consideration. Trains could have good restaurants and offer frequent travellers incentives like traveller points,” he opines, adding the need for lounge facilities in railway stations. “They could offer free upgrades and most importantly, safety for travellers.”

The reflections of the Rail Budget 2006-’07 seem to point to the fact that they have clearly understood the needs of their customers. What remains to be seen now is how soon the formulations are implemented and whether business travellers like Dr Cherian would be truly smiling by the end of their journey.

Pic: Mexy Xavier

First Class AC Coach of Mumbai-Delhi Rajdhani
Pic: Express Archives

Chair car of Mumbai-Ahmedabad Shatabdi Express
Pic: Mexy Xavier

Executive chair car comfort of Mumbai-Ahmedabad Shatabdi Express
Pic: Mexy Xavier

Sockets for laptop & charging of mobiles in the executive chair car of Mumbai-Ahmedabad Shatabdi Express
Pic: Mexy Xavier

Mumbai-Delhi Rajdhani Express departing Mumbai Central station
Pic: Mexy Xavier

First Class AC coupe of Mumbai-Delhi August Kranti Rajdhani Express
Pic: Express Archives

Pic: Express Archives
Pic: Mexy Xavier

(With inputs, from Joy Roy Chowdhury (Kolkata), Priya Krishnaswamy (Bangalore), Sanjeev Bhar (Delhi) and Preeti Kannan (Chennai)

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