“I feel like I have gotten so used to all the issues with Chennai’s suburban rail that I don’t even feel like complaining about it anymore,” says Sivaraman, with a half hearted smile as he waits at the Thiruvanmiyur railway station in Chennai, to board the train to Chennai Beach station after a day’s work. When asked if he has ever tried lodging a complaint about all these ‘issues’ that he refers to, he said he has done so several times but no change has been made.
However, the 54-year-old, who has been using the suburban rail in Chennai regularly over the last three decades says that he will continue to use the local train service, as it is an “affordable” mode of transportation for many daily commuters like him. This opinion by Sivaraman was echoed by several other commuters.
With 2.5 million passengers using the suburban trains daily and 401.7 million passengers every year, Chennai’s suburban rail system is the second largest in India in terms of its length and third largest in terms of commuters served after Mumbai and Kolkata. However, the local train services have been in the news time and again for various issues ranging from lack of safety for commuters, violence against women, poor infrastructure facilities, lack of parking spaces in railway stations and so on.
Most common grievances
One of the complaints that we hear commonly from commuters, both men and women, is over the lack of security personnel on platforms and railway stations on most days. Soudamini, who works as a staff in a textile shop in Velachery says that when she returns back to Taramani at night after a day’s work, the platforms are usually empty except for a few other commuters and sometimes, there are also men clearly under the influence of alcohol.
“Sometimes, even during the day these stations can be a little scary, especially for women since the basement areas of the stations where we have to walk are dark in the absence of proper lighting. And most of the time, there is not a single police personnel in sight and this adds to our fear,” adds Soudamini.
J Ranganathan, Secretary of Kanchipuram Rail Commuters’ Association also says that there is not a single outpost of the Railway Protection Force (RPF) at the twelve railway stations on the Chengalpattu-Arakkonam route.
Another common problem arises due to the delayed arrival of trains, which affects students and office goers most critically. “As far as the Kanchipuram section is concerned, it is the only single track in the Chennai division. This means two trains cannot pass each other at the same time and this causes a lot of delay,” says Ranganathan, who also adds that the Kanchipuram Rail Commuters’ Association have been demanding for their section to be converted into double track for several years now.
Apart from these, there are poor parking facilities in the stations, unhygienic toilets and even no toilets in some stations, lack of drinking water facilities, all of which bother commuters. But what one can do about these problems and how can these issues be brought to the attention of the authorities?
Complaint redressal mechanism
According to Ranganathan, one of the basic faults of the complaint redressal mechanism of the Chennai suburban railways is that it has failed to reach commuters; most are not aware of the existence of such a mechanism itself. So what is this mechanism?
“The avenues to voice your grievances are multifold,” says an official from the public grievance cell of Southern Railway’s Chennai division, citing:
- Complaint registers in every station
Every suburban rail station in Chennai has a complaint register. It is either available at the ticket booking office or at the station master’s office. Any issues or grievance that the commuters wish to flag can be entered in this register, which is like a cheque book with each page having a serial number. A copy of the complaint will also be given to the complainant. These registers are periodically sent to the central grievance officer of Southern Railways, who is answerable to them. But the register can only be used by passengers and that too after showing their tickets.
- Toll free number
For issues that require immediate attention, passengers can dial 139 , which is the toll free number of Indian Railways. This will connect the caller to the railway helpline, which in turn would pass on the message to the concerned division, following which immediate assistance would be rendered to the passengers. For example, in the case of a theft or harassment, if you call the toll free number, they would immediately alert the RPF of the nearest division who would reach out to the concerned passenger immediately.
- Via email
Commuters can also register their complaints through email by sending complaints to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. All these mails will reach the public grievances cell of the Southern Railways and are then passed on to the concerned division. The status of the complaint and the action taken regarding it is further communicated to the complainant.
- Rail Madad app
Passengers can also make use of the Rail Madad website or the app for any kinds of inquiry, assistance and grievance redressal. When you open the website of Rail Madad, you will find various options such as “Train Complaint”, “Station complaint”, “Track your concern” and so on and depending on your requirements and grievances, you can select the option.
According to R Ananth, Additional Divisional Railway Manager (ADRM), Chennai division, passengers can make use of the Rail Madad platform as well for immediate redressal of their grievances. “Once a complaint has been registered, you will be notified of a time limit in which the grievance will be redressed. The time limit can vary from 30 minutes to even two hours depending on the complaint,” says Ananth.
The ADRM says that the complaints are also sourced from social media, especially through various handles such as “Railway Seva”, “DRM Chennai” and so on and that some of the complaints are even taken up and responded to directly by the ADRM himself. “On a daily basis, we receive around 25 to 40 complaints on Rail Madad and around 10 to 15 on social media. Most of the complaints are about the delay in trains and if its rainy season, about water seepage and issues, water clogging in stations and so on” says Ananth.
What actually happens
While every railway station is supposed to maintain a complaints register under the rules, in reality, these registers are not available in all stations, say members of various passenger associations. T Sadagopan, President of Tamil Nadu Progressive Consumer Centre, says that most of the complaints regarding Chennai’s suburban rail are shared with journalists and media houses rather than railway authorities, because commuters feel that may be a more effective way of having their grievances redressed.
“For a common man, recording their complaints at these registers at the railway station is a huge task. When they approach the station master or other officials for the register, the officials usually ask a bunch of questions and try their best to persuade the passengers not to lodge the complaint; in many cases, passengers eventually give up,” says Sadagopan.
Murugan, a member of the Thiruninravur Rail Passengers Welfare Association says that a huge chunk of the commuters who use the suburban rail services are daily wage labourers, vendors, office goers and students, who either don’t have the time or the patience to go through the efforts to lodge a complaint via email or apps. Many of them aren’t even aware about the existing mechanisms in place.
Converting MRTS stations into vibrant spaces
On being asked about the concerns of safety with regard to the MRTS stations in Chennai in the Velachery – Beach section, Ananth says that one of the main reasons for this is that the structure and layout of the stations are such that there is a lot of desolate space under these stations which are left unused and most of the time, due to lack of activity, these spaces become prone to anti social activities.
“We are coming up with a plan to develop these stations into more vibrant places, for example, bring in more shops and stalls and develop them commercially and turn them into hubs of activity. And at the same time, we would be naturally strengthening the presence of RPF personnel as well. Though I must say that these changes will require some time,” adds the ADRM.
Lack of meetings with citizen bodies, passenger associations
There are various passenger committees, such as the Divisional Rail Users Consultative Committee (DRUCC), Suburban Rail Users Consultative Committee (SRUCC) and Zonal Rail Users Consultative Committee (ZRUCC), which act as a bridge between the passengers and railway authorities to improve the working of the system. But the jurisdiction of each committee is different.
For example, DRUCC looks after the issues of a particular division, in this case, the Chennai division. This includes, all the trains running through the Chennai division, including suburban trains and the regular passenger and express trains. SRUCC is a committee that specifically addresses the issues faced by passengers using the suburban rail, while the ZRUCC looks into falling under the jurisdiction of various zones such as Southern Railway, Eastern Railway and so on.
The members of these Committees are selected from various sections of society and are also nominated by Members of Parliament (MP) ,Members of Legislative Assembly (MLA), two or three members from various registered railway associations like the Kanchipuram Rail Commuters Association, people from the agriculture sector, banking sectors, members from people with disabilities associations, etc.
“The tenure of these committees is usually for a period of two years, after which a new committee will be formed. However, in certain cases it can also be extended by one more year, for example in the current scenario of the pandemic, most of these committees couldn’t function properly, so naturally there will be an extension,” says Ranganathan, who also adds that the committees function according to the bylaws formed as per the rules decided with the meeting with railway authorities.
The committees have periodical meetings with the Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) or other senior railway officers to discuss the issues faced by commuters in the respective division/zone. The meetings of DRUCC takes place once in three months and that of SRUCC takes place once in a year. However, Murugan, who is also a member of the SRUCC, says that it’s been more than a year since SRUCC has had a meeting with the officials.
“The last meeting of SRUCC was held in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. SRUCC is the primary committee which discusses issues related to suburban railways but the problem is that even before COVID, we used to meet with the authorities once or twice in a year. Only if we get to meet the DRM or the officers at least quarterly, shall we get to see results,” says Murugan.
He also goes on to add that Railway officers keep changing which makes it more difficult to solve matters. “So if we give our complaints to one officer on a particular meeting, at the next meeting, we find ourselves face to face with some other officer. This means we have to start recounting the old complaints all over again and the cycle goes on like this for months and years together.”
According to Sadagopan, each and every service provider should conduct quarterly meetings with consumer organisations — in the case of railways, they should hear NGOs and passenger committees. “Even the District Collector and the Madras Transport Corporation, which runs the public bus service in Chennai, conduct regular meetings with voluntary consumer organisations. What’s stopping the Railway authorities from doing that?” asks Sadagopan.
The power to make decisions and allocate funds
The allocation of funds for the Chennai suburban rail network is based on the budget decided by the Central Railway Ministry, which members of the passenger associations and even some of the authorities feel is often not enough.
“All the powers regarding fund allocation are vested with the Railway board. The General Manager of a division decides only on the funding of areas like cleaning of railway premises, contract related to the cleaning and so on. But when it comes to funds regarding more trains, track doubling, construction of infrastructure and the rest, it has to be decided by the Railway Board,” says Ranganathan
Usually the General Manager of a particular division or MPs recommend funds to be allocated for their divisions or constituencies. This recommendation then has to go through the scrutiny of the Railway board and the Ministry, only after which they will earmark the funds and announce it in the yearly railway budget.
“I have raised several RTIs regarding the doubling of tracks between Arakkonam to Chengalpattu and I got a reply stating that no MPs have requested for this yet,” says Ranganathan, who also adds that the elected representatives have to take initiative as well and move the proposals to the railway board chairman and concerned general manager of that jurisdiction. “MP’s should also make an effort to consult commuter associations before meeting with the railway board authorities.”