I've always been scared around gadgets and software. And in awe of people who're good with them. After three years of science and tech reporting though, I think I'm starting to get the hang of things. Before this, I covered automobiles, health, careers and business, for seven years. Nice thing about technology is, it lets me poach into all those fields once in a while. I love this job. But I'm not sure how I managed to land it. I did my BA in Advertising from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce and MA in Journalism from Madurai Kamaraj University. I wanted to be a cartoonist, a guitar player and a footballer but sucked in all those fields. I can play the flute and harmonica though. And I have an interest in machines that move - it was cars and bikes earlier but considering there's nothing revolutionary happening there, it's military stuff now. I'm the sort who drools over figures. Not the 36-24-36 types. But top speed, acceleration, fuel consumption, drag co-efficient. I drive an Alto though. And usually take the Metro to work.
So was it a good railway budget? I really wouldn't know - the experts would know better.
This write-up is about something the experts probably forgot about. About commuting on rails, within Delhi. Of course, our world class metro will have a three hundred kilometer network by 2016. Over two million people use it everyday. By all accounts, it's a very profitable venture.
But there's a shadow network in Delhi that rivals the Metro's reach and spread. It links posh areas like Maurya Sheraton and Taj Palace Hotels in Dhaula Kuan, Delhi University's south campus colleges, the Chanakyapuri diplomatic enclave, market hubs like Sarojini Nagar, Lajpat Nagar & Karol Bagh, office complexes near Connaught Place and ITO.
Yet, hardly 5,000 people ride the ring rail service every day. Most ride ticketless. In fact, some stations don't have functional ticket counters at all. Those honest souls who do pay need just Rs 12 for a round trip - ridiculously cheap.
Other lines link to residential and commercial hubs like Okhla, Gurgaon, Ghaziabad & Faridabad. Traders and blue collar workers from outside Delhi ride these trains - but most MNC execs prefer to get stuck in traffic jams instead. Newspaper articles suggest the network could take seven thousand cars off our roads, if properly used.
Most middle class folks don't know this network exists. Those who do back off immediately - because of the service. Just three trains ply in the morning and evening on the ring rail network. They're often late, up to an hour sometimes. The station exits usually open into narrow, dirty alleyways - more than a kilometer away from the main road.
Still, it's hard to believe these routes can't be made profitable. Delhi Metro's line from Inderlok to Mundka and from Shastri Park to Dilshad Garden almost runs parallel to the suburban railway line. They seem happy with the business. And while some stops on the separate Delhi Ring Rail are admittedly best described as slums, like I mentioned in the beginning, it does have some plum stations too.
But railway officials aren't really interested. The capital attracts more than 300 trains and 360,000 interstate passengers everyday. Stations at New and Old Delhi and Hazrat Nizamuddin can barely handle the load and so many of these trains are diverted and made to wait on Delhi's internal rail network.
There has been talk of creating a new Orbital Rail network on the outer perimeters of the city, to ease pressure on the lines within the city. But like most government projects, it'll probably take forever to actually see the light of day. Meanwhile, a potential money spinner for the Indian Railways slowly withers into oblivion.
Strangely, newspaper articles like this one suggest suburban railway lines could make pots of money. Across India, workers from nearby towns travelling to and out of major cities account for 52 per cent of the total number of Rail users. But their tickets are so cheap, they contribute just 7 per cent to the railways' passenger earnings. Better management could steeply raise that figure.
What's even more curious is this. Phase 3 of the Delhi Metro's expansion, includes a 56 km line linking Mukundpur on one corner of the city to Yamuna Vihar on another corner. Look closely at the map and you'll notice its route, especially in the centre of the city, closely overlaps with tracks the Indian Railways already has.
Makes you wonder if the existing infrastructure couldn't simply be upgraded and used. It could spell crores of money saved.