Only a decade ago, any invitation to travel would have meant looking at train options, thinking about reservations. For official travel, one could look at flights, but traveling with family meant trains. Not any more.
January 2018 may be the first month when the combined AC passenger traffic on the entire Indian Railways may be exceeded by the number of passengers flown by airlines, and we are only counting domestic passengers. Why am I saying this. Well, airlines flew 11.2 million passengers in December 2017. If past is any guideline, we should have between 11.1 and 11.3 millions passengers this month. Railways do not release their monthly figures, but as per their annual report for 2015-16, the total number of AC passengers that year were 140 million. Assuming about 5% growth rate, the total number of AC passengers in 2017-18 would be about 155 million. January is their lean period, and indeed the worst period due to fog. A point to note here is that almost half of AC traffic either originates within a 500KM radius of Delhi, or terminates in this region (25% of AC traffic originated at Northern Railways alone in 2015-16, add to that NC, NW, NE traffic and traffic from all other zones which come to these zones). This is the region badly hit by fog in January, leading to major disruptions and cancellations of trains. So, if the traffic was equally distributed, January would see 13 million AC passengers, but if there is major disruption in half of this traffic and even for the rest of the country, it is a lean season for Railways, it seems reasonable to assume that we may have less than 11.2 million AC passengers in January, 2018.
Of course, this is comparing the best month of airlines with the worst month of Railways, which is not very fair. But even on an annualized basis, the number of flyers in 2017-18 would exceed the number of AC sleeper passengers (That is, AC-1st, AC-2T and AC-3T combined), which means that middle and long distance passengers are preferring airlines over trains.
Also, on annualized basis, 2017-18 would see the kilometers traveled by passengers to be more on flights than on trains, including AC CC and EC passengers. Airlines have flown 111 billion passenger-KMs in 2017, a number similar to what trains have done counting only AC passengers, but are expected to complete 116 billion passenger-KMs on a financial year basis. The average distance flown by an airline passenger is 950 KM, while the average distance traveled by an AC passenger is 750KM. If we consider sitting versus berths, the average distance traveled by CC/EC passengers is 400KM, while for AC1/AC2/AC3 is more than 800KM. (One may note that airline distance is the straight line distance, while the train distance is much more than straight line distance.)
One could dismiss this by saying that trains are still running full, which means that airlines are only meeting the unmet demand. As and when the capacity enhancement happens in case of Indian Railways (like when the two freight corridors complete, and many of the electrification, and doubling projects complete), and we are able to run additional passenger trains, middle class will flock to trains. So, nothing to worry.
I am not so hopeful. I think this change is permanent. People when they get used to value their time in a certain way, they aren't going to go back to not value it. If we look at the distribution of traffic by Indian Railways (only AC passengers), there are really three segments it is holding on to.
One is the short distance passenger, mainly CC/EC classes where the destination is within 3-6 hours or so, and primarily the CC segment, since it is very cheap. EC class is less than 1% of AC passengers, anyway. Note that the traffic in distance of less than 3 hours is eroding due to good quality highways that have come up over the last 10-15 years. And as highways improve, this segment will be further under attack. Also, as the short distance flights become available, the 5-6 hour distance will get competition. To give an example, Delhi-Kanpur pair has about 3000 CC/EC passengers every day, which will be impacted if sometime in future there are multiple flights to/from Kanpur.
Second segment is overnight journey, 6-12 hours. This is the primary segment in which AC2/AC-3T is going strong. This segment will be retained in foreseeable future, since people don't consider sleeping in train as costing them time. But this segment is facing competition from overnight buses in many parts of the country. Also, once the frequency of flights increases further, and in particular, if we can go in the morning and come back in the night, the 10-12 hour train journeys will be impacted. Railways can remain strong in this segment only if there is reliability in the service. Delays take up part of the valuable day time, and spoil plans.
The third segment is journey between pair of cities without a flight connection. People are willing to travel even 15-16 hours if that includes night time, since flying to a distant airport and then changing mode of transport would take as many day time hours and would be inconvenient. But this is clearly the segment which is temporary. Once schemes like UDAN become operational, more people will take up those flights. So, if we consider the city pairs where trains take more than 12 hours, and they are connected by reasonable flight options (at least a flight each in morning/afternoon/evening in each direction), the trains are no match at all. The extreme example is Delhi-Mumbai which has become the third busiest city-pair in the world for air traffic with more than 10,000 passengers traveling in each direction every day.
There is another segment, which is tiny and shrinking. People who travel by trains because they value the experience of journey and not in a hurry to reach the destination. The AC-1 experience in a Rajdhani is something that I would be happy to go through compared to any airline. The problem is that the overall experience including the cleanliness on the stations, good waiting areas, and lack of punctuality is on a decline. But I think this is one segment which Railways should care for, since these are people who are not just comparing the fare, but comparing the overall experience.
Note (added on 24th Jan):
I have been told that the data given out in the annual reports is of PRS booking and not of actual number of passengers. So, the total number of bookings is 140 million in 2015-16. The total number of passengers could be somewhat different, since people would have booked in January for May. In fact, January typically has lowest passengers, but maximum bookings since the school vacations are in May, and with 120 day advance reservations, the maximum reservations are done in January.
Also, I have been told that Railway passengers would be somewhat higher, since the PRS does not count infants and children below 5 years of age, while airlines count them. Also, reservations done by TTE on the platform or in the running train are not entered back in PRS. Further people with passes, particularly staff members, sometimes don't do reservations in PRS. So they don't get counted, while airlines will count any free ticket holder as a passenger.
On the other hand, PRS bookings include passengers who cancel their tickets, which is quite substantial. So they should be subtracted, but they are not.
Overall, the number of train passengers should be less than what I have quoted above, but even if they are somewhat higher, the fact remains that only a decade ago, airline traffic was a fraction of AC passengers on Indian Railways, and now it is comparable.
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