There should have been a general euphoria in West Bengal, and especially Kolkata, on Friday, when Mamata Banerjee presented the railway budget.
Eyeing the corridors of power in Writers' Building, the Railway Minister showered her blessings on West Bengal.
As many as 34 new metro services, 50 suburban train services, a software excellence centre, a trackmaking factory, a railway industrial park, a metro coach factory, 20 new express trains, a shelter for the homeless and a polytechnic made the railway budget a bag full of goodies. Mamata Banerjee's greatest political critic and the chairman of Left Front in West Bengal, Biman Bose, congratulated the railway minister for not increasing the passenger fare and freight charges even as the country is caught in a spiraling inflation.
Leading industrialists in the state felt that this year's railway budget would create an atmosphere for increased investment and employment- generation in the state. The dedicated freight corridor for movement of goods will expedite export; they felt. The industry captains also claimed that West Bengal would benefit from the 85 public- private partnership projects.
Mamata also announced the creation of a Kolkata Rail Vikas Corporation to make the city the nerve- centre of railway activities in the country. Several opposition MPs from different parts of the country made a hullabaloo over the Railway Minister's showering of sops on West Bengal.
But, how far will Didi's gifts be able to immediately ease the problems of the commuters in Kolkata? Now, Howrah and Sealdah, the two largest railway stations in eastern India, are chaotic to say the least. During peak hours, there is hardly space for the passengers to even breathe.
With the introduction of new trains in the last two rail budgets, there has been an acute problem of congestion along the tracks, and almost all the trains run late everyday. The late running of the trains causes great inconvenience to office- goers.
On December 29 last year, angry passengers ransacked a part of the Howrah Railway Station and beat up railway protection force officials. They had turned violent after a Howrah- bound Bandel local train was kept waiting a few kilometers outside the station for more than an hour. The angry passengers also ransacked the VIP lounge and the station master's room, smashed ticket counters and metal detectors. The damage to the railways' property was calculated to be in several lakhs.
A lot of regular passengers in suburban trains from Howrah said that the railway budget should have paid more attention to the improvement of infrastructure in the important railway stations in West Bengal than introducing new trains. More coaches should be added to the local trains to ferry the passengers comfortably.
Some passengers asserted that there is an immediate need to increase the number of platforms in Howrah and Sealdah to allow the passengers to travel freely.
During peak hours, the stations are so crowded that it takes more than 30 minutes to come out.
They also demanded that the railway ministry should immediately increase the number of railway tracks approaching Howrah and Sealdah. The local trains are mostly detained outside the busy stations to allow the important long- distance trains like Rajdhani and the Duronto Express to pass.
Many believe that the number of ticket counters should be increased. During peak hours, long queues in front of the counters make the passengers miss their trains.
The service of the Kolkata Metro is horrifying. The coaches are old, and are unable to ferry the growing number of passengers.
Last year, there were reports of technical snags in the network almost everyday. There is an immediate need to refurbish the existing network rather than look towards expanding it. At present, the Metro services are after seven minutes in peak hours and 15 minutes in off- peak hours. As a result, the coaches are overcrowded, and at times, the three- decade- old engines are even unable to pull.
Didi needs to understand that maintenance of the existing services of the railways is as important as the new projects for West Bengal. What's there in a service if it does not work?