Out of steam: India's decrepit railways in line for overhaul

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The Independent Online

Everything about the Indian railways is epic, from the distances covered and the millions transported, to the endless hours spent waiting for a train. Until now the choice for passengers has been first class or "hard class". And neither offered a pleasant experience.

Its ageing trains and decaying stations are notorious for delays, overcrowding and surly employees. Bathrooms stink, security is poor, and rats and stray dogs roam many stations.

All that is supposed to change after the government gave the state railway one month to clean up its act. Rail authorities have been ordered to implement a "touch and feel" programme to transform its antique network into a modern customer-focused environment.

One of the more remarkable legacies of the colonial era, Indian Railways is among the world's largest employers, with a staff of 1.6 million. It has 40,000 miles of track with 7,000 stations, and more than 11,000 trains running every day. The network is a lifeline to the nation's poor, providing long-distance connections for as little as £1 and supports the livelihoods of some 80 million people.

Travelling its vast lines that reach out to even the remotest corners of the continent has offered at best a rough and ready experience. Journey planning can be nigh impossible, with trains apt to stop in the middle of nowhere for hours at a time. In the towns and cities, the tracks tend to be littered with rubbish, and waiting passengers squat in filthy stations with few amenities.

The Railways Minister, who had defended the performance, got a first-hand glimpse of the conditions when he took a train ride this month.

"My God, it was hellish," Laloo Prasad Yadav told local media. "The toilet is so dirty that I can still feel the stench. I [did] not have my dinner. It was so nauseating." His new directives include instructions "to use disinfectant liberally so that a difference is noticed" and to rid the air-conditioned coaches of their rodents and cockroaches.

Mr Yadav yesterday ordered regional rail officials to personally oversee the cleaning of carriages and stations and the disciplining of lazy and unhelpful workers. He gave them until October to report back on their progress.