Trains reach Chennai early, delayed to meet timetable

Chennai,Rockfort Express

For the past 20 years, K Madhavan has been commuting between Chennai and Trichy on the Rockfort Express. He laps up every update about trains, talks of double lines being laid and the infrastructure planned but fails to understand why, despite the train reaching 30 minutes before time regularly, the schedules haven't changed.

Out of the 495km between Chennai and Madurai, more than 80% of the line has been doubled. Average speed of trains increased especially after doubling of the 100km Chengalpet-Villupuram line was completed. The entire stretch was also completely electrified. All these haven't come cheap: A kilometre of doubling with electrification costs Rs 6-10 crores. But this investment has not translated to additional trains to contain rush or quicker journey time with the available fleet.

TOI analysed data of train arrivals and departures of several express trains on this route and found that these trains complete their journeys at least 30 to 45 minutes before schedule (see graphic). This before-time arrival is despite unscheduled stops of 15 to 20 minutes at Palavanthangal and Kodambakkam between Tambaram and Chennai Egmore. So in effect, on most days, trains can reach their destination at least an hour early.

Yet, Southern Railway traffic planners are dragging their feet for at least 18 months to bring down the quoted journey time. The move will not only benefit lakhs of passengers, but also save precious resources like electricity, diesel fuel and cut down steep overtime allowances paid to train-running staff. A back-of-envelope calculation shows that if travel time for one train carrying 1,000 passengers is reduced by 30 minutes, 625 man-days can be saved every month.

Yet trains are made to kill time on the outskirts. They arrive at least an hour early to Chennai's outskirts like Tambaram and Mambalam. "They are made to stop at stations like Pazhavanthangal, Kodambakkam for at least 10 to 15 minutes," say railway insiders who travel for inspections.

"Passengers are being cheated. Even after doubling, if the travel time is the same and operations department is claiming good punctuality, it is a sad state of affairs," said a senior railway official. He said the number of trains could be increased, but even that has not happened. Excuses of low capacity at Egmore yard wouldn't work as the same zone is working at a snail's pace to build a new yard in Tambaram, the official said.

For many trains, the zone has given a one-hour time gap to cover the 7km distance between Mambalam and Egmore. Fast EMU trains take 15 minutes to cover that.

TOI checked a similar combination for trains arriving at Mumbai Central that have stoppages at Borivali and Dadar, akin to Tambaram and Mambalam. Scheduled time between these stations in Mumbai is half of that in Chennai.

The operations department says this extra one hour is the cushion time given for maintenance works. However, insiders, including the official quoted above, said this was an excuse. "Cushion time can be 15 to 20 minutes in case of failures to mask operational inefficiencies which occur rarely. But one hour is too much which is given so that departmental heads can avoid tough questions when trains are delayed," the official said.

A senior official in operations department, however, indicated that there would be some changes in the 'positive direction' when the new timetable is out this year.