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Train delays had never been this bad! Punctuality down from 80% to 65%

Nearly 30 per cent trains ran late in the financial year 2017-18, making it the Indian Railways' worst punctuality performance in three years. Between April 2017 and March 2018, the punctuality rate of mail and express trains fell to 71.39 per cent, down from 76 per cent previously.

In the past decade, the Indian Railways had reportedly boasted an average punctuality score of 80 per cent and above. In fact, in 2015-16, official data on punctuality indices show that the figure had hit a high of 92.32 per cent. But things have markedly turned for the worse since last year. Nearly 30 per cent trains ran late in the financial year 2017-18, making it the Indian Railways' worst punctuality performance in three years. Between April 2017 and March 2018, the punctuality rate of mail and express trains fell to 71.39 per cent, down from 76 per cent previously. Making matters worse, according to The Economic Times, on-time performance of trains has dipped further to 65 per cent in the past three months.

The report added that currently several long-route trains are running up to 20 hours late, causing massive inconvenience to the millions of people travelling on the world's busiest public transportation network daily. The premier Champaran Humsafar train, launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to celebrate 100 years of Mahatma Gandhi's Champaran Satyagraha in April 2018, on average runs 12 hours behind schedule.

As of March 2018, there were 21 critical divisions across the country's railway network boasting a punctuality rate of less than 80 per cent. Among them, the worst performing divisions were Allahabad division with a score of around 48 per cent during the fiscal and Mumbai Central (60.9 per cent). Just last week, Vishwesh Chaube, General Manager of the Northern Railways, admitted that the punctuality rate in the zone had declined to 53 per cent in June 2018 from 63 per cent a year ago.

"The punctuality of trains is now being recorded through data-loggers whereas, earlier it was done manually. Now, even if a train is late by a minute, it is counted as a train arriving late. This has made a difference in the punctuality figures of this year," Chaube said in a recent press conference as an explanation.

The same reason was reportedly cited by Railway Board Chairman Ashwani Lohani for train delays across the country, along with a high number of maintenance blocks. Blocks are periods when trains are not allowed on a track so that maintenance and repair work can be carried out safely. On highly-dense routes such as the Delhi-Howrah and Delhi-Mumbai sectors, there would be a train on the tracks every 10 minutes, leaving engineers with little time for maintenance work. So, last November, the Railways introduced a new timetable that set aside hours for maintenance work across the country every day.

However, according to the daily, a May-31 letter written by the efficiency department of the Railway Board to all general managers claims that these data loggers are operational only at 55 locations whereas the network boasts over 8,000 stations. Citing a source, the report added that one of the reasons for the increasing number of train delays is the ongoing tussle between the two premier services of Indian Railways - the railway traffic and engineering services. The former is responsible for the operation of trains while the latter handles track and other maintenance related issues. This turf war has also led to cancellations of trains, causing the railways a revenue loss on a daily basis.

The traffic wing has reportedly accused the engineering service of availing the blocks but not completing maintenance chores. "Recently, a seven-hour block was taken in Delhi's Nizamuddin. However, no work was done. This has become frequent now. Also, different departments such as signalling and civil works take different maintenance blocks on the same routes," said the source, adding that officials have now proposed to annualise scheduled maintenance blocks so that the maintenance calendar can be pre-planned. "This model has been tried in the Howrah division by the former divisional manager and it turned out to be successful. This can be replicated across the country," said the source.

Earlier this month, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal warned heads of zonal railways that delays in train services will defer their appraisal proportionately, giving them time till the end of this month to improve punctuality.

But don't rejoice yet. The Indian Railways has already made it clear that passengers will have to bear with train delays for at least six to eight months more, even if the ongoing maintenance and repair works go as per schedule. "If we complete track maintenance work of about 5,000km by 2018-2019, then in the next six to eight months passengers will be spared the inconvenience of delays," Mohd Jamshed, the Railway Board Member (Traffic), told the press last month.

With PTI inputs