In what is likely to be a controversial—if not uncomfortable—move, the Indian Railways is going ahead with plans to add a middle berth to the two side-berths in regular and air-conditioned sleeper coaches, an unusual attempt to boost revenues from passengers.
The typical, so-called three-tier railway sleeper coach only has two berths along the corridor, allowing both passengers to sit in separate seats facing each other without blocking the aisle. That side also typically has a tapered lower roof.
Still, the ministry is now working towards adding around eight berths per coach on this side. In order to do so, the ministry plans to raise the upper berth and fit another berth in the middle.
The officer in charge of the project in the Railway Board said funds had already been allotted for retro-fitting of trains. Work would begin in another six weeks, he added.
A former board officer confirmed the development noting that the feature could only be considered in Indian broad gauge trains as they tend to be broader than trains used in many parts of the world. “It has never been tried before,” concedes the ex-Railway Board officer.
Indeed, questions, both in terms of passenger comfort as well as safety, are already being raised about the idea.
“The public has not been consulted on such an important proposal,” says Basudeb Acharia of the parliamentary standing committee that oversees the ministry. “We have placed our objections to the proposal on record. It will make life difficult for the passengers.”
The ministry has not yet co-nducted any safety tests related to the proposal, which was originally tucked into the most recent budget proposal presented in March by railway minister Lalu Prasad.
Chief commissioner of railway safety Pranab Kumar Sen said he is not aware of the railway ministry seeking advice from his department on the proposal for adding berths.
Railway Board member (mechanical) R.K. Rao told Mint that he was preoccupied and declined to discuss the issue. Earlier this week, The Indian Express had quoted Rao as talking about adding berths to coaches.
It is unclear how much additional revenue the railways plans to generate from the move, as details on the number of coaches that would be retrofitted was not available.
But the proposal could pose some interesting practical issues for the railways and its passengers. For one, unlike the other side of the coach where the bottom berth can easily accommodate three seated passengers during the day, three seated passengers on the side would restrict movement in the corridor, unless one of them ends up crowding the traditional three-tier side’s lower berth.
Even if the lower berth on the side was left in its sleeping mode during the day, two windows on the side also mean that the passengers wouldn’t have a cushioned backrest, unlike others in the same coach who are paying the same fare.
Such differential comfort levels could also mean that passengers would try to avoid getting the side-berths when booking their tickets, unless the railways automates its seat booking.
But the railways believes that the plan would work because it would be able to accommodate more night passengers than it currently carries in the trains, overcoming any objections from those who have to put up with the side berths.
“We want to cater to more people, many of whom we are not able to carry due to seat constraints,” says the railways officer who did not want his name used.
Even before the new plan, the railways has seen a big surge in passengers. The number of AC three-tier passengers increased from 20.61 million in 2005-06 to 23.89 million while the number of passengers who travel in sleeper class coaches jumped from 177 million to 205 million during the same period.