The slow phase out of ‘Sleeper Class’ compartments in Trains?

Indian Railways focuses more expensive AC Compartments and premium trains such as Vande Bharat.

Diwali has always been the biggest festival in a year and 2023 was no exception. Diwali was celebrated on November 12 and/or November 13 in various parts of India. During Diwali season, there’s always a mass exodus of people working in big cities and industrial towns to their native places in rural and semi-urban areas where their families live. However, the Indian Railways (IRCTC) came under fire during this Diwali season due to its inadequate management of the holiday rush. Several social media users expressed their frustration with Indian Railways’ poor management and handling of the crowd that flocked the reserved compartments without a reserved ticket.

Additionally, some users pointed out that the Sleeper class and unreserved coaches in trains were reduced significantly to increase AC 2 Tier and AC 3 Tier coaches. This reduction in Sleeper class and unreserved compartments has made train travel either very expensive or even inaccessible for many.

Reduction in carrying capacity:

The number of passengers a train can carry is greatly reduced as well as the AC 3 Tier and AC 2 Tier coaches carry a smaller number of passengers than the sleeper and unreserved compartments. A sleeper class compartment is designed to carry 72-80 passengers. An AC 3 Tier compartment can carry only 64-72 passengers and AC 2 Tier can carry only 48 to 54 passengers depending on the model. The first-class AC compartments can carry a measly 18-24 passengers depending on the model of the compartment. In an unreserved compartment, the official carrying capacity floats from 90 to around 100 but usually on a festive season there are at least 150-180 passengers crammed inside one compartment as there is no restriction on number of people boarding that compartment.

Why does it matter?

With a reduction in carrying capacity coupled with higher prices for the AC coaches, the poor and the middle-class feel the pinch the most. It does not stop there alone. Many travelers in the AC coaches complain too about their reserved seats being taken away by migrant workers. So, this is an issue that affects everybody. If people are not able to buy AC tickets due to its price and can’t get sleeper tickets as well, they might force themselves to unreserved compartments which are already overcrowded. This scenario is a potential safety hazard. The overcrowding of unreserved compartments in the trains involved in the Balasore train tragedy was blamed on reduction of sleeper coaches as well.

How Railway responds?

Ashwini Vaishnaw, the Union Minister for Railways, had responded that there is no reduction of non-AC coaches and claimed 95% passengers travelled in General or non-AC coaches. The Railways Minister said “A train has six to seven sleeper coaches, four general coaches, one or no AC 1st class, one or two pantry, two 2AC coaches, six 3AC coaches and one power car or a guard coach.”

India Today too posted a fact-check calling the social media claims of reduction in sleeper coaches to be false. It states that the number of sleeper coaches in trains are around 6-7 followed by 6 AC 3 Tier coaches, 4 General Coaches, 2 AC 2 Tier coaches and 1 AC First Class coach.

How many sleeper coaches?

We checked around 20 south bound trains from Chennai Central and Chennai Egmore. The coach composition of these trains can be seen below.

As we can see, several trains have less than 4 unreserved compartments. Other types of compartments may include pantry cars, Sleeping cum Luggage Rakes (SLR), Brake Vans, Luggage rakes etc. depending on the train. The SLRs and other similar compartments should not be considered as Unreserved despite it offering some sleeping berths. Thus, in just two routes several trains have lesser unreserved coaches than what the minister has claimed.

One important take away from this is, Sleeper compartments average around 10 compartments per train in our comparison which is significantly higher than the 6 to 7 compartments per train that Railway Minister spoke about. But these trains are just from one city on just 2 routes. There are other routes which have seen a decline in sleeper class compartments.

Reduction in Sleeper Coaches:

There are several news articles and even Railways’ official notifications that reflect on the number of Sleeper Coaches going down. Nagpur-Mumbai Duronto (12289-12290) is one example where the AC 3 Tier Compartments were increased to 15 while sleepers were reduced to just two. Similarly, Amravati-Mumbai Express (12111-12112) too saw its sleeper compartments reduced to two while AC 3 Tiers were increased to 10 compartments. The very same train used to have 8 sleeper compartments before.

This comes after Railway Board’s assurance in 2020 that sleeper compartments won’t be reduced albeit with a catch that such move would be done on high-speed trains. Speculations about similar move in Nagpur-Pune, Sewagram, Vidarbha, Prerna and Maharashtra Express trains offer any solace. South Eastern Railway has replied to an RTI that sleeper class in 2009 used to be 73% which has gone down to 54% in 2022 in some of its important route. Meanwhile, share of AC compartments have gone up from 27% in 2009 to 46% in 2022.


Focus on Returns

Indian Railways, the IRCTC, claims that it recovers only 57% of the costs on an average passenger travel service. This number is printed on every online ticket, and it has remained unchanged at least since 2016. Despite launching more expensive premium trains and earning a profit, the message continues to appear unchanged for 7 years running.

Meanwhile, the focus of Indian Railways has shifted from offering affordable travel services such as sleeper class in long distance trains and second sitting in medium distance trains to more expensive and premium services such as Vande Bharat trains, Duronto, Shatabdi, Tejas trains. In addition to this, the number of sleeper coaches in trains have been slowly reduced to 6 or 7 in existing train services, sometimes even as low as 2. On top of this, features like Premium Tatkal and Dynamic Pricing have increased the cost sometimes higher than flight tickets on certain routes, especially during festive seasons. None of these offer any respite for the middle-class people who predominantly prefer affordable transportation.

‘Fast’ claims of Vande Bharat Trains:

According to a website that tracks the train services, there are 81 Vande Bharat train services that are active today. Out of this, only 23 trains have an average running speed of 80 KM/hour or above. 16 of these trains run at speeds between 63KM/hour to 70 KM/hour. Yet, the train is touted to be the high-speed trains in the country and charges a premium. The conditions of tracks and the overall infrastructure have not been updated yet to handle the design speeds of this train which range from 110 KM/hour to 130KM/hour. There are even allegations of speeds of other trains being reduced or schedules changed to accommodate Vande Bharat trains.

Slowing Trains:

Although the introduction of Vande Bharat trains has had its impact on train schedules, the trains are becoming slower due to various other reasons as well. Most notably, the addition of new stops along the route. In most cases, these new stops are added for political reasons. Apart from increased stops, the trains are forced to run slower due to increased freight traffic and the addition of new train services leading to track saturation. There is a buffer time, a time gap, between two trains going in the same route. The addition of new train services comes with an additional requirement of standard buffer time which forces the trains in existing time slots to adjust their schedules too. A combination of these factors has led to trains running at slower speeds than they used to, across the board. That includes freight trains as well.

Impact of Slowing freight trains:

Faster transport of goods is good for business and the economy. But the already slow freight trains are getting slower. The speed of freight trains dropped to 25.8 kmph from 31.7 kmph in April-September 2022. Slowing down of freight trains would mean businesses might opt for road transport which increases road traffic, fuel consumption, and more air pollution. With ever improving roads, slowing freight trains would provide significant incentive for business to opt for moving away from ‘cleaner’ trains. The environmental and business impact of slowing down freight trains too hasn’t proven to be an incentive for the Union Government or the Railways to take a step.

What will IR do?

At the moment, the Indian Railways seem focused on catering to the travel needs of upper middle class and the rich elites by launching premium Vande Bharat train services and providing photo-op moments for PM Modi without addressing the core issues of track updation, infrastructure, affordable travel, safety etc. The need of a common man does not seem to be in its radar. Without any significant course correction from the Indian Railways, the present conditions will only worsen.

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Ramasamy Jayaprakash

Ramasamy works as a Senior Sub-Editor at YouTurn and writes articles in Tamil and English. He also makes videos for YouTurn's Tamil & English YouTube channels.
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