The Indian Railways, touted as the world's largest employer, and the world's biggest organisation is also reputed for optimum usage of resources and space. It is perhaps the most cost effective means of travel for the Indian masses in reasonable comfort. Its logistics provide content for syllabus in various management studies programmes. Yet, when it comes to meeting the travel needs of physically challenged people, it falls woefully short of the very least required, let alone global standards.

Apart from offering a concessional fare (50 per cent) to physically handicapped/challenged (PH) passengers as well as an accompanying adult, the Indian Railways does not set any benchmark for the comfort of such passengers. In 2013, when new cars were built for Rajdhani trains, it signalled an opportune moment to review the Railways' services for PH passengers. But the opportunity was lost.

Simple monetary concessions are inadequate, given the complexity of the Indian Railways. Hearing and speech impaired passengers are in dire need of trained and sensitised personnel on the trains. 29-year-old Subba Rao in Bangalore is one such passenger who is entitled to 50 per cent concession, but his moist-eyed mother Indramma says it all when she expresses, "I want my son to be self-reliant and face the world".

Indramma's call is for a system to help challenged people navigate their way around. Subba Rao cannot communicate without sign language, but on occasions when he travels on a train alone and asks someone for help he is often abused or shrugged off. In case he is hungry and wants to buy food catered on trains he cannot communicate with the IRCTC catering staff. "There is certainly a need for trained staff for people like my son," says Indramma.

Points to ponder

The inattention to the needs of PH passengers is evident in many aspects of the railways' operations.

  • There are no ramps to overhead bridges that connect platforms in most of the railway stations in India.

  • While wheelchairs are provided for by tax payers’ money or donated by corporate foundations, porters charge a rent for carting the wheelchair bound passenger.

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    There are no ramps to board the trains. There are no sloping steps either, the vertical steps one on top of another without railing support is a recipe for disaster waiting to happen, putting even physically fit passengers at risk of a fall or injury.
  • The platforms are never on par with the train floor either. That would make it easy to wheel in wheelchairs, stretchers, perambulators, carts, cycles etc. European and North American train floors are on par with platforms. Neither are the platforms in Indian railway stations constructed at uniform heights; the difference in height varies from one station to another. Some rural stations do not have platforms at all. It becomes impossible for amputees or physically challenged persons to board the train in such stations without wheelchairs or ramps.

  • The railings at the train car doorways are at a height that can be used only while boarding from a platform. In stations where there are no platforms, these support railings cannot be reached from the ground even by the tallest person, and is impossible for wheelchair bound passengers.

  • There are no walking escalators on the notoriously lengthy platforms. There are instances all too often of PH passengers missing their trains because they are unable to reach their train cars on time across the miles-long platforms. Not all trains have vestibule connections either. This makes the lengthy walk on platforms time consuming, hazardous and exhausting for PH passengers without access to walking escalators and wheelchairs.

  • Battery operated golf carts are 'visible' only in big city railway stations, often because they are donations of corporate houses.

  • There are no luggage escalators for either PH passengers or senior citizens. Luggage escalators would not only ensure ease of travel for such passengers but also spare human exploitation of porters.

  • Aisles inside train cars are not wide enough to accommodate wheelchair bound passengers. Once again, this simple provision - wider aisles - will help not just physically challenged travellers but the catering staff too.

  • There is no space for parking a stretcher bound passenger anywhere inside the trains.

  • Toilets on trains are not large enough to accommodate wheelchair bound passengers.

  • Food packets and water packets cannot be easily opened by mobility impaired PH passengers without scissors on trains and planes.

  • The loco pilot in Indian Railways does not have access to a Public Address (PA) system and cannot communicate with his/her passengers. In case of a medical or any other emergency, a PA system will be of inestimable value. Imagine what a difference it would make if a loco pilot can call attention to medical professionals who maybe travelling on the train when there is a need for such professional's emergency services.

  • PH passengers cannot book concessionary tickets for themselves online today. At present they have to submit a photocopy of their ID card at the ticket reservation counters after showing original documents. Only after that would PH passengers or their representatives be able to book concessionary tickets. Why should one have to trust messengers with original documents just for the purpose of buying a train ticket?

    Given the menace of misuse, corruption and touts, it may be a precaution exercised by the Indian Railways, but isn't it possible for PH passengers to create an online account with Railways so that reservations can be completed online just like other passengers? More than any tech savvy couch potato, it is the physically challenged passenger who needs the facility of online reservations the most.

There are very few battery operated cars in the stations and these are seen only in big city railway stations. Photo: Malini Shankar

Need for infrastructure

The travails of PH passengers in the Indian Railways are manifold. Visually challenged and hearing and speech impaired persons find it impossible to easily locate the platform from which their train maybe departing. This is because display boards are not easy to read / access / for the visually impaired or hearing and speech impaired passengers. Announcements on the PA system can be complemented by Braille publications or made electronically user-friendly on the railway website. The seat allotment chart at the entrance of train cars are illegible print outs, again not suitable for visually challenged persons who need it in Braille.

Entering the platform is another challenge. Ramps can make the last loop walkathon in Indian railway stations much easier for PH passengers and senior citizens; it is easy for wheelchair pushing porters/assistants as also for negotiating battery operated golf carts.

Though a few odd wheelchairs are strewn around railway stations they are usually in a state of disrepair, with either front wheels missing or lacking in cushions!

Attitudinal problems

Passengers with disability often have to beg porters in India to push their wheelchairs; the porters rarely know the import of injuring PH passengers, and the question of liability is not adequately addressed either by insurance companies or Indian Railways. Railways have their own set procedure for compensating the loss of limb or life of passengers in transit, which in itself leaves a lot to be desired.

What is worse is the lack of education and sensitization. PH passengers have to depend on whimsical porters who exploit the desperate passengers requiring wheelchairs. Manoeuvring wheelchair-bound passengers in crowded platforms needs skilled and trained personnel. In case one insists on a receipt for the amount paid as rent for the use of wheelchairs, he has to pay a separate tip to the porter - demanded upfront. This is not a discretionary option for PH passengers. The wheelchair is furnished with tax payers' money, but free access to it is denied for genuine PH passengers. The illegal charges for wheelchair use are pocketed by the porters.

But is the plight of physically challenged passengers the same across the world? Or are there standards of support and comfort extended to these passengers in developed countries that India would do well to emulate? We'll explore that in the next part of this series.