The prospect of foreign arrivals this year looks bleak. Political and economic uncertainties abroad and an increasingly dicey image problem at home will hit us in 2016-17.
That’s the dark side. But there is also a bright side. There are plenty of folk with high disposable incomes in India. If the ISIS, or its current clones, discourages such people from heading for the Good Times abroad, they’ll look for them at home. That was how our hill-stations burgeoned during the Second World War. This could be the start of our “Creamy Layer’s Discovery of India."
To start with, this lesson must be learnt by our greatest people-mover, the Indian Railways. Hopefully our Rail Mantri will have seen the writing on the wall: the dollar-oriented luxury Tourist Trains like the Palace on Wheels, the Golden Chariot, the Maharaja’s Express etc., etc and etc are breathing their last, according to a report. To find out why it happened, we phoned a few of our friends who had handled these royal trains. We remember speaking to the inspired Chairman of the Railway Board, A.V. Poulouse in Rail Bhavan many years ago. He had told us that they had decided to create a luxury train using the plush coaches of the erstwhile Ruling Princes to give dollar-rich tourists a fantasy rail tour. Then, inevitably, things began to collapse. The technocrats of the Indian Railways in general, excluding people like Poulouse, have always catered to a sellers’ market. Ever since Indira Gandhi created IR they’ve had no competition. Clearly, this has led to a smug, couldn’t-care-less, attitude growing in the minds of many rail panjandrums. Accidents become nine-day wonders, deteriorating services are met with brief, cosmetic, changes, and political pipe-dreams like Bullet Trains are shrugged off with cynical smiles and “Sub chalta hai, yaar!”
So let’s put the ball back in the court where it belongs: in that vast, sprawling, warren in the heart of New Delhi whose icon, most appropriately, is a cute, antique, steam engine mounted, immovably, on a concrete platform.
To start with we’ll call a spade a spade. The luxury Tourist Trains were, essentially, Cruise Trains. Like cruise ships they took rich passengers around in comfort and safely, stopped at various places, showed them the sights, and moved on to the next place. The problem was that the Railways provided the transportation services and expected State Tourism Development Corporations to handle the tourist services: the marketing, sales, catering, guiding and on-board hospitality.
For this privilege, the Railways charged a fee which, according to the Corporations, has now become quite unsustainable.
We won’t go into the charges and counter-charges being levelled by the squabbling government factions. But according to their website, the Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) has the expertise to run these services as in-house operations. So, then, why have the Railways tied up with the State Tourism Development Corporations? Or are the Railways recent, seemingly back-breaking, demands on the State Corporations merely a ploy to get them to back out of the agreement so that the IRCTC can take over, as some of our contacts have suggested?
Whatever the reason, the Railways should run a North-South Cruise Train, linking up with a South-North one at Chennai. These trains should be used by the Railways to project their technical competence: pragmatic examples of the Prime Minister’s Make in India theme. Amitabh Kant’s striding lion, built of intermeshing cogs and wheels, should find expression in the hi-tech efficiency of the Cruise Trains. The Railways should ensure that the passengers who travel in these trains go away with the impression that here, at least, they have experienced levels of technical competence that one normally associates with the Swiss Rail System. Can the Indian Railways rise to this? Yes, they can. Many of our relatives were technicians on the old, private, railways of India and they took pride in achieving those high standards.
We visualise each hyper-efficient Cruise Train as an all First Class AC train with 40 self-contained coupes complete with toilets, a dining-room/lounge, 5 multi-lingual guides, CCTV, and a pre-tour briefing every evening. Most importantly, each train should cater to those who wish to see India in comfort and safety. Maharaja-style fantasy is not needed, hi-tech efficiency certainly is. Consequently, there should be enough technicians on board to ensure that everything works all the time. Its tickets should be offered to the travel trade and they should be quoted in rupees. In cruise ships, on-board entertainment is necessary because of the long voyages between ports. In an Indian cruise train, the daily stops provide the stimulus that the passengers can handle. Or to put it in the Railways’ own words:
India by rail offers a fascinating odyssey through time and space, cultures and history, offering magical glimpses of unity amidst diversity, shrouded in enchanting, mystery colours that capture the heart while soothing the soul. No one offers the multi-dimensional image of real India more excitingly than the Indian Railways – the second largest railway system in the world covering around 64,000 km of track laid across around 7,000 stations, running around 12,000 trains everyday.
If that has got you as enthusiastic as it has us, we must issue a word of caution. Clearly, the technocrats of the railways don’t know much about marketing. Nor are they inclined to learn. Possibly, in fact probably, many of the decision-makers in the IRCTC are as clueless. So, if you want to get into this high-potential venture, you will have to do your own marketing. Here you will, very likely, come into conflict with the know-all techies of the IR. That, we believe, will be your biggest obstacle. Techies are influenced by facts and figures. If you can not muster up enough arguments to support your marketing thrust, you might as well look around for something else. But if you can produce adequate statistics to support your need to market Indian Railways Cruise Trains, you’re on a winning ride.Happy journey!