New Delhi: Passengers carrying their own food and bedroll even after the COVID-19 pandemic has been controlled will perhaps be the new normal as Indian Railways is going ahead with the proposal of doing away with pantry cars from over 300 trains—replacing them with AC 3-tier coaches—and also discontinuing the linen service to beef up its revenue.
Instead, the Railways plans to have base kitchens at major stations operational to provide packed food to the passengers. E-catering would be another option.
Notwithstanding the fact that delinking pantry cars would adversely affect livelihoods of the people engaged in rail catering business for years, the proposal to delink pantry cars has interestingly come from two major railway unions as one of the revenue-boosting measures and not surprisingly, the national transporter has accepted it.
There are around 350 pairs of trains including Mail/Express, Superfast and Premier services that are accompanied by pantry cars.
Since each pantry car involves engagement of 20 to 30 staff members including cooks and waiters, the decision is likely to affect over 10,000 jobs as per a most conservative estimate.
However, both the unions have defended their suggestion and maintained that the staff engaged in pantry cars is not Railways staff, as the catering is done by private contractors.
"These pantry cars do not earn any passenger revenue for Railways, but occupy space of one passenger coach. Pantry car catering services can be replaced by e-catering, base kitchens, train-side vending and Railways may replace pantry cars with AC 3-tier coaches," said National Federation of Indian Railwaymen General Secretary M Raghvaiah.
Elimination of pantry cars and attaching AC 3-tier Coach would fetch additional revenue of about Rs 1,400 crore annually, he said.
All India Railwaymen's Federation General Secretary Shiv Gopal Mishra said, "Food can be provided by base kitchens which are there at major railway stations across the country. So, passengers will not be deprived of catering services.”
“This will not affect the Railways employees because they are not involved in pantry car operation. These services are outsourced to private contractors. The Railways does not generate revenue through its kitchen or pantry services anyway.”
Earlier, the Railways had decided to stop providing linen sets in the trains as a cost cutting and also an anti-Covid measure.
"The online catering and linen service were discontinued in all trains due to the coronavirus pandemic and the number of train services was also reduced. However, the train without a pantry car would be the new normal even after the pandemic, while passengers would be given the option to buy disposable linen from stations," said a senior Railway Ministry official involved in passenger amenities work.
The linen service provides pillows, bedsheets, hand towels and blankets for the AC coach passengers.
The official further said that while all base kitchens would be operational, catering services in trains can also be provided by train-side vending, static catering units at stations en route, and by e-catering services.
Reeling under severe financial stress, Railways is considering several steps to cut costs and explore innovative ways to increase earnings.
In June, Railway Financial Commissioner had written to all zones, calling for a freeze on the creation of new posts, removal of retired and re-engaged staff, shifting outsourced activities to corporate social responsibility funds, moving ceremonial functions to digital platforms, and an immediate review and possible closure of uneconomic branch lines, among other measures.
Traffic revenue of the Indian Railways had fallen by 42.3% between March and August compared to the corresponding period last year, as a result of the impact of COVID-19.
Railway unions have suggested curtailment of wasteful expenditures like furnishing of offices, colour-washing of office buildings, which are to be suspended for at least two years.
Besides, expenditures on various activities like sports, cultural, scouts, committees, seminars, annually scheduled meetings of various departments are being reviewed to prevent wastage.
"Projects which are financially not viable may be shelved at least for now," unions maintain.
So if the Railways indeed goes ahead with delinking pantry cars from trains, not only the prospect of having piping hot meals of one's choice during a long journey would soon become a thing of the past, the move would adversely affect rail sector's job opportunities as well.
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