After two and a half years into the Covid-19 pandemic, rail passenger mobility is finally showing a consistent upward trajectory, as Indian Railways’ passenger boarding numbers in the first quarter (Q1) of the current financial year (2022-23, or FY23) show a 70 per cent recovery against pre-pandemic levels.
Between April and June, the national transporter saw 1.46 billion bookings for its passenger services, which include suburban and non-suburban trains. This number was a touch above 2 billion in April-June 2019, reveals the data by the Ministry of Railways.
“This is in line with the resumption of work from the office, schools, and colleges. The physical occupancy in offices has picked up quite significantly in the past two quarters (for instance, large office parks have seen physical occupancy rising from single digits to 25-30 per cent currently),” says Rajeshwar Burla, group head-corporate ratings, ICRA.
While growth over the previous fiscal year (2021-22) was a staggering 229 per cent, mainly on account of a statistical base effect as this period last year was plagued by the Delta wave of the novel coronavirus, this was only 17 per cent of the passenger booking target set by the ministry before the fiscal year began.
According to the Union Budget, the Railways intends to ferry 8.3 billion passengers in FY23, and Q1 typically shows higher mobility on account of peak tourism season and higher economic activity.
However, this time, the quarter was marred by the nationwide coal crisis, which forced the national transporter to cancel almost 1,100 trips of passenger trains to decongest railway tracks for priority movement of coal rakes.
Suburban mobility, which was struggling to pick up during the pandemic, is finally seeing significant rise, which experts ascribe to economic rebound.
The national transporter saw 884 million suburban train bookings in Q1, which is over 200 per cent higher than last year.
Data also shows that suburban mobility is recovering quicker than non-suburban.
In April-June 2019, suburban bookings accounted for 54 per cent of total passenger bookings, while the same in April-June 2022 was 62 per cent.
Sector watchers believe that recovery in the reserved sections, particularly air-conditioned ones, faces new challenges in the growing inclination towards air travel among travellers.
In terms of revenue, the Railways earned Rs 14,533 crore in Q1FY23, against approximately Rs 5,000 crore last year.
This is 24 per cent of the national transporter’s annual target of Rs 58,500 crore. Most of this revenue will come from the non-suburban section.
During the peak of Covid-19, prices of mail and express train tickets had been raised, which the Railways had justified as a preventive measure to discourage unnecessary travel during the pandemic. These prices were later lowered. Moreover, several amenities like linen and blankets have also been resumed.
The Ministry of Railways expects travel to be bolstered by its new passenger initiatives such as Vande Bharat trains, for which it has already issued tenders with plans to roll out 400 of them by the end of FY25.
A senior official said these numbers will also see further improvement once dedicated freight corridors are fully functional, allowing tracks to be free for smooth and timely movement of passenger trains.
However, surpassing pre-Covid levels is still a big ask for the Railways in the short term, observe sector experts.
According to Burla, the Railways may be able to achieve passenger traffic higher than pre-pandemic times only by mid-2024.