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The ghost network

The Delhi Ring Railway is lingering on long after its death, forgotten and forlorn, as promises for its resurrection remain on paper

It’s business as usual in Lajpat Nagar. The time is 10 am, rush hour is at its peak. Some people are rushing to catch the Metro, while others are hastening off to their respective destinations in the market.

Precisely 1.5 km from the well-known Metro station, if you walk through Lajpat Nagar’s crowded lanes, asking people for directions, you will finally find the obscure Lajpat Nagar railway station. This small, usually empty station, comes under the network of Delhi Ring Railway.

The Delhi Ring Railway all these years has been regarded as the poor man’s transit. Constructed in 1975 to be a facility for freight trains, the network was revamped for the Asian Games which took place in 1982. With its 35-km-long network, the system served Delhi commuters well till buses and then Metro trains took the lead in city’s modes of transport.

Last year, Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal took a decision to revamp 17 of the 21 stations. The aim with which the ministry announced the revamp plans was to facelift and integrate the rail system with the existing 231 km-long Delhi Metro network.

Because some of the stations of the Delhi Ring Rail criss-cross the Delhi Metro rail network, the ministry proposed to connect stations which are in close proximity to each other. Goyal also said that if the plan is done as per the required changes, the amalgamation of the Ring Rail and Metro, can make “50% cars go off the roads.”

However, since the grand announcement, no updates on the project can be provided by either the Railways or the Indian Railway Station Development Corporation (IRSDC).

Patriot reached out to the office of Divisional Railway Manager of North Railways. However, despite repeated attempts, no information was provided. The reply that Patriot got is that the concerned persons pertaining to the project could not be identified.

The city, over the years, has almost forgotten about the 21-station network, which serves areas like Lajpat Nagar, Chanakyapuri, Lodhi Colony and Sarojini Nagar. While the official figures show a daily ridership of 4,000, the sight at the Lajpat Nagar railway station provides a stark reality — a place to chill or a destination to book tickets.

With over 4,000 daily ridership, the Delhi Ring Rail system is today a poor cousin of the Delhi Metro Rail Network with a ridership of 23 lakh, every day.

“Frankly, not many people are aware of this system at all,” says Advait Jani, manager at the Sustainable City Program at World Resources Institute, a global research organisation. “One of the main reasons is the locations of these stations.”

He continues, “So while it is a good thing to improve these stations and the system itself, the reality is that they’re going to face the same problem as the Metro if last mile connectivity is not addressed properly.”

Jani says that the next step which would be an essential game changer is “fare integration.” He continues, “The Delhi government’s integrated fare system for buses and Metro is a step in the right direction, and it’s important that this railway system also brought in that system.”

He says fare integration will be a key factor for the succession of the proposed plan, because it won’t make much sense “if you have to walk through a skywalk and then buy another ticket.”

Jani also thinks that currently, the trains running on the suburban Railway network in Delhi are much “dirtier than the trains running in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata.”

Across the four platforms at the Lajpat Nagar Railway Station, some 8-10 people were chilling nonchalantly. When approached in order to know whether they were waiting for the train, their replies suggested that the station is merely a place to pass time or a convenient destination to book tickets for express or super-fast trains plying on the Indian Railways Network.

Sushil Pandey, 27, a construction worker, was lying on the bench at Platform 2. When he was asked about the next train’s arrival and whether he’s waiting for the same train, his reply came out as a shocker. “Yahan train kabhi aati hai kabhi ghanto nahi aati. Hum to yahan par araam karne aur khana khane aate hain. Kabhi-kabhi ghar jaane ka ticket le lete hai counter se,” says Pandey. (Here, the train comes sometimes and at times not even for hours. I come here to relax and eat my food. Once in a while, I buy a ticket to go home from the counter.)

Pandey is from Bhagalpur, Bihar and has been living in the city for two years. Currently, he’s working at a construction site in Lajpat Nagar I area and comes to the station when he’s not working. Today, he has to report to the site at 1 in the afternoon. When he asked how often he sees the train, he replies “Rarely”, still lying on the bench.

A member of the cleaning staff at the station, who requested anonymity, also confirmed that the train timings are erratic and not “something you can rely upon in a city like Delhi.” He has been working at the station for four years now, and since he lives in close proximity to the station, he “never really takes the train.” He also says that only three trains arrive at the station in a day and often a handful of people are seen waiting for hours for the train to arrive. He adds that “Metro fares are quite high, otherwise it’s a good mode of transport for these people”.

Pandey also mentions that the station is bustling during evening hours when huge number of people arrive at the station, not to book tickets but “to book tickets for express trains for other cities.”

When we complimented them for clean platforms, the staffer says, “If the station is not used, how will it get dirty? We mostly chill the entire day,” he says, playing a video game on his phone.

Indian Rail Info, one of the go-to sites for train timings, seat availability and train schedules, shows that there are five trains plying from Hazrat Nizamuddin Railway Station. Patriot arrived at the scheduled time for the first train of the day. However, even after waiting for an hour, neither did the train arrive, nor did the expected passengers.

The cleaning staff member also revealed, alarmingly, that “The train is mostly used by substance abusers and people who don’t have money to travel.”

Unlike its sister trains, part of the Delhi Suburban Railway, the trains plying on the Delhi Ring Rail system come and go as and when they get a signal — and are mostly empty.

Feasibility is another issue which is contributing further to the decay of the Delhi Ring Rail system. Because most of the stations are now surrounded by empty lanes, away from the commercial office spaces, it not only makes the Delhi Metro trains convenient, but also the last option, after buses.

Prakash Singh, another person waiting at a different platform of the station, looks as if he’s waiting for the train to arrive. However, he too is waiting for his wife to come, so that both can book tickets to go to Prayagraj.

To further take the ambition of reviving the network, ex-Member of Parliament Maheish Girri also proposed the idea of having AC coaches in these trains. However, that would be a far cry. For now, the revamp plan is still officially underway, with no announcement since last year, and no replies given to Patriot’s persistent inquiries.