Bibek Debroy: Station visibility at night

There are around 8,000 railway stations. Naturally, they can't be uniform, passenger amenities or otherwise. Four hundred major ones are different from the rest. But there is something common to all railway stations. There will be a yellow board that tells us the station's name, PIN code and elevation above sea level. The name will be in three languages (four, if it is proximate to another state) - English, Hindi and a vernacular language. The lettering will be in black paint, on a light yellow background. I doubt you have thought about this colour coding, black on yellow. Black on yellow is for services or direction, white on blue is for utilities and white on red is for caution. There will be such boards elsewhere on the station, too, ends of platforms for one. Indeed, there are signs elsewhere, too: pillars, walls, structures on roofs and so on. Indian Railways (IR) has detailed guidelines on signages and their placement. For instance, "All railway signages should be placed perpendicular to the direction of movement of passengers. On the end-platforms, locational signages should be fixed perpendicular to the walls using sound fixtures." Some people have asked me why the illumination on these name boards is so bad? From a moving train, you can hardly read the station's name at night, especially if it is a small station. This is as bad as gas lamp days.

From a moving train, why do you need to see the name of the station you are passing? Why can't railway coaches have electronic LED boards inside, so that passengers don't have to peer out in the dark? The Howrah Rajdhani (Eastern Railways) is the oldest Rajdhani and probably still the best (some competition from the Mumbai Rajdhani). The Howrah Rajdhani already has these. But one still faces the problem. From inside an AC coach, or a general coach with windows made of glass, you can't read the station's name, particularly at night. Outside IR, few people appreciate the silos into which it has fragmented itself. This is true of station amenities too. Civil engineering will take care of platforms, drinking water, toilets, waiting rooms, overbridges. The electrical department will take care of lights, lifts, escalators, fans, water coolers.The telecom department will take care of public address systems, departure boards, train indicator boards. Commercial and IT departments will take care of reservation and ticketing. The mechanical department will take care of everything on board, including charging sockets, fans and lights. These departments don't necessarily talk to each other. No one is in charge of a station. Even for something like cleaning a station, there will be multiple cleaning contracts by multiple departments. It is only now that some kind of integration is falling into place.

In 2009, IR produced a manual with standards and specifications for world-class stations. In that, you will find a discussion on integrated lighting, up against that roadblock of silos. To get back to illumination of name boards, "Where electric supply is available all the lighting arrangements with the associated equipment, including the lamp posts with their fixtures for the platforms, signboards, buildings etc will be provided and maintained by the electrical department. Where electric supply is not available, the provision, repairs and maintenance of the lamp posts will be the responsibility of the engineering department. The provision, maintenance and repairs of oil lamps and their lighting will be the responsibility of the operating department." But things have begun to change at major stations, with LED signboards. This is part of a broader plan to increase non-tariff revenue and after pilots in 10 stations, 2,000 stations will have LED screens in the next two years.

In August 2007, the director general of Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO), Lucknow, wrote a letter to all general managers. The subject of this letter was "Use of LED-based signage for railway stations". After mentioning the benefits of LED lighting, this letter stated, "Railways shall progressively switch over to LED-based signage for railway stations, particularly A/A1/World Class, to begin with. The specifications of this signage should be framed by RDSO and communicated to Zonal Railways." Therefore, a delay can be caused by lags in framing specifications or installation (through tenders). As far as I can make out, RDSO specifications were ready by 2009 and 2010. In 2016-17, the railway minister's Budget speech stated, "Work is underway on the installation of a high-tech centralised network of 20,000 screens across 2,000 stations known as Rail Display Network." In 2015-16, the speech stated, "A centrally managed Railway Display Network is expected to be introduced in over 2,000 stations over the next two years, which will aid in providing information on train arrival/departure, reservations, general and emergency messages and also any other information of interest to citizens." In 2008-09, the speech stated, "High picture quality, coloured LED display boards will be installed at 100 A and B Category stations by March 2009." Clearly, all is not well with IR decision-making processes. Part of this is due to silos. Imagine a dispute between the civil engineering department (responsible for drinking water) and electrical department (responsible for water coolers). This is not entirely concocted and the dispute will go all the way up to the Railway Board.

The writer is a member of the National Institution for Transforming India Aayog. The views are personal

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