AT 6.30 PM ON A THURSDAY IN OCTOBER, traffic was at a roaring standstill at central Patna’s Hartali Chowk railway crossing. Sitting in a shared autorickshaw alongside five other passengers, I was getting anxious. In 15 minutes, I had to board a train out of Patna Junction railway station, two kilometres away.
Frustrated, I got out of the autorickshaw. As I waded through traffic, I struck up a conversation with a man on a motorbike, who suggested that if I took the train that would soon pass by, I might reach Patna Junction on time. Soon, a loud whistle sounded, and a three-coach train, painted in olive-green and cream, approached the crossing. It ground to an unplanned halt barely 100 metres away. Cattle had been left tethered to the tracks, and the train had to stop to avoid running them over. The driver honked until the animals’ owner—a bare-chested man in a lungi—rushed forward to untie them.
In the meantime, about twenty people bolted towards the stalled train. I followed, clambering aboard behind them. To my surprise, other than those of us who had just got on, the train was almost empty.
We arrived at Patna Junction in ten minutes, and I made my connection. But I still found myself curious about the small train, so the next day, back in Patna, I rode its route to learn more. The train, I found, always runs nearly empty, causing an annual loss of R1 crore to the railways. The carrier’s reason for continuing to operate it is to, quite literally, keep people off its tracks.
The train’s route cuts diagonally through central Patna, connecting the heart of the city to Digha Ghat—a slum-filled neighbourhood in the city’s north-west, on the banks of the Ganga. When I got on the train at Digha Ghat, there were four other passengers on board: two women, an elderly man and a child, all of whom lived near slums along the tracks. One of the women told me that her family takes the train in order to save on autorickshaw fare. They were all travelling to Patna Junction without buying the required ten-rupee tickets, she said.
But they had no reason to fear getting fined—there are no official ticket-checkers on the train. Passengers can, however, pay Dharamnath Singh, a 50-year-old man whom the railways has hired to sell tickets on board for a monthly stipend of R500. “On average, there would be 30 passengers on the train,” he told me. “Many of them don’t buy the tickets, and think travelling without a ticket is their birthright. I just sell the tickets to those who are willing to buy, and leave the ticketless travellers alone.”
As the train left Digha Ghat, I saw clusters of slums and heaps of waste on either side of the tracks. Many of the people living alongside the train’s route rear cattle. For lack of other space, they often tether their animals to the tracks, removing them only when the train approaches—as I had seen the previous day at Hartali Chowk.
Sure enough, five minutes after we set out, the train stopped abruptly. About fifteen buffaloes stood tied to the tracks. As the driver honked, a man with a protruding belly walked forward to untether them at a leisurely pace.
The train barely moved a few metres before halting again. This time, someone had left their cooking utensils—unclean dishes, steel buckets, a gas stove and an aluminum pot—on the tracks. A woman came out, picked them up and cast them frantically away. Some 100 metres later came a group of men playing cards, sitting directly in the train’s path. Only when we were mere yards ahead of them did they move aside.
There were two drivers on the train that day, and both agreed to speak with me on the condition that I would not name them. One of them said that the railways “is running trains on this route only to ensure that the tracks and its land are not occupied by the people living in the slums nearby … if the service stops for a day, I know for sure the slum will crop up on the tracks the next day.”
His claim seems in line with the railways’ actions. In 2013, the driver told me, the train service was suspended for three months due to construction work in Patna Junction. Still, the railways made sure to run light engines on the route every day.
Though the train was first started in 1862, it was discontinued for several decades until 2004, when Lalu Prasad Yadav, then the national railway minister, restarted it. The driver told me that back then, “the train would be mostly on time and a good number of people used the service, too. The platforms at the halts were accessible, and people used to buy the tickets.” Today, he said, “If you detrain at any of these halts, you have to wade through muck and piles of gooey waste to reach the main road. There is no road. People have encroached upon every inch of land except for the tracks.”
The train has remained a point of occasional political tension. In 2005, Nitish Kumar, during his second stint as the chief minister of Bihar, proposed that the state government take over the land of the train route and convert it into a highway. But the plan was rejected. An official who works with the Danapur Division—which oversees the train line—told me that this happened because the Bihar government could not pay the railways for the land. The official also said that, in 2012, the Bihar government tried to acquire the land once more, but the deal fell through, again due to the state’s lack of funds.
The other driver heavily criticised the railways, claiming it is “spending a fortune to run a service that is serving none.” The train’s costs, he said, include about 200 litres of diesel per day, plus the salaries of two drivers, one guard and eight level-crossing staff—all of which adds up to annual expenses of R1 crore.
“It is so frustrating to run the train on this route,” he said. “It makes us feel that we are driving a cart instead of a train.” Speed-wise, the comparison is apt. The train generally covers its 10-kilometre route in about 45 minutes, averaging about 14 kilometres per hour—the pace of a moderately fit cyclist. It also adds to Patna’s rush-hour traffic, cutting through the city at eight level crossings, four of which are in central locations.
I tried numerous times to speak with railways officials about why they continue to run the train, but was shunted between departments. When I finally got in touch with RK Singh, the public-relations officer of the Danapur Division, he said, “We are not allowed to comment on why the railways is running this loss-incurring service or not.”
On the train’s return journey, approaching our final destination at Digha Ghat, we had to stop 200 metres short from the station because the tracks there had sunk into the earth. I got down to wade through ankle-deep mud and slush. Once I reached the road, I hailed down an autorickshaw. I had to return to Patna Junction for a train out of the city, and now I knew that travelling by road would likely mean a smoother trip.
Sanjay Pandey is an independent journalist based in Mumbai. He contributes to several national and international publications, including Al Jazeera, AJ+, Friday magazine and Vice News. He writes on society, culture, human rights and the environment.