After a gap of several months, I went to Bombay's international airport two nights ago. Had to pick up a friend.
Put it this simply: I was stunned. There's a massive new multilevel parking facility, with punch tickets (attendant at each punch machine to do the punching for you) and those levered gates that go up and down automatically. There's a large open area for people like me, waiting for passengers, to mill about and chat to nobody in particular on our cellphones. There are clear signs for airlines and arrivals and parking and so forth. There are clear screens that tell you that the flight arrived over half an hour ago, so the person you want to pick up may have got fed up waiting for you, and gone home.
There are some wrinkles, sure. One minor one is the constant phweet-phweet of some officious soul blowing a whistle. Another is that a huge number of trees were cut to build this new parking facility; young man who came with me spoke sadly of how he used to come play among them when he was a kid growing up nearby.
Still, overall, the place is many times better than the way it has been for too many years. Even five months ago, when I last went to pick up someone, this same area was a godawful mess of rubble, boulders mud and a gargantuan traffic jam; I remember thinking, when is this going to improve? Well, that just got answered.
The next night, I went to Dadar station to see off family leaving on a train.
Put it this simply again: I was stunned. To start with, the approach road was choked with arriving passengers and taxis double parked to pick them up and rubble and other taxis moving the other way ... it took us 20 minutes to negotiate that last 200 metres or so. Right outside the station is pure chaos: taxis and cars and people going every which way, whistles blowing, people yelling. Get through all that somehow, I don't know how. Unload bags and now you have to walk over all kinds of dirt and rubble to get into the station, which seems to have some construction going on so there are bars lying around and unfinished concrete walls.
Wanting to be good citizens, we want to buy platform tickets, and a cop directs us to a window with these words painted large and prominent above it: "PLATFORM TICKET". Long line. Stand in it, slowly get to the head, and what does the man behind the grill say? "Go to window #6" -- or some number like that, over in entirely another part of the station. But what about those two words above this window? "You didn't see the arrow!" says the man. Yep, there's a faint arrow pointing vaguely in the direction of #6.
That eventually accomplished, we make our way onto the platform. This, I don't need to tell you about. But I will: rushing passengers and porters; handcarts laden with stuff being pushed up and down; long lines of passengers squatting and waiting for who-knows-what; hawkers of every kind of knick-knack; beggars; grime and dirt and spit stains everywhere; inexplicable large patches of muddy water; you don't want to look at the tracks, they're so filthy; noise and dust and heat; and bathing it all, the overpowering aroma of piss and shit, in the same breath.
I don't need to tell you all this because this is the way our stations have been for years. Familiar stuff to us all.
Yet: Even today, many many more Indians use trains and stations than do planes and airports. Many of them pay fares -- in the various airconditioned classes -- that are at least comparable to air fares.
Why then is there such a diligent effort to improve our airports out of all recognition, but just none to improve our railway stations? Can anyone explain this to me?