Slowdown takes the steam out of Indian luxury trains

April 12th, 2009 - 1:44 pm ICT by IANS  

By Anuradha Shukla
New Delhi, April 12 (IANS) The spectre of slowdown, pay cuts and pink slips has forced the steam out of luxury trains in India, forcing many of them to cool their wheels at railway yards instead of being on the tracks over which they once chugged along majestically.

Sitting idle, failing to attract passengers, are tourist trains like Heritage on Wheels, covering the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, and Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, which takes travellers to the Taj Mahal and Bharatpur Bird sanctuary, besides the main cities of the state.

“The occupancy was low, and at times, there were more staff than passenger on board,” said an official of the state-run Rajasthan Tourism Development (RTDC), which jointly operated the services, explaining why they decided to suspend operations of the two trains.

Tour operators said the packages for these trains were also expensive and that a low turnout was inevitable as these services were mainly dependent on tourists from the US and Europe, which have been hit hard by the financial crisis.

“There has been a considerable decline in the number of foreign tourists coming to India after the meltdown. So there was bound to be fewer bookings for luxury trains,” said Subhash Goel, chairman of Stic Travel group.

In fact, as per official data, foreign tourist arrivals declined sharply in January to 487,000 people against 591,000 in the like month of last year, resulting in a drop in foreign exchange from $1.38 billion to $941 million.

“The tariff for these trains is also steep. During slowdown, tariff cut or discounts can attract more foreigners and well-heeled Indians,” Goel, who is also the chairman of the tourism committee of the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Assocham), told IANS.

A new entrant to the luxury train business, the journey of Royal Rajasthan on Wheels starts from the national capital and goes through various erstwhile princely states like Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Sawai Madhopur, Chittorgarh, Udaipur and Bharatpur.

After spending seven nights and eight days, the well-appointed train returns after a halt to visit the famed Taj Mahal at Agra.

While a deluxe suite, on a twin-sharing basis, costs $590 per person per night, a super deluxe saloon can set a tourist back by $1,600 per person per night. The package includes all meals, monument fees and transfers.

Heritage on Wheels, that has a package covering three nights and four days, costs $300 per person per night for single occupancy and $200 per person per night on a twin-sharing basis.

Manish Saini, marketing manager with The Luxury Trains, the general sales agents and consolidator for several luxury trans, including The Palace on Wheels, says services had been temporarily suspended because of maintenance.

“The services are suspended only till August. From September we will restart the trains,” Saini told IANS. But he also admitted that booking were very low and that they sometimes had to upgrade passengers from the less expensive Palace on Wheels.

Some of the other luxury trains that operate in the country include The Deccan Odyssey, covering Mumbai, Pune, Nashik, Aurangabad and Ajanta and Goa, and The Golden Chariot, covering Bangalore, Mysore and Goa.

An Indian Railway official said the only such train that is able to chug along in these difficult times is the Palace on wheels. “We are able to manage an 80 percent occupancy.”

(Anuradha Shukla can be contacted at anuradha.s@ians.in)

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