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Vol. XXXII No. 22, March 1-15, 2023

New experiment makes Chennai Central India’s first ‘silent’ railway station

-- by A Special Correspondent

The hoary public announcement system in India’s railway stations is a cultural phenomenon in itself. The announcements are singularly uniform in all stations across the country and the trademark jingle played before and after announcements is so recognizable that one could argue that passengers’ ears have been trained to pay attention to the travel advisories. So the idea of a 150-year-old railway station deciding to experiment with silent service is intriguing, to say the least – especially considering that it is the first trial of its kind in the country.

On the last Sunday in February this year, Chennai’s Dr. M.G. Ramachandran Central Railway Station went silent following an order issued by the Southern Railway General Manager, RN Singh. The speaker announcements were replaced by a greater number of inquiry booths and visual display boards; to ensure as smooth a transition as possible, the order mandated the testing and maintenance of the visual display boards and a higher staff count for the inquiry booths. Concourse areas within the station are packed with large digital boards and all three entry points to the Central Station – EVR Periyar Salai (MTC bus stop), the suburban terminus and Wall Tax Road (Gate no. 5) – are now equipped with big digital screens which display details pertaining to the arrival and departure of trains in Tamil, Hindi and English. It’s not just travel advisories that have gone silent – there are no audio announcements from advertisements, either.

Passenger response is mixed. Travellers habituated to reading information boards reported a smooth experience and were happy with the calmer environment in the absence of noise. However, some are finding it quite difficult to adapt to the change, having grown used to the verbal announcements. Not everyone is comfortable with reading the visual boards either, for the information counters – though plenty and additional – are said to have been swamped on Sunday with passengers wishing to know details pertaining to their tickets. Travellers who were in a rush were reportedly stressed, as they had to linger at the display screens to find the information they sought. The additional task of pulling out the railway ticket to verify the train number and platform information turned out to be irksome for many, too.

Passengers with visual impairments were the worst affected, even though aids were planned for the disabled – braille navigation maps have been installed at the entrance to the station and QR codes pasted across the property guide users to a video in sign language providing an overview of the station. However, this has not been sufficient. In a quote to The Times of India, K. Pandiyan said, “The announcements were our support, and now I am lost. I request the railway administration to at least provide us some basic support.” In the end, it was reportedly a helpful porter who led Mr. Pandiyan to the correct platform.

Dr. M.G. Ramachandran Central Railway Station is a key depot. Nearly 200 express trains pass through its track, including 46 pairs of daily trains. It is said to serve a daily average footfall of 550,000 passengers. The move to test the functioning of the station as a silent depot is reportedly an attempt to emulate airports – a trial that some experts feel is not suitable for the busy station. R. Pandiyaraja, a former member of the Southern Railway Users’ Consultative Committee worries that it is premature to expect ordinary passengers to access the station without any announcement. “Rail passengers cannot be equated with air passengers,” he said, to The Times of India.

Mr. Pandiyaraja has a point. Air passengers have a multitude of communication touchpoints that allow airports to function as silent services – those receiving boarding passes at the check-in counters have the benefit of verbal advisories from the airline staff and there are regular SMS notifications delivered to travellers as well. Also, airline staff take the trouble to call out for passengers who seem to be delayed. Chennai Central does not provide these useful touchpoints. Following the experiment, railway officials announced that larger display boards would be provided and that the number of inquiry counters would be increased. This may simply not be enough.

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