No Takers for Maharaja-Like Journey as Indian Luxury Trains Battle Low Occupancy, Covid Deals Final Blow

Indian luxury trains, just like the entire Railway sector, were badly impacted due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, while normal train operations are coming back on track — and even outperforming the pre-pandemic numbers — the luxury trains seem to be losing steam, ministry data shows.

Post-2020, only Palace on Wheels, Golden Chariot and Maharaja’s Express have been running, according to the official ministry data accessed by News18.

The Maharaja’s Express had seven trips this financial year up to November 30 and earned Rs 14.34 crore. The average occupancy of the train was just 38 per cent. Last financial year, it had an exceptionally high occupancy of 82 per cent in the three trips it took.

Up to November 2022, Palace on Wheels had five trips with 38 per cent occupancy. Golden Chariot, which had just one trip, had an occupancy of 27 per cent.

Low Occupancy Even Before Pandemic

Further digging into the data shows that even before the pandemic hit, the occupancy of these trains was low. News18 has accessed the occupancy details of these trains since 2014 which reveal that the average occupancy of the trains between 2014 and 2022 had not crossed 50 per cent.

In 2014-15, Palace on Wheels took 35 trips and the occupancy was 56 per cent. The next year, during the same number of trips, the occupancy dropped to 48 per cent. In the next three financial years, the train had 33 trips each year. The average occupancy of this luxury train was 40 per cent in 2016-17; 55 per cent in 2017-18 and 56 per cent in 2018-19. In 2019-20, it showed slight improvement as the occupancy reached 59 per cent. The average occupancy for this train, covering Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan, between 2014-15 and 2022-23 stood at 39 per cent.

Maharaja’s Express, operating on a number of pan-India itineraries, had an average occupancy of 44 per cent between 2014-15 and 2022-23. In 2014-15, it had 34 trips with occupancy of 57 per cent. In the next financial year, the occupancy dropped to 52 per cent in 29 trips and during 2016-17, it went down to 39 per cent in 31 trips. The occupancy remained below 45 per cent between 2017-18 and 2019-20.

Golden Chariot had 11 trips in 2014-15 and 2016-17 with occupancy at 35 per cent. In 2015-16, the train had nine trips and the occupancy was 30 per cent. In 2017-18, the train had eight trips and the average occupancy was 41 per cent. It remained suspended in 2018-19 and 2019-20. In 2020-21, it had two trips with occupancy at 34 per cent.

Speaking to News18, a Railway Ministry official said the aim of these trains is to promote tourism and not bring in profit.

“It is correct that the operation of luxury tourist trains has been adversely impacted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, these are covered under the Bharat Gaurav Trains scheme. The aim of these trains is to promote tourism. They run on a standard costing methodology based on haulage charge principles to promote rail-based tourism and not on a profit-making model,” the official said, seeking anonymity.

It is important to note that all luxury tourist trains have been brought under the ambit of the new Bharat Gaurav Trains scheme from this financial year. Under the policy, service providers have full flexibility to decide the themes, itineraries and tariff as per market demand.

The service provider offers a comprehensive package with facilities of rail transportation, accommodation, meals, local road transport and sightseeing. Running of tourist circuit trains rests with the service provider, while Indian Railways provides all assistance for operationalising these trains, including coach maintenance and stabling facilities.

Low Occupancy, Complimentary Travels in Dock

A standing committee on Railways, headed by West Bengal MP Sudip Bandyopadhyay, in 2019 had questioned the Railways on low occupancy of the luxury trains and also the complimentary trips provided by the Railways on these trains.

The committee said that the percentage of vacant seats during 2012 to 2017 has been 63.7, 61.07, 57.76, 45.46 and 45.81 for Maharaja Express, Golden Charriot, Royal Rajasthan on Wheels, Deccan Odyssey and Palace on Wheels, respectively.

“What was even more disturbing that in Maharaja Express, which is completely run by Indian Railways without state collaboration, during 2012-13, 2013-14, 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17, the occupancy has been 29.86%, 32.22%, 41.8%, 41.58% and 36.03%, respectively,” the committee said, adding that during 2013-14, 758 seats were occupied out of 1,594 in which 97 seats had been occupied by complimentary travellers.

It also said that the provision of complimentary travel is continuing in these luxury trains on recommendation of either the Railway Board or IRCTC or the State Tourism Development Corporation.

The committee said it failed to understand “the need to provide complimentary travel when these luxury trains have hardly been generating the revenue to meet their own working expenses”.

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