For the first time in its 34-year history, the queen of India's heritage trains will skip a trip for want of passengers. Palace on Wheels (POW), operating in Rajasthan since 1982, was never cancelled even during the global recession of 2007-09, but it will not leave on the journey scheduled to start on Wednesday as no bookings were made.
"Palace on Wheels is the first and oldest of the elite group of locomotives, and all through it has been the most popular among tourists. The train runs every season from September to April. Since we did not have any bookings for March 30, 2016, the train had to be cancelled. Yes, it is the first time in the history of running the train that the Palace on Wheels had to be cancelled for not having a tourist," said Pradeep Bohra, general manager, POW.
Bohra said that high haulage charges make it unviable to run the luxury train with a low occupancy.
"Earlier, our trains were running on a tariff-sharing basis, wherein 56% was for Railways and 44% was for Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation (RTDC). But from this season, POW has to pay Railways Rs 65 lakh per tour and Royal Rajasthan on Wheels Rs 60 lakh, with a 10% increase every year irrespective of the number of tourists."
Because these luxury trains have accommodation for a small number of people, the per capita haulage charges are very high. Already, inbound tourist bookings have declined and POW will need to re-invent itself to remain attractive. Only eight tourists travelled to Jaipur on the POW on its previous trip, on Holi. The train, which has accommodation for 104, needs 25 passengers to be profitable.
POW is counted among the top 10 luxury trains in the world, but standards have been slipping. Each saloon should have a captain and one attendant or 'khidmatgar', but there is a 15-20% shortage of staff, resulting in poor maintenance.