It wasn’t a normal Sunday on 26 February 2023 in Chennai. No one heard 'Payanigalin Kanivaana gavanathirkku' (Attention dear passengers), the first announcement in Tamil, that defines the ambience at the Chennai Central Railway Station.
"It was weirdly quiet for a railway station. Something felt fishy when I was waiting to board my train," 40-year-old nurse Maari Lakshmi, who regularly commutes to the city for her work by train, told The Quint.
The 150-year-old Dr MG Ramachandran Central Railway Station in Chennai became the first in India to go silent by bidding adieu to the public announcement system that has helped passengers in boarding their trains for several decades.
According to the order issued by the Southern Railway General Manager RN Singh on 25 February, officials were asked to ensure that the station was equipped with more effective enquiry booths and large visual display boards. The decision was reportedly taken following the complaints that multiple audio announcements and advertisements were disturbing boarding and disembarking passengers.
This decision was, however, reversed on 6 March, owing to complaints. A day before the rollback order was issued, The Quint went to the station to find distressed urban poor passengers.
Here's what we first noticed: The Chennai Railway Station has three entry points: EVR Periyar Salai (MTC bus stop), suburban terminus, and Wall Tax Road (gate no. 5). Large digital screens were installed at all three entry points to the station, which displayed the arrival and departure of trains in three languages: Tamil, Hindi, and English. The concourse areas had 40 to 60-inch digital boards, too.
But was this enough for all sections of the society who board trains to reach their destination?
Easy for Urban Educated, Tough for Uneducated Workers
I tried catching the Mumbai Express and found it easy to hop on the train in time. The boards were updated every 30 minutes before the train arrived. It was pretty easy.
"For someone who belongs to an urban middle class background who can read, write, and speak English, the display boards seem pretty straightforward. I found it not very difficult to catch the train. Just that I had to keep an eye out to ensure I didn't read the train timing from the wrong column."Sidharth, 28, Software Engineer
However, what about the passengers from other sections of the society? The railway station has installed navigation maps in Braille and QR codes have also been placed to access a video of the station’s overview in sign language.
But will this suffice for a person with disabilities? Is reading the display board practically possible for senior citizens with ophthalmic ailments and the uneducated passengers who don't know how to read or write the languages on the display board? Does the removal of the public announcement system make the lives of commoners tougher?
"I am originally from Kochi in Kerala. I have been working in Chennai as a sanitation worker for more than six years. I can speak in Malayalam and Tamil but do not know to read or write any. Without the public announcement on speakers, how can someone like me catch the train without constantly bugging someone nearby for information? I could independently board the train if I get the announcement."Menakha, Sanitation Worker
The Quint spoke to passengers from varied backgrounds on how they perceived the silent railway station.
Krishnaveni, 52, who is a new grandmother, said she missed her train to Coimbatore to meet her grandson for the first time.
"My daughter delivered her baby yesterday, ahead of the due date. I had to travel alone by train, as everyone in the family is now in Coimbatore. It was very difficult to read the display board and keep myself informed about train timings as I had a cataract operation recently and I cannot strain my eyes too much to read. I was also scared to ask strangers for directions. By the time I could figure out the information, the train had already left," Krishnaveni said.
Another passenger, Malini Muthuvel is the wife of a daily-wage construction worker who recently had heart surgery. The couple are from Andhra Pradesh.
"We came from Andhra to the government hospital in Chennai for my husband’s treatment since there are no medical expenses if we do the treatment here. Traveling from such a long distance, I cannot afford to miss the train, as the money to buy a new ticket will put a strain on my monthly budget to take care of my husband and two toddlers at home".Malini Muthvel, Wife of a Heart Patient
Given that Chennai is a multicultural and multilingual city, the major part of the city’s population includes people from across India, especially from states like Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh, who have migrated to Tamil Nadu for work.
Many uneducated and non-native Tamils from the crowd expressed their dismay that the absence of announcements in the station made it strenuous for them to board the train.
Though there are a few big display boards at the entrance, the ones near the platform are smaller. "It is really difficult to read it when you are in a hurry to board the train. Plus, the advertisements are flashing frequently, occupying most of the screen."
'Announcements Served as Reminders'
However, vendors who sell food and other products inside the station claimed that the silent railway station gave them a peaceful experience.
"Honestly, I developed a hearing problem recently as I have been selling packaged food in the station for around five years. Imagine listening to train announcements at high volume all day long. It really affected my eardrums."Velraj, Food Seller
In addition to the continued exposure to announcements affecting their hearing health, the local sellers also said they had to scream at the top of their lungs over the public announcements to even have basic conversations with customers.
Meanwhile, one thing that the majority of the passengers and the vendors too agreed on, though, was that announcements on speakers in railway stations were reminders. Sometimes, when you see the board absentmindedly and keep waiting on the wrong platform, the announcement could help you quickly move to the correct platform.
"Even when we step out to use the restroom or to grab some food in a nearby shop, the announcement of the train’s arrival will alert us to quicken our tasks and get back to the train. Without it, we might miss out often", Shreeja, mother of a two-year-old, said.
Following the beeline of complaints from passengers who voiced out their opinions on how the absence of announcements is negatively affecting their train experience, Southern Railway on Monday, 6 March, withdrew its earlier decision to convert Chennai Central Railway Station into a ‘silent station.’
Previously, the Disability Rights Alliance (DRA) of India expressed their concerns that a silent railroad station would negatively impact people with disabilities badly. They submitted representations to the authorities and also staged protests demanding a rollback of the announcement system.