The Indian Railways saw a sharp fall in passenger traffic by 150 million during the April to August period this year, puzzling the railway ministry to ascertain reasons for the decline even though there was no hike in fares.

The Minister of State (MoS) for Railways Manoj Sinha was surprised to note the fall in passenger numbers at the General Managers' (GMs) meeting held on 15 September.

"The trains are always full. You cannot get a reservation. Then how can you say the number of passengers travelling in trains is going down. There must be something wrong with the numbers," he is believed to have said at the meeting.

The Railways saw 3.42 billion passengers travelling by trains between April and August this year, compared to 3.57 billion during the same period last year. Factoring the fall, the ministry estimates the overall number of passengers to come down by about 5% in 2015-16. 

Following the meeting, AK Mittal, chairman, Railway Board, has sent a letter to all the zonal GMs to find out the reasons behind the drop in passenger count.

"The Railway Board Members cannot figure out the trend. It has defied their belief that their low fares vis-a-vis road travel would ensure that passengers do not go anywhere," a senior official in the traffic directorate of railways told The Economic Times.

Several railway officials are of the view that the Mittal's letter made no sense.

"It does not require rocket science to figure out why the passenger figures are going down. Maximum loss has been in the short distance and suburban segment. Obviously, passengers prefer road journeys to the unwelcoming railways. They prefer to pay more to save time than to wait for low fare, unpunctual and crowded trains," said one official.

"It is a pain for most passengers to buy a ticket. There are long queues. Ticket vending machines have been installed at some stations like New Delhi but many of them don't work. If they work, they ask for the exact amount of money and do not return cash. Mobile booking apps have been launched for some segments but how many can use them. Most passengers don't have credit or debit cards," he added.

Another official cited increase in ticket-less travel and a shortage of train ticket examiners (TTEs) by nearly 5,000 as reasons for the drop in passenger traffic.

"TTEs anyway restrict themselves to reserved sections and hardly venture out to the unreserved sections of the train," the official said.