Column : High-speed aspirations on slow tracks

Written by K Vaidya Nathan | Updated: Feb 25 2013, 17:50pm hrs
The railway budget is expected to be presented on February 27. Recently, Indian Railways announced that it is working on an end-to-end travel solution for passengers, involving doorstep pick-up, porter facility, waiting provision in the executive lounge and assisted boarding, all rolled into one package deal ( It also announced with much fanfare that it is going to introduce high-speed trains in the country. These announcements seem more like good noises to make as a precursor to the budget, than an imperative implementation strategy.

The proposal for developing high-speed railway line between Delhi and Kanpur via Agra was first mooted in the mid-1980s when Madhavrao Scindia was the railway minister. It was discussed with a sense of definiteness again in 2003 when low-fare airlines started to make significant inroads into premium rail travel traffic. For the last 10 years, every year before the budget, Railways has been making lofty proclamations about introducing high-speed trains, or some such statements about improving rail travel facilities.

For the kind of inefficiency and ineptitude that subsists in railways, it might have become a past tense if it were not a monopoly. We already know the sorry state of affairs of Air India, even though Air India has been comparatively far more efficient than the Indian Railways. The fact that passengers have a right to dignified travel is an idea that is lost on Indian Railways, even though they talk about an end-to-end travel solution.

Consider the way Indian Railways has been depriving the country for decades of some minimum hygiene and comfort that every ticket-purchasing customer is entitled to. Though it may sound harsh, our railway stations invariably have the following attributes: human excreta strewn over the middle of tracks, stinking urinals, mosaic of betel leaf stains in corners of station buildings, unattended mounts of garbage standing tall, stray dogs loitering on platforms, rats in waiting rooms, creepy-crawlies in retiring rooms, beggars in front of stations and itinerants sleeping on platforms in the night. Stations are perpetually crowded with people who are not travelling anywhere. We have dilapidated unhygienic coaches that seem to be caught in a time warp. They sometime lack even basic facilities such as uninterrupted water supply and unsoiled, non-smelly toilets. The number of theft cases in trains is far too many for passengers to even bother lodging a complaint with the pretence of a police called the Railway Protection Force. We havent even got started talking about the railways accidents record. This is despite Indian Railways being one of the largest employers in the world and an exorbitantly high personnel-cost-to-gross-receipt ratio. So, the lack of a modicum of service is not because of a lack of personnel, and is therefore much less explicable. Even aspects that do not need any capital but only efficient management are neglected. Indian Railways needs to get a lot of basic things right before being able to provide end-to-end travel solutions or high-speed trains.

Think in terms of what can be. Indian Railways can make its service offering so compelling that to travel anywhere between 100 km and 1,000 km the most preferred mode of transport ought to be the rail-roads. That is how it is in China, both for the business community and the masses. Currently, in India, the preferred way of getting to any place, especially in the business world, is either the road or the flight. Both are now more comfortable than the rail. On the contrary, rail coaches ought to be more comfortable than sitting in a 32-inch seat on a flight or travelling by car. Rail coaches dont have as much space constraints as flights or cars have. Yet, rail-roads entail much less land usage than cars or buses: a double-track rail line has more than thrice the passenger-carrying capacity of a six-lane highway while requiring less than half the land. Given the high vehicular population and air traffic now, the country can save so much on costly petroleum fuels that both road and air travel consume. To boot, trains are environmentally friendly as well.

Railway finances are shrinking with working expenses going up. It would be interesting to see working expense as a percentage of gross receipts for the last financial year. Freight performance too has been quite disheartening, with market share decreasing steadily over the past few decadesfrom 90% in the 1950s to less than 30% last year. Railways are unable to provide freight services with a time-table, which is a rudimentary requirement. Even more than end-to-end travel solution for passenger traffic, multi-modal logistics parks for freight traffic that provide door-to-door cargo services are a necessity. But they all seem like a distant dream.

Indian Railways needs attention from the highest office for a course correction. For instance, our long-distance telecommunication was dismal till Rajiv Gandhis government made telephones accessible to the masses. Similarly, our highways were of literally the Stone Age till the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government paved eight-lane highways. If Manmohan Singhs government can make railways state-of-the-art, that would be a lasting contribution to the infrastructure in this country. At the very least, the organisation needs to be held accountable for actually implementing its magnificent pre-budget announcements.

The author, formerly with JP Morgan Chase, is CEO, Quantum Phinance