In the past three years since the NDA government took charge, the ministry of railways has committed and initiated various projects to enhance passenger amenities and augment freight. Some of them are running differentiated trains, latest being Tejas, and doing away with various freight charges. However, the railways’ finances are still under stress with the last financial year’s operating ration hitting a high of 96.9. In an interview with Saurabh Kumar, railway minister Suresh Prabhu elaborates on the way forward. Excerpts:
What more would you have liked to do in the last three years?
We started three years ago on a very scientific method and prepared a white paper on the problems. Then in the two Budgets I presented and the third which was aligned to the first two, we addressed them. We gave an action-taken report on the Budget, and some of the promised actions are in advanced stage of implementation. Of course, I would have been happier if things were done faster.
And to do that we have even delegated powers. We are thinking of giving more and more powers to divisional railway managers. There are a few major functions —corporate planning, raising finance, human resource, internal control and audit, and technology — which should be discharged at the board level, but others can be done at the division level. They are closer to the market, can get more freight for the railways and decide on passenger-related issues faster because they have the power now.
Is the railways consciously expediting projects such as the dedicated freight corridor (DFC)?
We are constantly monitoring it (DFC). Recently, the World Bank conveyed that a lot of ground has been covered in the DFC in the last few months, and they want to do more. So, the idea is that we should try to expedite it apart from other projects. But there are certain things which are beyond our control such as the real estate market, so, we need to deal with that.
How prepared are you for the GST roll-out? How will it affect the railways?
We have told the Railway Board and the finance department to consult experts and look into it. GST will affect everyone. We are studying the issues and will work out a strategy.
Are you looking to levy a safety cess to create the safety fund?
The finance minister has already said `20,000 crore of the `1 lakh crore will come from the government and some money will have to be raised by the railways. So, we have to find out the ways to do it. Safety cess is one possibility.
How are the new differentiated trains doing commercially?
They are doing very well and according to our calculations, the payback will be within two or two-and-a-half years, that is, we will recover the entire operational cost. Though I don’t know exactly how much capacity is utilised in these trains, these are very popular products.
How much private participation do you envisage for the railways?
Private participation in sidings has gone up, station redevelopment has private participation, we are now allowing freight trains to be run and DFC will have private participation.