FE Editorial : Going off track

Written by The Financial Express | Updated: Dec 30 2009, 03:04am hrs
China launched the fastest train in the world over the weekend, which clocks 350 kmph, way faster than its nearest competition in Japan and France. While it took China more than two decades to ramp up speeds from 43 kmph to 100 kmph, it has now more than trebled speeds in just nine years. And even while our leadership continues to squabble over relative performance indicators, the Chinese plan to build 42 high-speed rail lines stretching over 13,000 km over the next three years. Our ambitions on speed are in any case limitedthe Vision 2020 document released earlier this month aims to accelerate maximum speeds from 130 kmph to 160-200 kmph for passenger trains and from 70 kmph to over 100 kmph for freight trains. And catching up with China on other parameters would also require more effort than is being currently put in.

Though the total rail network length is almost identical, 63,327 km for India and 63,637 km for China, and so also are the number of passenger coaches, 43,124 in India as compared to 42,471 in China, the number of freight wagons in China (5,71,078) is more than twice that of India (2,07,719). And the 17,222 locomotives on Chinese rail are also more than double the 8,110 in India. So, while India has a marginal edge over China in the number of passenger km carried, the freight km carried by Chinese rail is more than four times that of India. The primary reason for this large disparity is the irrational policies that push up freight fares to subsidise passengers. Average freight charged in India is almost four times that in the US and more than double that in China, as the freight earnings cross-subsidise the losses on passenger fares, which have more than doubled in the last five years to Rs 13,958 crore. Indian Railways has no hope for reversing these trends as long as pricing decisions continue to be guided by populist sentiments. What is even worse is that the Indian Railways authorities even now refuse to focus on the core operations. For instance, the 11th Plan outlays show that the proportion of funds allocated for new lines and rolling stock have dipped even while investments in railways-owned public sector units shot up from 4.4% in the 10th Plan to 17.1% in the 11th Plan. With such policies, rail passengers will indeed be lucky to get even basic amenities, forget world-class services.