This indeed can be termed as the golden phase for the railways, considering that till a couple of years back freight growth rate was only 3%. Also, railways market share is 45% currently, which is a marked improvement from the earlier share of 32%. All this indicates that passengers as well as customers are coming to railways, attracted by some innovative measures introduced by the ministry.
The most important aspect to be noticed here is that the road sector is proving to be more expensive due to the recent hike in diesel and petrol prices. The railways is six times more energy efficient than trucks. Thus, the recent hikes do not really affect it. Add to this the recent measures introduced for the benefit of customers and it is easier to understand why customers are coming to the railways.
Incentives for customers and improvement in freight throughput are the two areas which have led to this spurt. Increasing the carrying capacity of wagons, strict implementation of loading and unloading time of wagons, and ensuring availability of wagons are some of the measures that have attracted customers.
The engine load scheme too has been beneficial for customers. Time for engine changing too has been tightened, so that goods trains can cover their routes in lesser time-frame. Also, investments in sidings, which are provided for end-to-end carriage of goods to customers, have been enhanced.
Now that the railways are mulling involvement of more private players in the container carriage business, it will boost the railways prospects. Concors monopoly has been broken and soon other players would also be allowed in this field.
The railways has also taken measures to ensure that trains are able to maintain a uniform speed. That has played a major role in timely delivery of goods. Even rake examination time has been reduced and the wagon turnaround time has been brought down from seven days to five days. Liberalisation of siding rules has led to a win-win situation for railways. To book wagons, a premium registration scheme has been introduced. Under this, if a customer wants to urgently book a wagon, he can jump the queue by paying for a wagon, which is two classes higher. This is similar to what is done under the Tatkal scheme of the railways.
Private players are also being invited to set up their own warehouses while railways would be providing them with rakes. This would benefit them as well as the railways. Also, after computerisation of the arrival and departure time of rakes, the time efficiency rate has gone up. While station personnel can track the time of rake movement, even customers can track the location of their wagons through the computerised network.
Mechanised loading and unloading of goods now saves a lot of time. This, coupled with the above mentioned measures, has elevated railways as an efficient carrier of goods and reinforced the confidence of customers in it.
Compared to 2001, when the railways was in a deep financial mess, today it has Rs 10,000 crore in its funds. In fact, the plan to set up a dedicated rail freight corridor along the Golden Quadrilateral (GQ) routes originated from the need to handle increased freight traffic due to the increased pressure on rail lines.
The basic idea is to create separate lines for freight movement so that on current routes only passenger trains can ply. The Delhi-Mumbai route, for which feasibility studies are being conducted, has in recent times witnessed 14% growth in container traffic. This goes to show how railways has emerged as an option for customers looking to move their goods across the country.
However, while all this can be termed as a positive development, Indian Railways would have to maintain its image of being a customer-friendly organisation. Also, how efficiently it is able to implement these measures, would sustain its current image with the public, provided the quality of service does not deteriorate.
RK Singh is former chairman, Railway Board (As told to Animesh Singh)