Another good Railway report, let’s act on them now
Given the huge shortage of funds with the Railways—against an investment of R66,000 crore in FY15, Railways plans to spend R8.5 lakh crore over the next 5 years—it is obvious a lot of new and innovative means are required to generate the additional resources. Not surprisingly then, that the DK Mittal panel has suggested a roadmap including greater monetisation of railway assets including 43,000 hectares of surplus land and redevelopment of 7,000 railway stations, restricting all fresh investment in rolling stock to either PPP or the private sector, running private trains (also suggested by the Bibek Debroy committee), increasing the borrowing limits of IRFC and setting up unviable projects only if these are funded by state governments or ministries like the coal and mines one. Besides this, there are recommendations to increase borrowing from overseas and tapping pension and insurance funds—some part of these recommendations, in any case, have already found mention in railway minister Suresh Prabhu’s budget speech.
There are some stunning statistics—while everyone knows the Railways makes R34,000 crore losses on passenger traffic, the report has data that shows only the 3-tier AC class makes money. In the event, the report recommends increasing the number of wagons in passenger trains to increase revenues and to increase speeds which will also help raise revenues. Not surprisingly, given there is a limit to how much money can be raised from passenger fares, the report focuses a lot on how the Railways needs to raise non-traffic revenues to around a third of total revenues. This is what Dinesh Trivedi had spoken of several years ago, and station redevelopment is critical to this. The Mittal report puts down targets for how much revenue can come from such work in both suburban and normal railway traffic. While Trivedi had proposed a Member PPP in the Railway Board, Mittal wants more powers to be given to the Railway Land Development Authority (RLDA) to get maximum money from the vacant land as well as to liaise with state governments to get land use changes.
The problem, however, is that while each report submitted to railway minister Suresh Prabhu is different in some way, most of the suggestions have been made before. So, it is time to just act upon them now. Monetisation of railway land has been talked of for years, but as Mittal points out, the RLDA’s board has not met in the last one year and 3 of the 4 board posts remain vacant. Similarly, issues like clearances for parking and approach roads, critical to monetise the land, have been hanging fire for years. Despite knowing of the tremendous advertising potential of the Railways, or the potential of the 43,000km of optic fibre network, this has largely remained unutilised. It is time the minister started acting upon the suggestions by quickly announcing some big railway station redevelopment programmes as well as by starting off some private trains.