Focus on centralisation of structure, and electrification and doubling of tracks
By RN Malik
Indian Railways (IR) is a behemoth. It runs 8,000 trains carrying 15 lakh passengers daily, and employs 14 lakh people. Only the Indian Army comes close to its gargantuan size. While people still prefer train journey because it is a comfortable, fast and hassle-free mode of travel, certain deficiencies in its operations have stymied its popularity. A few decades ago trains carried 70% of passenger and freight loads, and buses and trucks carried the remainder. Now the ratio has been reversed. The major operational drawbacks are:
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1. Non-punctuality in arrival timings;
2. Poor sanitation in non-AC coaches;
3. About 55% tracks are grossly underutilised; for example, hardly 2-3 trains run on Rohtak-Rewari or Jind-Sonipat or Kurukshetra-Narwana lines in Haryana;
4. Inability of states to run trains in their territories;
5. Busy routes like Delhi-Kolkata getting saturated, leaving no scope for running additional trains;
6. Paucity of funds to execute ongoing and new projects on time;
7. About 55% railway tracks need urgent doubling and electrification;
8. Operational cost is 96% of revenue receipts, thus leaving little scope for executing new projects;
9. Existence of missing links between two main lines;
10. Lack of innovation in designing lightweight coaches, more efficient engines and computerised running.
Some of these drawbacks are self-explanatory, and three issues need elaboration:
Centralisation of organisation
To efficiently run a vast railway network in a large country like India is a Herculean task. The huge size of the organisation is the biggest cause of its inefficiency. This problem can be mitigated if states are allowed to develop and run the railway network in their respective territories. The job of the IR should be limited to run interstate trains, and guide states in managing the system. When a small country like Belgium can develop an efficient and a well-spread network, why cannot a state like Uttar Pradesh be allowed to do the same here. Empowering states to run and manage railway networks will enable them to run more trains on grossly underutilised routes, lay more lines using their own budgets, set the right fares, and reduce ticket-less travel. The IR will will be able to cut down its flab and increase efficiency.
Paucity of funds
Execution of numerous projects has been lingering for want of uninterrupted flow of funds. That is why the gestation period of railway projects is unduly long. Laying of a 50-km railway line in the plains will take at least four years, and the Jammu to Udhampur railway line took 25 years to complete. Recently, members of the Railway Board told the Consultative Committee of Parliament that completion of ongoing and new projects will take decades at the given rate of availability of funds. A major reason for scarcity of funds is the ultra-low fares of passenger trains and low fares of mail trains. For example, the fare of ordinary bus travel from Chandigarh to Delhi is Rs 220, while that of a mail train is only Rs 85. The government doesn’t have the courage to increase fares; remember how railway minister Dinesh Trivedi was forced to resign by Mamata Banerjee when he proposed increased fares. The IR also made the fatal mistake of abandoning the tradition of presenting its own Budget in Parliament that gave it an opportunity for in-depth analysis and prognosis of its financial health.
Electrification and doubling of tracks
About 55% of tracks need to electrified and doubled. Electrification brings more efficiency in running and saves energy; it will also reduce imports of diesel oil and save foreign exchange. Doubling of tracks will reduce travel time and increase frequency of trains. While tracks are being electrified at a fast pace of 4,000-km per year, the same is not true in case of doubling of tracks. It will be a golden moment for the IR if the government of India and the Ministry of Railways decide to address these aforementioned problems on an urgent basis.
The author is former engineer-in-chief, Haryana State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation