Tracking Indian Railways: Decisions based on gut reaction can lead to costly mistakes

By: | Published: July 11, 2016 6:16 AM

Unfortunately, the present set of statistical data, collected often on an yearly basis, is mostly to evaluate operational performance

Which trains are money-spinners and which routes are losing? How much of freight business and on which products are being lost to the road sector every year? Has the PPP model resulted in a sizeable increase in Railways’ revenues or has it only given the private sector a chunk of railways’ land to squat on? How is each of the products supplied by millions of vendors for maintenance of rolling stock performing? Which areas of the Railways’ activity could be outsourced to effect greater financial economy ?

These, and a host of other questions, need to be answered for any meaningful business decision to be taken. Sadly, in the absence of hard facts or reliable data, these decisions are often based on a hunch or a gut reaction, which could lead to costly mistakes, or are not taken at all with the hope that things would some how work out in the end.

In a dynamic activity such as rail transport, where the scenario can change almost daily, taking quick decisions is inescapable—for this, availability of real time information and reliable data is paramount. Unfortunately, the present set of statistical data, collected often on an yearly basis, is mostly to evaluate operational performance involving usage of assets such as wagons, locomotives, fuel consumption, etc.

PRS (Passenger Reservation System), installed in 1984, was the first major computerisation initiative. It involved the mammoth task of booking train tickets, a business which has now grown to over 2 million tickets a day being booked from over 10,000 terminals spread across railway’s 64,000-km long network, as well as online and via mobile phones.

The next major foray was made when the Centre for Railway Information Services (CRIS) built a robust platform for keeping track of over 7,000 freight trains originating daily from scores of yards and sidings.

As a result, real-time data on tonnage, commodity-loaded, point of origin and destination, time of departure and the exact location of a train at any point of time is available at the click of a mouse.

Created in 1986, CRIS started its search for an appropriate programme only in the late 1990s. The architecture of CANAC, the Canadian Railway Consultancy Service’s programme, did not meet the needs of Indian Railways while IBM’s proposal turned out to be too expensive.

Ultimately, CRIS developed a programme with its in-house expertise. This was rolled out by the end of a decade and has been the mainstay for Railways’ pan-India monitoring of freight trains. It, incidentally, also helps CONCOR keep track of its containers.

However, apart from a few individual departmental efforts to computerise asset maintenance, store functions and other record-keeping, no major effort has been made over the last two decades for vital data to be available for both short- and long-term decision-making—a serious shortcoming for the 1.3-million strong behemoth which is nation’s economic life-line.

Railways minister Suresh Prabhu is now determined to change all that with a major ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) exercise by roping in one of the major IT players, such as TCS, Infosys, Wipro, or SAP. Undoubtedly, a tough task, for it should not result in just generating a lot of information.

Identifying areas of concern, arriving at how the data is to be keyed in and who would do it are equally crucial to avoid pitfall of GI-GO (or Garbage-In-Garbage-Out). The objective for each module would also need to be clearly spelt out and the integrity of data and competence of those making the inputs fully ensured.

In the final analysis choice of a competent CEO who would see the project through, staying as long it takes and not use it as a stepping stone for higher responsibilities would be crucial for success of the multi-crore project. Merging some of the existing IT initiatives into the new project to provide a seamless interface could go a long way in keeping the cost of the multi-crore project to a bare minimum.

The author is former member, Railway Board

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