Sunday, 17 November 2019

What Ails The Indian Railways?

Updated: May 29, 2015 11:06 pm

Indian Railways suffers from seven main maladies which are not allowing it to move towards excellence. These are: Poor financial health, in-efficiency, missing links and gross under utilisation of 60 per cent railway tracks, choking of busy routes, slow progress in electrification and doubling of tracks, insanitation, and limited participation of private sector

Indian Railways (IR) is the biggest government organization in the country. It has a work force of 14 lakhs people and runs daily 8000 trains to ferry 14 million passenger and 6.1 million tons of freight to 8000 stations. But most unfortunately the financial health of IR is very poor and is struggling below the poverty line. 93 per cent of the receipts are used in disbursement of salaries and defraying electric and other maintenance charges and very little amount (Rs. 10,000 crore) is left for expansion and modernisation of projects. The Finance minister also allocates a meager sum (Rs 26000 crore last year) in the general budget and even that amount does not reach in full measure at the fag end of the year because of cuts. Only this year a sum of Rs. 50,000 crore has been allocated and let us hopes it is fully utilized by the year end. Many committees were set up by the successive governments to suggest re-structuring of IR but all such reports were thrown into the dustbin of history. Now Vivek Debroy, (Member NITI Aayog) has submitted another interim report and nobody knows it fate.

IR suffers from seven main maladies which are not allowing it to move towards excellence. These are:

1)            Poor financial health.

2)            In-efficiency.

3)            Missing links and gross under utilization of 60 per cent railway tracks.

4)            Choking of busy routes.

5)            Slow progress in electrification and doubling of tracks.

6)            Insanitation.

7)            Limited participation of private sector.

There are many more problems like inadequate number of freight wagons which need not be discussed.

Successive Railway Ministers, Chairmen of the Railway Board and bureaucrats are responsible for keeping the IR struggling in this sorry state of affairs even 68 years after independence. Worst period of IR came when MamAta Banerjee became the Minister and she operated from Kolkata. It was reported by Hindustan Times that monthly TA bills of officials of the Ministry to go and come back from Kolkata was Rs. 11 lac per month. The present Minister Suresh Prabhu is known for hard work and honesty. Let us hope he gives new wings to the IR to grow and expand in future.

But, this year, Mr. Suresh Prabhu, presented the Railway Budget in a very strange manner. In fact he presented a five year budget i.e. 2015-2020 with only one main provision of doubling and electrifying the railway tracks @ 2000 kms per year or 10,000 kms by the year 2020. No new trains or lines were announced and he strangely calls this step as the biggest reform. All told, it is the intense desire of everybody to travel by train and its journey should be as comfortable and ambient as possible. He travels by bus or any other mode only by compulsion.

The Railway Minister further stated in his budget speech that he required Rs. 1.7 lakh crore to complete this big ticket (Electrification and doubling of tracks) project and is working hard to marshal the necessary resources. It is heartening to note that LIC has offered a loan of Rs. 30,000 crore for this project and the Railway Minister is confident of arranging the balance funds. This project too will be another feather in the IR cap provided it is executed in time. But the budget is totally silent on other gnawing issues of IR.

Building eastern and western freight corridors at a cost of Rs. 90,000 crore has become a separate project. The work has started in installments but there is no target date by which the project will be completed and commissioned. It will be a big leap forward provided this project is executed in time like Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) project and counted as the second big success story after the DMRC project.

Seven maladies hampering the growth of IR are discussed below:

  • Poor Financial Health: The basic cause of poor financial health of IR is low railway fares. The ordinary bus fare from Delhi to Chandigarh is Rs. 219 while that of mail train for the same class is only Rs. 85/-. The fare in passenger trains is simply notional. Again for example, the fare between Delhi and Rohtak is just Rs. 22/- while the bus fare is Rs. 65/-. After a gap of many years, the government raised the passenger fare by 20 per cent last year. This rise in fares only fetched Rs 6,000 crores and it hardly made any impact on the financial health of IR. Fortunately the prices of crude oil crashed down to 50 per cent and this fact saved the situation to some extent. The pass holders enjoy almost a free ride as they have to pay for only 8 tickets per month. To add to the woes further, large numbers of passengers travel in local trains without tickets. Now the government does not have the guts to increase the fares anymore and put a complete check on ticketless travelling. The international price of crude oil has started rising and now it is $ 67 per barrel. Accordingly the price of diesel oil increased by Rs. 3.10 per liter. Consequently one cannot hope any improvement in the financial health of IR in the near future and it will remain anemic as in the past. It may be easy to get loans from LIC or World Bank but it will be very difficult to pay-off the same so long as the IR does not increase its fares to the required extent.
  • In efficiency: IR is a behemoth organisation. There is always a limit to the size of an organisation to deliver optimum efficiency. IR has outgrown that optimum size and this outgrowth is the main cause of its in-efficiency and many other associated problems. This gross in-efficiency is most reflected in the non- punctuality in running of trains (which is worst on secondary routes) and under utilisation of 60 per cent railway tracks. IR has completely monopolised the railway system and is not ready to give an inch even to the States. Thank God! Indian government does not run the bus service likewise. No other big country runs the railway service in this monopolized manner. Even sub-urban trains in Mumbai and Kolkata are run by IR. Time has come when states should be made stake-holders and allowed to run trains within their respective territories and IR should run only interstate trains. For example what is the harm if Haryana Government is allowed to run a train between Hissar and Gurgaon. It is a very busy route and presently being served by the bus service only. This part transfer of railway service to states should be gradual over a period of 5 years. This step will prompt the people to travel more by trains than buses. Also trains can be run by electricity and this step will lead to massive saving in consumption of diesel oil with consequent saving in foreign exchange. Therefore each state needs to run less number of buses and more number of trains. In other words IR will become a very efficient organization provided it runs only inter-state trains and downsizes itself. The train service under state control will ensure 5 benefits.

(a)          60 per cent underutilized tracks will be fully utilized.

(b)          The competition between railway service and bus service will be eliminated.

(c)           The trains on less important routes will run very efficiently and run punctually.

(d)          Ticket less traveling will be completely eliminated.

(e)          The states can fix their own fares to make the running of trains a profitable proposition.

The Railway ministry should realise and visualise that India is a very vast country equivalent in size of European Union and operation of train service should be designed on that pattern. In other words each state should be treated like each country of the European Union and allowed to run its own train service within its territory and IR should run only interstate trains. Time has come when IR will have to decentralize itself the way State Electricity Boards were decentralised and unbundled under the Electricity Act 2003.

  • Missing links and under utilisation of 60 per cent tracks:

(i)            Every state has some missing railway links/gaps in the existing railway network. For example a train from Hissar cannot go to Chandigarh till a railway link of 25 kilometers is provided between Uklana and Narvana. Likewise a train from Ferozepur cannot go to Amritsar till a missing link between Patti and Miyanwala is laid. There are innumerable examples of such missing links throughout the country and their total length is not more than 2000 kilometers.

(ii)           Under utilization of railway tracks: The tracks are either over utilised or underutilised in the existing railway network, for example, Delhi-Kolkata track is so busy that it becomes extremely difficult to get a permit to repair any defect in the track. On the other hand 60 per cent tracks are grossly underutilized where hardly 2-3 trains run during the day. It is this problem which adds to the losses of IR. To give one example- a new 50 km railway track was laid between Rewari and Rohtak at a cost of Rs 600 crore. Hardly 2 trains run on this track and the staff on various stations simply whiles away the time. Similarly Narvana- Kurukshetra track of 80 Kms is also equally underutilised. Therefore under utilisation of 35000 km tracks is a big issue with IR and its solution lies in one order of the government i.e. “allow the states to run trains within their territories.” This order will revolutionize the IR.

  • Choking of Bus Routes: Delhi-Mumbai, Delhi- Kolkata, Delhi-Ambala are some of the busiest routes in IR network. It is becoming impossible for trains to run punctually on these saturated routes. For example Chandigarh-Delhi Shatabdi runs according to time schedule till Narela. But it takes lot of time to cross the distance between Narela and New Delhi Railway Station. Same is the situation in other directions i.e. Delhi-Ghaziabad or Delhi-Faridabad. This problem can be solved in two phases only. Firstly new fast track routes should be laid between Delhi-Kolkata and Delhi-Mumbai to enable a train to give an average speed of 150 Kms per hour. Secondly Delhi railway stations should be de-congested by terminating some trains at peripheral points e.g. Narela, Ghaziabad, Ballabgarh railway stations. It is learnt that the two freight corridors will run only freight trains and let us see to what extent we get relief in the absence of freight trains on the existing routes.
  • Electrification and doub-ling of tracks: Presently 35 per cent railway tracks (21000 km) have been doubled and electrified. Present rates of electrification and doubling of tracks is only 200 kms per year.

Now the Railway Minister has said in his budget speech that 10000 kms more railway tracks will be doubled and electrified by 2020. Timely execution of this project will have two domino effects.

  1. i) Number of trains running with diesel engines will be greatly reduced.
  2. ii) Punctuality in running of trains will be enhanced.
  • Insanitation: The term “Insanitation” has become synonymous with IR. Firstly the toilets in ordinary coaches always stink. Both the interiors and exteriors of the compartments are stained with spitting. Railway tracks have become the most coveted places for open defecation. Solid waste generated in the towns near the tracks is dumped there. The sewage and sullage water of un-authorized colonies along the railway tracks gets collected in the railway land. Orthodox system of disposal of human excreta from the tracks at the railway stations leaves much to be desired. In foreign countries the toilets in the train get automatically closed as soon as the train arrives at the station. IR needs to do a lot to remove the stigma of insanitation.
  • Lack of limited participation of Private Sector: It was learnt through the press notes that Vivek Debroy committee has recommended large scale privatization of railway services. Mr. Suresh Prabhu, the Railway Minister has rightly rejected this recommendation on the ground that a bulwark built over a period of 150 years cannot be given to private hands.

But limited private participation will definitely benefit IR. For example what is the harm if a private player is allowed to run a Rajdhani like train between Delhi and Guwahati with certain terms and condition of payment for the use of IR railway tracks? In fact private sector should be given shorter routes with DMRC like trains as Hisar-Gurgaon or Narvana- Kurukshetra. As already suggested the short routes should be under the state control and this limited private participation will not be able to affect the IR economy. It will only improve it. Metro type coaches attract the maximum number of passengers and hence make local train service a profitable proposition.

Non-solution of these seven issues is keeping the IR in a constant state of poor health. Pussillanimity of successive Railway Ministers and Chairmen of Railway Boards are responsible for this state of affair. Presently Railway Minister is the man of different disposition and let us hopes if he can rechristen the  IR into a DMRC type success story. Looking at the international standards IR falls in a very low category. By now our railway service should have been clean, punctual, comfortable and ambient. But I must say 50 per cent of IR problems will be solved if states are allowed to run trains within their respective territories. This change-over will revolutionise the Indian Railways. There is no other shortcut to improve the health of IR and save it from further ignominy.

By R N Malik

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