Friday, 25 September 2020

Railways, Lifeline of Indian Economy

Updated: May 18, 2018 3:09 pm

While revenue is still a concern, investment on infrastructure is needed to modernise Railways. Track renewal on the agenda of the Railways as infrastructure crucial for the Railways; Adding infrastructure like bridges is time-taking and causes delays of trains. Private participation is being solicited for redevelopment of Railways.

  • Modernisation of Railways a far cry as safety still a concern,
  • Field postings being given to officers in Railway Board
  • Restructuring of Railway Board on the agenda of the Railways
  • Promise of Biotoilets to make trains human discharge free
  • Cost of High Speed Railway very high, semi-high speed still in a planning stage
  • Biotoilets to be installed in all trains as part of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.


Railways is a humongous organisation that affects the masses in India used by all and sundry and they would want Railways to make their travel comfortable, safe and secure. Attempts to modernise it has met with hurdles. High Speed Rail Network was touted as the future of Railways by Narendra Modi who has spoken often about modernising Railways including that of electrification. But promises of modernising Railways has not seen any significant success so far.

Railways has been taking some populist measures to please the public. However, developing railways is a tricky thing as one has to invest the money that is earned from revenue into infrastructure; infrastructure being the most crucial aspects of Railways. One needs good facility for coach and loco production. At times, they have to be imported also. There is a need for new stations and stations have to be redeveloped. Also, the quality of food that is served on the Railways should be good. Apart from this, maintenance of trains has to be done. But the revenue comes primarily from the commuters in the form of ticket fares or freight charges. Railways is also trying to commercially utilise the space it has. However, the return on commercial utilisation has not been very encouraging so far. Increasing the non-fare revenue has been the agenda of the BJP government so that the commuters are not burdened with fare hikes. An ambitious target was set but it has not been achieved.

The operating ratio of Railways has become poor according Railways. At present the Operating ratio is 98.5 which is being said to the worst ever performance for Railways since 2000-2001. Officials blame it on the increased burden of allowances and pensions that have gone up because of the revision in the 7th Pay Commission. This ratio indicates how much railway spends to earn a rupee. Also, sources say that merger of the Rail Budget with the General Budget has further increased the problem. This has reduced the budget allocation for Railways apart from the fact that revenues from monetisation of assets and dividend from PSUs is going directly to the Finance Ministry.

The aim of complete electrification of the Railways took a complete U-turn after the government decided to go ahead with the production of 1000 diesel locomotives at Marhowra facility in Bihar. Ironically, there are more diesel locos at present than electric locos with the Railways. But with an MoU signed with GE, the government will go ahead with acquiring the diesel locos produced by GE Transportation. This puts a question mark on the electrification programme.

Railway Minister, Piyush Goyal’s argued earlier that importing diesel increases the cost of running the rail. Electricity on the other hand is cheaper. This seemed to be reasonable argument. Why did the government then had to make a U-turn?

At the same time, fare hikes become a sensitive issue and is politicised and also condemned as unethical since Railways has not been able to live up to the expectations of the masses. Punctuality and safety are the only two major concerns of a passenger. In this scenario, fare hike has not happened for the past many years.

Flexi-fare has been adding to the revenues of the Railways. However, the ministry is trying to review this policy as it has become a political issue. It has been opposed by some sections of the society. The cost of second AC ticket in Rajdhani may come at par with a first class AC ticket due to dynamic pricing under Flexi-fare. Along with the flexi-fare system, Railways has been experimenting with several ideas like Vikalp to reduce the losses suffered. Then there are trains like Tatkal Express and Suvidha Express which run during vacations or Puja festival like Chhath and Durga Puja when the rush is high and getting confirmed tickets is a big problem. But the cost for passengers of these tickets in these trains can also be high and it can reach upto three times the actual fare.

Railways has been trying to add to the infrastructure it has. But, it is being done at a very slow pace. It will take time to completely renew the tracks that have been in operation since the Railways came into being. Railways has to block the traffic at times leading to cancellation of trains and speed restrictions are also imposed on sections where maintenance work is going on. Many ambitious projects of Railways are hanging in balance owing to technical issues. Chenab Rail Bridge that was being planned for being opened in 2019-20 is nowhere near completion. Railway sources say that it will take another at least three to four years. The section under which Chenab Bridge falls has scores of tunnels. Completing a tunnel itself is a challenge. E Sreedharan, who played a scintillating role in completion of Konkan Railway, had advised against this project but the Railways went ahead with it. Like this, there are several bridge projects that are scheduled to be completed 2019-20 but may not be completed.

Railways is the lifeline of the country in many ways. It provides ancillary employment apart from direct employment to around 13 lakh people in the country. According to sources, there is a vacancy of 1.8 lakh personnel at present. There are around 4.5 lakh contractual employees in Railways. There is a mismatch between the timing of recruitment and retirements creating vacant positions in the Railways. While railways has decided to recruit 90,000 people this year, around 45,000 are going to retire.

Knee jerk reactions have been resorted to at times when rail accidents take place. Putting things on the ‘right track’ seems almost impossible. A major reshuffle in the Railways took place at a time when two railway accidents happened in a short interval in August last year. Cabinet Minister, Piyush Goyal was brought in as Railways minister who made a statement that safety is the top priority. Even the then Railway Board Chairman was relieved and Ashwani Lohani, the then CMD of Air India then took over. Decisions were fast-paced by Goyal.

Goyal put on fast-track the decision to restructure the Railway Board. A decision was taken to trim the Railway Board and post officers outside the Board. The idea was to increase the number of field officers. Restructuring of Railway Board has been on the agenda of the Railways for a long time. New directorates have also been created in the Board. A directorate on mobility which has been doing work on assessing feasibility of semi-high speed rail network was set up very recently. A Member for Safety in the Railway Board was also suggested as part of restructuring as there is surprisingly no member of safety in the Board.

Goyal took the decision of increasing the number of Additional Divisional Rail Managers (DRMs) in every division. This was done immediately after the Parel-Elphinstone Road railway bridge stampede. However, the attitude of the officers has come under question. Many officers have been found to be employing trackmen for the purpose of their domestic work. Trackmen are basically responsible for checking any defects in the tracks. But cause-effect relation of this to accidents has been denied outright by Railways. According to railway minister, the number of accidents has for the first time come down to two digits in over five decades.

Rail Development Authority (RDA) which will be an advisory body on many issues has been proposed and it may soon come into being. It will suggest to Railways on means to increase the revenues, make it safer and modernisation. But being an advisory body, its ideas are more likely to be sidelined.  The decision of creating a Transformation Cell was taken almost as soon as the BJP government took over in 2014. The idea was to have a body that will scale up the operations to meet the future needs of the Railways. But Transformation for a huge body like the Railways is an on-going process. Moreover, it looks like the Transformation Cell was created just to give the public a better image of Railways.

Railways claim that all efforts are being made to remove Unmanned Level Crossings, a major cause of accidents. It shall be replaced by Road Under Bridges (RUBs) and Road Over Bridges (ROBs). But the reality is that in only a few zones, the Railways have been successful in replacing almost all UMLCs. In 2017-18, there were three accidents due to UMLC. Demands have been made to make these crossings manned. But the Ministry again said that it is drivers’ negligence which is responsible for the accidents. The railway network has 5,792 such crossings without gates for regulating road traffic.

Many people complain that quality of food where the contractors are hired for supply is unsatisfactory. When Lalu Prasad Yadav was the Rail Minister, he said that Railways cannot provide home-cooked food and therefore in a way he justified that the quality may not be as good as that is expected from the Railways. It is the contractors which supply the food and the system of having pantries in the train is almost on the brink of being aborted. The process of annulling the contract of a food supplier and selection and appointment of a new contractor is very tedious. That will happen only when the catering inspector gets a complaint. Passengers generally don’t take the pain of registering a complaint. So all this goes on and on.

Base kitchens which supply

food are very less in number compared to the number of trains that is to be catered for. At times, the food is cooked a little far away from the station and then brought to the station to be supplied to the coaches thus

compromising on its quality. There is a plan to increase the number of base kitchens to hundred. But that should take time.

Railways has at times kept catering with itself and then transferred the responsibility to Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC).Last year it transferred the responsibility to IRCTC. The issue that is of concern is a nexus of caterers, with a few caterers having a large chunk of the catering contracts. This affects the quality of the food that is served on the trains. Railways has

not been able to break this contractors cartel nexus. Railways has experimented with E-Catering also. In

this one can order food online. But this option is available at a few major stations. The caterers lobby is

against E-Catering as this will affect their business.

Railways is planning to introduce high-speed rail network between Ahmedabad and Mumbai at a huge cost. But, at present semi-high speed networks which Railways think is more cost-effective are still in the planning stage. The only semi-high speed rail network  at present is between Delhi and Agra on which Gatimaan Express runs. Plans are on to build a semi-high speed rail

network between Delhi and Chandigarh, Delhi and Kolkata and Delhi and Mumbai as part of ‘Mission Raftaar’. Constructing  semi-high speed corridors are itself a challenge for the Railways. In order that the speed of the train hits the maximum of 160 km per hour, technical modifications of the railway track has to be done. For instance, all the curves on the railway track between Delhi  and Agra had to be removed for the semi-high speed corridor.

Semi-high speed corridors demands lot of investment. A dedicated corridor would be required for semi-high speed rail network. Some experts say that there should be proper fencing of the corridor. For upgradation of the routes of Delhi-Kolkata and Delhi-Mumbai for semi-high speed rail network, Rs 17,000 crore has been earmarked by the Railways.

Trial runs were done using Talgo coaches that were brought from Spain to reduce the time taken between Delhi and Mumbai. Talgo is meant

to touch the high speed of 200 kmph. But, that proposal has so far been put in the cold shelf. However,

Railways introduced a superfast train which is like the Rajdhani that plies between Nizamuddin and Bandra Terminus about 14 hours. This is a trial run that has been going on for the three and half months and is likely to be extended.

At the moment, semi-high speed trains seem to be more cost-effective because the Bullet Train

project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad itself is going to cost the Railways around Rs 1 lakh crore. Integrated Coach Factory (ICF) of Chennai has delivered a rake that can hit a speed of 160 kmph. It is called Train 18. But it is not yet clear on which route it will run.

The ministry wants to make many trains superfast. In the recent Budget the speeds of at least 40 trains were increased and they were called superfast trains. Many say that this is a ploy to impose Superfast Charges on these trains as the speeds were increased marginally and the Superfast tag was given to the train. Despite the speeds being increased of these superfast trains, it is these trains which get delayed and cancelled the most.

Goyal had also announced that the speed of 700 trains will be increased. But at the same time, the delays of trains is very commonplace and getting reservations in a train is difficult. Railways has experimented with Vikalp which will help a passenger find accommodation in another train if there is no availability in a train. A passenger will have to give an alternate travel option on the reservation form. But, since most of the trains are running packed, even this scheme is hardly helping the passengers.

Adding extra coaches to a train which has a long waiting list of passengers is also an option with the Railways. And this is being done frequently according to sources. But there are constraints here also. It is conditional on the fact whether Rolling Stock (Coaches) in a ready condition is available at the moment. Also, theRolling Stock should be of the type that is compatible to the train. For instance whether it is ICF or LHB coach? Now, the question of redevelopment of the Railway Stations also arises here. A railway station is meant to handle trains with certain number of coaches only. Railway Station must be redeveloped so that it can accommodate trains with more number of coaches.

A few PPP projects have been running for redeveloping railway station. A swanky railway station which will have a hotel also is being developed at Gandhinagar under PPP model. There are others also like Habibganj. But, the issue remains what will happen to stations that are already there and which cannot accommodate trains have more than 18 coaches.  That reduces the chances that more coaches can be added to trains that are running fully reserved. Railways has a plan to redevelop 400 stations. Railways sources, however, say that Indian Rail Station Development Corporation (IRSDC) has not been successful in redeveloping stations.

There is a renewed focus of the government on renovation of the premium trains. Swarn Project was launched for Rajdhani and Shatabdi. The interiors of the premium trains are being improved with better entertainment facilities. In addition, recently, there is a project of giving a coat of different colour to the coaches. A new colour scheme is being used for trains in the northern railways. But all this seems to be an eyewash as a passenger still faces the same kind of problems that he used to.

Railways has also promised that Biotoilets will be installed as part of Swachh Bharat Mission in all trains by the end of this year. Right now, the new trains that are added to the Railways have Biotoilets installed in them. But a CAG report has found operational deficiencies in majority of the Biotoilets installed by Railways leading to choking and foul smell. The CAG observed that choking has increased in 2016-17 compared to 2015-16. Also, it says that there is inadequate supply of bacterial inoculums which is needed for the system to function.

The report indicated that no awareness campaign for passengers was conducted by any railway zones except Southern Railway. An audit conducted in 30 coaching depots of 15 zonal railways in 2016-17 by CAG indicated that out of 613 trains being handled in these depots, 160 trains did not have any bio-toilets fitted.

According to CAG, the concept of Green Train Station and Green Corridors introduced by Railways did not work out. “In Green Train Stations, all the originating, terminating, bypassing and platform return trains were required to have 100 percent biotoilet fitted coaches. The tracks on the Green Corridor were also to be made free from human waste discharge. However, the nominated stations and corridors did not adhere to these conditions,” CAG report said.

Railways is now making efforts to use technology for track maintenance as well as for enhancing passenger amenities. A passenger can get wifi connectivity at all major Railway Stations. But Wifi in moving trains has still not become a reality. A research is being done by IIT Madras on how to make Wifi connectivity possible in moving trains possible at viable cost. If the present technology is used wifi connectivity in moving trains will be very costly.

Manual supervision by gangmen or trackmen has led to human errors in detecting defects in the railway tracks leading to accidents. Railways is gearing up to use technology to reduce over-dependence on manual supervision.

Use of state-of-the-art technology in preventing accidents owing to poor surveillance in the Railways as has been witnessed last month is very much on the cards. Many of these technologies were demonstrated by foreign countries in a global technology conference. Railways has earmarked a few technologies for track monitoring and rail fracture detection. Over 20 countries participated in that conference. The recent accidents has shown the urgent requirement of adopting such technologies.

Ultrasonic Broken Rail Detection (UBRD) System for improving safety is also being discussed in the Railways. The technology involves sending and receiving ultrasound waves between two stations with a transmitter and receiver. A pilot

project on rail fracture detection system using optical fibre is being planned in some sections of Railways.  Drones is also being planned to be used for surveillance of the bridges where trackmen cannot reach. Along with this, the Railways plans to use infrared technology for better visibility during fog and heavy rain. Real time monitoring of all the components of the railways including the Overhead Head Electrification, Wagons and Tracks is also being planned by the railways.


By Manju Gupta


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