If there’s a campaign promise Prime Minister Narendra Modi made during the 2014 general elections that desperately needs fulfilment, it is fixing India’s century and a half old gargantuan railway network spanning 67,368 kilometres. Four years on, progress has been evidently slow. Call it systematic rot or policy failure, Indian Railways accounts for the bulk of central sector projects that are either facing cost overruns or delays.
To gauge how little progress has been made, let’s get down to the nitty-gritties: The number of railway projects currently under implementation stands at 351, of which 65 have been delayed — “85 per cent higher than numbers reported in February,” according to a Care Ratings note. The original cost of implementation was Rs 4.07 lakh crore, but this estimate was subsequently revised to Rs 6.5 lakh crore implying a cost overrun of 60 per cent.
Projects in the north-eastern and eastern regions account for the most number of delayed projects. According to the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI), cumulative expenditure incurred on these projects as of August 2018 stands at Rs1.65 lakh crore, about 25.4 per cent of the anticipated cost. The national transporter may have found sources of funding for spending on capital works, but earning money to run the house remains a problem in the face of mounting expenses. If Indian Railways hasn’t seen an Air India-like collapse, it is because of its monopoly on the country’s railroads.
A cadre of technically competent officers keep the juggernaut’s wheels rolling, however, much of the current mess is also compounded by severe network congestion. The transporter has set a target for finishing new lines, gauge conversion and doubling of tracks fixed at 5,195 km by the end of FY19. But, with three months to go and just about 12 per cent of the work commissioned as of October, meeting the target seems unlikely.
There were about 170 projects worth over Rs 1.2 lakh crore that are now categorised as “dead projects”, having failed to take off in the last ten years with no support from the government, and are mostly financially unviable, according to a railway official. Calling off such projects is all for the good, but the problem is that all of these have been announced as part of railway budgets presented by former railway ministers and have been passed by the Lok Sabha.
Interestingly, certain projects under implementation for extending routes and laying new lines date back to as long ago as 1981, like in the case of the Nangal Dam-Talwara, Guna-Etawah (1986), and Muzzaffarpur-Sitamarhi (1991) lines to name a few. The government has certainly initiated more big projects, like the bullet train system and launching the Gatimaan Express. But the former faces resistance from farmers, and with less than one hectare out of the 1,400 hectares of required land acquired so far, the project risks missing its 2022 completion target. Indian Railways has not responded to queries as of now.
“Land acquisition is the main bottleneck… and given that elections are round the corner, the status quo is likely to persist,” said Ashish K Nainan, Care Ratings. Nainan also noted that around 110-125 projects are likely to be completed between 2018 and 2020, not including new projects that may be added going forward. However, increasing private sector participation “could be a major game-changer,” he concluded.
Dwindling freight business
Network congestion affecting the railway’s freight business (its largest source of income) needs to be addressed, Care Ratings noted, saying that effectively addressing this would help bulk commodity-based sectors. “Government needs to (set up) a dedicated technology driven division” to manage the freight business
India’s indigenous engineers have developed the country’s first locomotive-less train — Train 18 — that has a capacity to ferry 1128 passengers in 16 coaches with the first two being first-class, having a capacity of 52 seats each. Designed to run at a maximum operating speed of 160 kilometres per hour, this train will run on the existing Shatabdi routes