Reforms to Run Trains on Profit

Immediate corporatisation reducing the 16 zones to five is needed. Disinvest. Sell or lease railway land.

Published: 07th July 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 07th July 2014 12:35 AM   |  A+A-

We keep reading reports about dead rats in the train, rat traps under the berth and the yards—the pavilion of the rats—continuing to be dirty. This one beats them all. While travelling in Tirunelveli Express, in sleeper class, a passenger sleeping in the upper berth got down with a bleeding ear as a result of rat’s play (reported in the newspapers on June 29).

Rats falling down is a sign of decay as T S Eliot tells you in The Wasteland. I called the Railways a sinking ship in a discussion on national television in February 2013. In the same discussion panel, Dinesh Trivedi the former railway minister, said that the railways were in ICU. Our imageries were different but the point we were trying to make is the same.

You may not have noticed in the pre-election and post-election din that there were four accidents and 51 people died (one died in the accident on March 20, 20 on May 4 and 26 on May 26, and four when a Rajdhani rammed into a stationary train near Chapra on June 25).

They are yet to learn how not to run two trains on the same track. The H R Khanna Committee (1998) recommended that the chairman, members of the board and heads of departments should be held responsible for adherence to maintenance standards and safety. This was immediately rejected by the board to ensure their safety. The Anil Kakodkar Committee (2011) had recommended that `1 lakh crore was needed to be spent to improve safety. Watch out, more coaches will roll in future unless this is done. And no Railway heads will ever roll.

What is causing the deaths is not old rails, outworn signal system or inefficient drivers but the attitude of the 14 lakh workforce who firmly believe that the railways are there for railwaymen and passengers can be tolerated and permitted to use the railways.

A study on managerial attributes (highest existing) in railway officers, conducted by IIM-Ahmedabad, under Deepti Bhatnagar, G Rajaram and others in 2010, showed that their personal integrity (congruence between thought, speech and action) was only 4.03 in a scale to 1 to 7 and concern for external consumers was only 3.15, whereas openness to ideas was 3.7. They were high on technical competence but decision making was always slow. They debated for 10 years whether they should replace vacuum brakes with air-brakes while all the time lives were being lost in derailment.

M S Gujral, as chairman of the Railway Board, took the decision in three days. This is also true from my experience. Let me cite just three instances. They would insist on appointing people to man unmanned level crossing but would not install scoot and flash device to warn the vehicles and people who want to cross. Reason: How else will the political patronage be distributed and unions pleased?

I have campaigned for 10 years to persuade the railways to put a mug in the sleeper class lavatories so that passengers could wash up in a hygienic environment. Legislator Tiruchi N Siva raised this in Parliament. In a televised interview in Doordarshan in 1999 with the Southern Railway general manager (GM), I demonstrated how a health faucet would ensure easy, hygienic and comfortable washing. It has taken more than a decade to implement this, that too only in air-conditioned coaches and even today, to wash ourselves in a sleeper class latrine, one needs to be a gymnast. Yet, they cannot provide a `3 plastic mug. Reason: passengers will steal them. Fire accidents in railways are regular. Yet the authorities would not install a portable fire extinguisher in every coach. Reason: passengers would steal them.

The fact, however, is stealing is done by officials, staff and workers. The Pawan Bansal episode brought out the extent of corruption at all levels. The Member (Staff) paid `10 crore to become Member (Electrical) only with the hope that he could recover 10 times more that money. He retained the post of GM, Western Railway, since it is too lucrative to give up. Every bribe-giver to the GM should have collected much more from the ranks below.

All these are results of a monopolistic mindset   which leads to monopolistic abuse. Why did we abolish monopoly in insurance, airways, broadcasting, telecasting and in telecom? Because it is inherently bad, inefficient, and loss-making. It is anti-competitive, wastes national resources and offers poor service to the user. Why should the railways, the only surviving monopoly, be allowed to eat into the vitals of the nation?

The Sam Pitroda Modernisation Committee said that at least `5 lakh crore is needed to modernise our railways. The railways’ own status paper says that they need at least `1, 00,000 crore to execute sanctioned projects. Anil Kakodkar has said at least `1 lakh crore needs to be spent to make railways safe. Put them all together and you need `7 lakh crore to keep it safe on the rails. If it does not spend `7 lakh crore, it will be killing people on a regular basis. If it does, it shall be minus `7 lakh crore, a loss that will pull down our economy.

Immediate corporatisation reducing the 16 zones to five is needed. Disinvest. Sell or lease railway land. Use the infrastructure to start a telecom company. Flush out the deadwood by a VRS scheme. In 1992, the staff strength was 16 lakh. In 2002, it was 15 lakh and now 14 lakh. This is after 22 years of electrification, modernisation, computerisation and mechanisation of track maintenance. The CAG report recommends 3 per cent reduction every year. Once corporatisation is done and standards set with accountability in place for efficiency, safety and punctuality and cost effectiveness, the railways will turn around to make profit.

The author is a freelance journalist and secretary of the Consumer Protection Council, Tamil Nadu.

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