Journey to stay on track

Trains chugging along beside the road and boys trying to outrun them; railway stations crowded with people and hulking train coaches, a guard waving the green flag – these are some enduring im

Published: 26th March 2012 02:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th May 2012 09:44 PM   |  A+A-


Trains chugging along beside the road and boys trying to outrun them; railway stations crowded with people and hulking train coaches, a guard waving the green flag – these are some enduring images from everyone’s childhood. Trains, and everything that goes with them, are a vital part of the growing-up process. And our film directors just love trains!

Tracking India’s lifeline

Trains are the lifeline of India and  the Indian Railways, which manages the rail transport system carrying  people and goods across this vast country, serves everyone – from a daily wage labourer averaging Rs 400 a month to VIPs who make lakhs of rupees a day.  The tracks may be old, the coaches dirty, and trains may run behind schedule but every day over 30 million people travel on thousands of trains while close to  three million tonnes of goods are transported across the states. Many commuters use trains to get to their place of employment.

The budget proposal

Every year the union railway minister presents the railway budget in the Lok Sabha for the next financial year, before March end. From train tariffs and new train routes on the anvil, to track expansion /improvement work if any are all tabled on this day of budget presentation. The budget is then passed by the House after a debate, when it comes into effect.

On Wednesday, March 14, Dinesh Trivedi unveiled the budget. He proposed an increase of 3 paise per km on second class travel on all mail and express trains; a 5 paise per km hike in sleeper fare, a 10 paise per km increase for air-conditioned chair cars (III tier), a 15 paise per km hike in AC II tier and a 30 paise/km hike in first AC.

So, if you are travelling second class from Chennai to Delhi, you would end up paying Rs 66 more; if you are travelling AC III tier by Rajdhani Express to Delhi, you would end up paying Rs 226 more. “The fare hike is important to bring Railways out of the ICU,” said the minister.

Hue and cry

The minister announced various other expansion plans. However, before anyone, especially the opposition party, could react a strong objection was raised by his own party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC), particularly party head and West Bengal Chief Minister  Mamata Banerjee . “We are not in favour of hiking railway fares for the common man, and we will not accept this hike,” she said. And by that same night she sent a fax to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, asking him to sack Trivedi, and proposed the name of Mukul Roy, another TMC member of Parliament, as replacement.

Trivedi did not submit his resignation until late Sunday evening — and during those days the UPA II government seemed slightly shaky. After all, the TMC is a key ally with 19 Lok Sabha MPs and six Rajya Sabha MPs. Had Mamata decided to pull out of the alliance, it would have landed the government in a crisis. Some estimates say that the affordable pricing of train tickets has made it possible for over 80 million people from west Bengal to travel out in search of jobs. A combination of these factors forced Trivedi to reign, and Mukul Roy became the Railways Minister. A week after the original announcement, the hike in quite a few categories was reversed.

Calling the hike a ‘huge drain’ on the wallet of the common man, Roy cancelled the hikes for second class suburban and non-suburban, sleeper, AC chair car and AC 3-tier travellers. Roy made the reason very clear. “I intend to give relief to the already overburdened common man by not effecting any increase in these classes.”

Another Trivedi proposal set aside by Roy was for the formation of a committee to study the feasibility of an independent body to fix fares.

‘Bite the bullet’

Roy justified his stance on reversing fares by saying the common man needed it, even if it meant the Railways should bite a bullet of a different kind. What he meant was that although the Railways needed the money badly, it did not want to get it by making the common man pay through his nose. Unlike the uproar when fuel prices are hiked, opposition to Trivedi’s proposal was minimal. In fact, Railways unions supported the hike. The ordinary, second class traveller in many cities was quoted by the media as wanting better services, even if it meant paying a little  more.

Maintaining a giant

The Indian Railways is one of the world’s largest employers, with over 1.4 million employees. There is around 65,000 km of railway tracks and over 7,500 railway stations. It owns 240,000 freight wagons and thousands of coaches and locomotives.

Every year, during the budget announcement, a number of new trains and connectivity are announced. However, there has been no expansion of the track network. Trains run on broad gauge and metre gauge, with efforts on to convert everything to broad gauge. There are huge stretches of metre gauge track in the network that contribute to delays in arrival and departure of trains.

‘Slow coach’

Every year train accidents occur, with alarming regularity, with a long list of injuries and fatalities. While in some cases sabotage is the cause, often ageing train equipment — such as engines and signals — are factors in such accidents. Indian Railways has a long way to go in terms of rail safety and speed. Although the Shatabdi trains were introduced in 1988, with a capacity to run at 150 km per hour, China’s bullet trains run at 300 km per hour.

Huge investment required

The Railways has the men, machinery and land. All it needs is the will to ring in changes. Two years ago, a report by McKinsey said that investing US$ 200 billion in infrastructure over a ten-year period would bring the Railways to 21st century standards. A more recent special report submitted to the government has pointed out that modernising Indian Railways has the potential to contribute between 1.5 % and 2 % to the country’s economic growth.  The Kakodar Committee report on railway safety spoke of an outlay of Rs 1 lakh crore. This committee was set up after the Kalka Mail train accident in July 2011, in which 71 people died and 264 people were injured.

Where is the money?

Clearly, being a services industry, the Railways has to catch up with modern day deliverables. It should get rid of its stodgy bureaucratic approach and debilitating inefficiency. When run right, it can add tremendous value to the service it renders. A case in point is the online booking system, which is hugely popular — although even there, complaints of frequent crashes of the site is a problem that needs to be addressed.

How can the Railways generate more money? The kind of funds required for an overhaul cannot be met by hiking passenger fares alone. Thus Mukul Roy’s reversal of the proposed hike in certain categories is a lesser concern. The larger one is the fact that the minister kept mum about public-private partnership: an idea mooted by many experts for a while now. The call to open up the sector to capital investment from foreign funds has grown louder.

Otherwise Indian Railways will continue to run behind the times.

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