Last month, while flagging off the inaugural train to the northeastern state of Meghalaya, prime minister Narendra Modi emphasised the need for privatisation of railway stations and also for modernising them. Since a large population travels by rail, he was of the opinion that railway stations should be made as attractive as, if not better than, airports. While presenting the last railway budget, the railway minister, too, mentioned that 10 stations have been identified for being developed to international standards with modern facilities and passenger amenities.
It is not that the railways never thought about improving its stations. It did indeed initiate several measures to improve the standard of amenities at stations and use surplus railway land for commercial purpose. It will be of interest, therefore, to recapitulate what has been done so far in this direction.
In 2006, the ministry of railways set up the Rail Land Development Authority (RLDA) for utilisation of vacant railway land for commercial use. It was also mandated to upgrade the level of passenger amenities by construction/redevelopment of station buildings to fit better standards. In 2011, it was decided to set up a special purpose vehicle called the Railway Stations Development Corporation Ltd (RSDCL) with equity participation by IRCON, a government company under the ministry of railways, and the RLDA. It is responsible for ensuring that passenger amenities and facilities at stations are maintained with high standards.
In 2013, the suburban stations were also brought within the purview of this programme and it was decided to undertake commercial exploitation of rail land and improvement of facilities at suburban stations in and around Mumbai. The Mumbai Railway Vikas Corporation (MRVC) was entrusted with the task of inviting bids for the land and airspace above stations. It also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with RLDA to carry forward the process of identifying stations and finalising bids for the project. Around a third of the funds generated were to be earmarked for improving suburban rail facilities, and the rest to be allotted to the railways for use within and outside the state.
The same year, a decision was taken to develop several multi-functional complexes (MFCs) at stations utilising surplus land across India. The MFCs will be comprising shopping centres, book stalls, food stalls, Internet café, budget hotel and underground parking area, as suggested by the expert committee headed by Amit Mitra. The RLDA was asked to develop MFCs by selecting plots out of railway land and developing them on a long-term basis. The prospective partner or developer will have the responsibility of designing, financing, constructing, operating, and maintaining the MFCs.
It is, however, unfortunate that despite these various initiatives, the public is by and large unaware of what has been achieved by the railways so far in bringing about the desired improvements in amenities and development of station buildings. The activities of RLDA and RSCDL also do not find much space either in the annual reports of Indian Railways or in the budget speeches of the minister. They certainly deserve greater coverage and publicity.
Another major initiative taken by the railways, a few years ago, was to give a facelift to a large number of stations by providing them with upgraded facilities, and designating them as “model” stations. Some of them were also to be converted into “modern” stations by bringing about perceptible improvements in the façade of the buildings and circulating areas, renovation of water booths, pay-to-use toilets, state-of-the-art waiting rooms, signages, personal address system and improved cleanliness.
At the same time, with the aim of developing stations to match global standards by leveraging commercial utilisation of land, Indian Railways had signed in 2012 an MoU with Belgian Railways for modernisation of railway stations. A part of the agreement was to utilise the expertise of Belgian companies in transforming historical stations into modern international terminals. A news item that has appeared in the Press only a few days ago also speaks of developing five or six top-class stations on the pattern of the Grand Central at New York or the Gare d’Austerlitz terminus at Paris.
Outside India, there are quite a few station buildings of outstanding architectural designs where space has been utilised to commercial advantage. A notable example is the Union Station at Washington, DC, that houses a premier shopping mall that also serves as a venue for holding world-class exhibitions and international cultural events. It has more than 130 stores for items ranging from fashion apparel to jewellery to decorative arts. Besides, it has a food court and full-service restaurants. It remains the most visited destination in Washington, DC, with over 25 million visitors a year.
The Kyoto Station in Japan is yet another classic example of this genre. It extends underground into a shopping mall located under the bus terminal and plaza, and offers nearly 100 shops and restaurants as well as access to the subway line. A well-known department store occupies 10 storeys in one portion of the station building. Goods on sale include clothing, fresh food, souvenirs, stationery and more. Besides, it has an art museum, a movie theatre, as well as a range of restaurants on the top floor.
Can Indian Railways hope to match these standards, and how soon? For, not only does this call for infusion of substantial funds but also designing the structures in a manner that they acquire a unique identity. The projects must also be completed within strict time-frames. Indeed, the federal auditor, during the course of a recently conducted review of the railways, had commented that the authorities have been remiss in adhering to timelines set for completion of “model” railway stations. It had attributed the slow progress of works to procedural delays in finalising plans, completion of tendering processes and a lack of coordination between departments.
The need of the hour, therefore, is to revamp the department’s administrative machinery, particularly that dealing with planning and project implementation. Unless this can be ensured, the grandiose pronouncements being made from time to time for redesigning station buildings to global standards will lose all credibility.
The author is a former MD of Railway Finance Corporation.