Indian Railways on a seesaw | So Good News
Railways is not only about passengers, it is also about goods. The Indian railway system is one of the largest in the world. Depending on how you define a “train”, there are more than 13,000 passenger trains every day and almost 8,500 freight trains, and these trains pass through almost 7,500 stations. In some other major railway systems in the world, railways are primarily used for freight. That is not true for India, partly because of the way railways have developed historically.
The engine support frame of a diesel engine, at “Diesel Locomotive Works”, in Varanasi | Image credit:
Despite the growth of civil aviation and road transport, railways remain the lifeline for many passengers; many of them travel unreservedly. (The percentage depends on whether you count local trains or not.) Because of this passenger focus, we often look at what’s happening with the railways through that passenger lens.
The “tobacco train”, of 64 containers leaving Guntur, a city in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, to the “Madras Port”, from where the containers will be sent for export. | Image credit:
In other sectors, such as consumers, we have benefited from liberalization and the resulting competition and efficiency. Why shouldn’t that happen for railways too? Why can’t we have railway stations comparable to stations in the rest of the world? Why can’t train stations be like airports? We will soon have such modern stations in Habibganj (Bhopal), Gandhinagar and Bijwasan (Delhi). At some point, Nagpur, Gwalior, Amritsar, Sabarmati, Shivajinagar, Surat, Baiyyappanahalli, Gandhinagar (in Jaipur), Kanpur, Thakurli, Anand Vihar (Delhi) and Chandigarh will follow.
Much needed changes
(Left): Inauguration of South Central Railways’ Rs. 15 crore wagon repair shop project in Vijayawada, an important pilgrimage town in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. (Right): Smt. Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, presses the button to unveil the plaque at the project site near Rayanapadu. LN Mishra, Minister of Railways (standing behind her) and K. Brahmananda Reddy, Minister of Communications are also seen in the picture. | Image credit:
But we must remember, change does not happen overnight. The legacy of decades cannot be overcome with the stroke of a pen. Change is always incremental and there is a timeline. There is actually a template for change. It is a National Railway Plan, which will act as a vision document for 2030. Earlier, it was the Debroy Committee Report where we focused on five main lines — (A) Decentralization of decision-making; (B) HR changes, to break down silos; (C) A regulator, to ensure fair competition between private operators and the public enterprise (which will continue to run trains); (D) Accounting Modernization; and (E) Private entrance.
Indian Railways (IR) is divided into zones and divisions. Unnoticed by many of us who use that lens as passengers, and are less concerned about operational matters, a lot of decentralization has happened since 2014 (actually 2015), with decisions delegated down to general managers and divisional railway managers. Not only was there excessive decentralization over time, over the years, with a large number of services, IR operated in silos.
Our primary recommendation under (B) was to unify Group A services through the Indian Railways Management Service (IRMS). This is easier to do prospectively. There are more complicated issues when trying to adapt the new system afterwards, with messy seniority issues. A big change like this requires intensive discussions, plus it was the pandemic. Post-Covid, the new IRMS (recruited through UPSC) has just been announced.
Privatization v Private entrance
People often use the word “privatization” irresponsibly, without explaining what they mean. There are tracks and associated infrastructure. IR is so vertically integrated that it is practically impossible, and unnecessary, to dismantle and privatize tracks and associated infrastructure. Countries that have tried to do so have not necessarily succeeded. Therefore, one should use the term private entrance, which opens up competition and the subsequent efficiency.
When one boards a train, most services are already privatized. When passing a station, most services are already privatized. The more visible aspect of this is, of course, that the private sector runs trains. In other words, the line is publicly owned, and both IR and the private sector run trains on this shared track, with access problems sorted out. After Covid, a private Bharat Gaurav train has now started and there will be more. In order to ensure that competition rules are implemented fairly between the private and public sector, we obviously need a regulator.
That regulator can also recommend tariffs. If we want better trains, better services and better stations, we must be prepared to pay more. A persistent problem has been artificially low passenger fares, and these are cross-subsidised by artificially high freight costs. To put it bluntly, our figures (at the time of the committee) were that to subsidize one passenger train, you would have to run one and a half freight trains.
All of us want faster trains and there are several high-speed corridors on the horizon, with Mumbai-Ahmedabad being the most visible and the earliest to be completed. But others are planned. It is related to dedicated freight corridors, which also free up tracks for the use of passenger trains, enabling faster travel. (In both such cases, as with several physical infrastructure projects, land must be acquired.) Stations, and comparing them to airports, is a good example of another point. Can stations be built by the private sector (Delhi and Mumbai airports)? It depends on whether the land is available and can make money from it. Therefore, it is good to keep IR’s plans in the National Monetization Pipeline in mind.
A view of the Vande Bharat Express train, which will run from New Delhi Railway Station to Vaishno Devi, Katra, Jammu. Katra is the last station on the way to the famous Hindu pilgrimage of Vaishno Devi, the Vande Bharat Express will reduce the travel time between Delhi and Katra by eight hours in New Delhi. | Image credit:
In sum, these are exciting times for IR. These are also challenging times, as IR is on its way, and expectations are high.