Tracks in and out of Indian Railways: The Tribune India | So Good News


Sandeep Dikshit

The Indian Railways has been running some freight trains without guards during the night hours, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said in the last session of Parliament. Trains without guards would be the end state of modernized railways. But the reality, as revealed by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) after the Union Budget showed a surplus, is that the railways is left with no financial capacity to fill many of the three lakh vacancies.

Since CAG reports come with a time lag, the latest one for 2019-20 found that the Center had uncovered a loss of around Rs 35,000 crore in passenger operations. The claimed net surplus when Nirmala Sitharaman presented the budget was Rs 1,589.62 crore. The impression was that while the railway was undergoing total modernisation, it managed to keep its head above water. Not so, says the CAG. The railways would have actually ended up with a negative balance of Rs 26,000 crore if Rs 48,626 crore for pension payments had been allocated to the pension fund. Meanwhile, the railways continue to be pushed deeper into debt – long-term borrowings jumped from Rs 2 lakh crore in 2018-19 to Rs 2.68 lakh crore in 2019-20.

Forget semi-high speed trains, there is still no sign of completion of the western and eastern dedicated freight corridors, a UPA initiative that preferred Japanese funding for these projects, instead of a bullet train offer from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. The corridors would have ensured that freight trains run according to timetables, enabling exporters and importers to plan shipments accurately and keep inventories down. But more importantly, by absorbing that timber freight traffic, these corridors would have left tracks for faster trains. The two-hour Chandigarh-Delhi journey remains a promise.

On the contrary, the railways is charging “super fast” surcharges on 478 trains. But the scheduled speed of a quarter of them was less than 55 km/h, and yet passengers are still charged more. ‘Mission Raftaar’ in 2016 promised to increase the speed of freight trains to 75 km/h in five years. But the average observed speed for freight trains is still around 25 km/h.

The station modernization saga – these would be world-class stations, we were told – is parked in the slow lane. Take Ambala railway station. From Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar to the French, everyone has expressed their intentions to modernize one of the busiest stations in the Northern Railways. In 2017, an MoU was signed by the Railways and the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD). In 2018, Haryana set up a committee to speed up the work of redevelopment of 13 railway stations in the state through the “Swiss Challenge method”. Apparently unaware of the Haryana initiative, France signed an MoU the same year to develop Ludhiana and Ambala railway stations as model stations. But in 2021, the Indian Railways Station Development Corporation, which was supposed to oversee all this, was disbanded. It is now back to the drawing board.

As for the Vande Bharat trains, 400 train sets with built-in engines will now be ordered. Facing this demand, railway manufacturing units are now splitting the existing assembly line to make LHB and ICF coaches. Apart from the fact that the Vande Bharat trainsets are four times more expensive than the existing rakes, what happens to the deal with the US to produce more powerful electric motors? The return on equity of Railway PSUs has fallen from 9.17 per cent in 2017-18 to 7.53 per cent in 2019-20. With such improvisation going on, there’s no guessing which way it’s going. And the main question remains unanswered: won’t the railways increase fares and absorb losses by introducing the more expensive Vande Bharat train sets? Or will it set market prices for sleeper trains, which are guaranteed to be more expensive than flights?

If future planning remains clouded despite a National Railway Plan 2030, some blame should be assigned to the musical chairs played in Rail Bhavan. In the last eight years, there have been four ministers – Sadanand Gowda, Suresh Prabhu, Piyush Goyal and Ashwini Vaishnaw.

No one could make a difference to the basics. Coal, iron ore and cement still contribute 63 per cent of the total freight revenue. The high freight rates of these captive goods continue to help the railways cross-finance losses of over Rs 60,000 crore incurred in running passenger services.

Thanks to Prime Minister Modi’s emphasis on Swachh Bharat and bio-toilets, passengers waiting on platforms do not have to confront the gruesome sight of overfed rats darting between piles of turds on tracks. But the CAG found that the food served by the railways is not fit for human consumption. Passengers would do well to avoid flavored milk, juice, sandwiches and biscuits, to name a few. Purified water was not available at many stations. Coffee, tea and soups in 22 controlled trains were made from dirty water. Inspections in 14 depots revealed that no carpets had been cleaned in two years. Surely, this was a legacy that could have been turned around in eight years.

And now the government has disbanded several cadres of technically trained railway officers, who indulged in vicious fighting to the detriment of the organisation. But they had a certain culture of competence, which somehow kept the wheels turning despite the ministers of Ram Vilas Paswan, Mamata Banerjee and Lalu Prasad Yadav, who did so much damage with their populism, as well as four from the Modi era below who they were at a loss about the broad direction.

As accountants say, the bottom line is important. The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.1 per cent between 2012-13 and 2018-19 has now fallen to 5.9 per cent between 2018-19 and 2021-22. Is the railway becoming more like a Potemkin village, where an imposing facade hid an undesirable condition?

Eye-catching projects

Uttarakhand Pilgrimage

At night, the hills of Garhwal reverberate with the noise of tunnel boring machines as work continues round the clock on the Rishikesh-Karnaprayag line. It is as much for pilgrimage to the Char Dham shrines as it is of geo-strategic importance as it will help faster troop movement to the China border. As is the case with the Bullet Train, this was also on the drawing board of the UPA. The Modi government gave it momentum by calling in foreign experts and declaring it a project of national importance. Once completed, although serious doubts about its environmental nature remain, it will cut travel time between Rishikesh and Karnaprayag to four hours from the current 10-hour road journey through steep gradients.

Sri Lanka by train?

Almost 58 years ago, one of the most powerful storms to hit India swept the Pamban-Dhanushkodi passenger train, its 200 passengers and parts of the bridge’s girders into a raging sea, obliterating all traces within minutes. The railways are now planning to develop an 18 km long line between Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi. Eventually, a link to Sri Lanka will be initiated. The news for tourists and pilgrims going to Sri Lanka is that they no longer need to take the more expensive and time-consuming flights to Colombo.

Another color will flash by

Most trainers are colored blue. Next in number are red colored buses, made in Kapurthala. Fanners have now started to see more of white colored trainers. The blue ones are called Integral Coach Factory buses and can travel up to 110 km/h. The red trainers are known as Linke Hofmann Busch, or LHB. Much leaner, they can reach speeds of 160 km/h. They also do not telescope (stack on top of each other) in the event of an accident. The 15,000 red LHB coaches and the 35,000 blue ICF coaches now have a companion in the Vande Bharat trainsets, resplendent in white. There are plans to introduce 400 Vande Bharat trains with a sleeper version. Currently 102 Vande Bharat Express trains are chair carriages.


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