Millennium Post

Stalled evolution of Railways

Sumit Mitra elaborates how it is a massive challenge to modernise the ailing Indian Railways, balancing costs and welfare

Stalled evolution of Railways

In 1980, I moved from Calcutta to Delhi on work. Upon retirement, I moved back to what had become Kolkata. But I left behind many things in Delhi like family members, a house, friends, club membership, and memories. All these have a pull that draws me to Delhi so frequently that it leaves many in both cities—like the neighbourhood barbers or the club bartenders—in a quandary as to where exactly I live. It is my regular practice now to travel by the Sealdah-New Delhi Rajdhani Express; and always by the AC First, where the staff members know me so well that they bring the bottle of Sugar Free before even telling them.

I love trains, which is why I feel worried about the future of the railways in India. I suspect that most of my fellow-passengers are attracted to the Iron Horse not for its charm but by its affordable price. The Mumbai-Delhi AC Three-tier class fare is still 40 per cent less than the fare charged by the low-cost airlines. However, the pace at which inter-city mobility is multiplying is awe-inspiring. By 2020-21, it is said that Indians will travel three times as they did in 2000-01. Airlines are ferrying 20,000 passengers daily from Mumbai to Delhi, and just as many in the reverse direction. For railways to hold its ground, there should be at least five Rajdhanis to Mumbai.

Then comes the question of speed. During my Kolkata to Delhi journeys, I usually make quick surveys of passengers in the neighbouring coupes to assess the possible reasons for their travelling. Most of those on AC First are old, like me, naturally enjoying the huge discount on the ticket price, which is 40 per cent for senior males and 50 for the ladies. So it is unlikely that my co-passengers could be rushing to attend urgent client meetings. The business crowd on Rajdhani must have boarded the other classes as, shorn of discount, their fares fall way below the air ticket prices.

But multiple Rajdhanis from Mumbai, Kolkata, or Chennai might go empty if the average speed (of Kolkata Rajdhani) doesn't pick up from the present 80 Km/pH to 130. That should shorten journey time about 40 per cent, to 11 hours from 17 hours now.

Actually, even that speed is not on par for the course in the 21st century. China, which is witnessing explosive growth of high-speed trains, now offers two sets of journey options for the 1,350 kilometer distance between Beijing and Shanghai stations (comparable to Mumbai to Delhi). One of the options is the high-speed train that zips through at 350 Km/pH, covering the journey in four-and-a-half hours. But the slower option is described as an "express sleeper" that runs overnight, at 250 Km/pH. By the time India began the acquisition of land for "Bullet" train—its nationwide unrolling must wait till some distant future—China connected 30 of its 33 provincial-level administrative divisions with 27,000 km of passenger tracks for high-speed trains.

For India, however, at its current stage of development, it is lucky if passenger trains acquire the 120-130 kmph speed range. But the speed of passenger trains depends on many other associated factors—track, rolling stock, safety measures, signalling—to name a few. And to upgrade these to the required level calls for investment on a scale that the Indian Railways hardly can afford. IR's Operating Ratio (the sum it spends in order to earn a rupee in revenue) stands at around 98 per cent. That leaves it with a little fund to invest unless the state opens its purse strings to make IR grow out of the slumber of its colonial past.

I have recently noticed that the Rajdhani Express from Kolkata often follows a new path along the way, with the area under tracks greatly widened. It is good news for Rajdhani addicts as freight trains may, after all, get more space. But it may remain a hope. IR's income is so meagre because it gives us, the passengers, subsidised fares (and discounts) but imposes a stiff tariff on freight. As a result, power plants import coal from Indonesia if there is a port nearby; or else, they use road transport at a considerable damage to the upcoming highway network. The fare-freight ratio, which measures the average passenger fare against average freight charge, is only 0.3 for India; for South Korea, it is 1.4, for France 1.3, and for China 1.2.

We may feel nostalgic about railways but India cannot modernise its 121,407-KM railway network without making the passenger pay for it. But that requires regarding him as a citizen, not as a voter.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Sumit Mitra

Sumit Mitra

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