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What ails the Indian railways?

Indian Railways needs comprehensive institutional reforms before it can take on the coveted mantle of the driver of the Indian economy

What ails the Indian railways?

Indian Railways (IR) is a behemoth organisation of India that daily runs 8,000 trains in different parts of the country and employs 15 lakh people. Only the Indian Army comes close to this organisational scale. The administrative structure of IR also resembles that of the army but the discipline, dedication and planning of the army are not there. In fact, the lack of basic facilities and punctuality makes bus journey more popular these days.

Presently, IR suffers from the following deficiencies: Late arrival of trains, particularly long-distance and passenger trains; poor sanitation level in non-AC coaches, their toilets and along the railway tracks; 55 per cent of the tracks being grossly underutilised; saturation capacity being reached on important routes like Delhi-Kolkata line, leaving no scope for running new trains; great paucity of funds to accelerate the execution of ongoing and new projects; 60 per cent of railway tracks needing electrification and doubling; operational cost amounting to 96 per cent of revenue receipts because of low fares; lack of innovation in the design of light material coaches and high-efficiency engines; existence of missing links in connecting nearby main railway lines and finally, the inability of states in running trains in their own territories.

Things will improve once two freight corridors are completed and commissioned by December 2021. The transport system is undoubtedly the backbone of the Indian economy. In such a system, the railway is considered the best system of transport.

Advantages for the railways

IR enjoys three key advantages that afford it an edge as a form of transport-

Trains consume less energy (50 per cent) because of the low coefficient of friction between the wheels and the rails.

Unlike buses and trucks, trains can run with electricity.

Carriage of freight load by trains is hassle-free as there are innumerable complaints of overloading and stoppage of trucks at interstate barriers. A recent study indicates that corruption involved at barriers is Rs 47,000 crore annually.

Inefficiency in IR

There are three factors that make IR an inefficient body-

Centralised administration- Presently, the Ministry of Railway operates the entire network of trains with the help of Railway Board. States have not been given any role. They cannot run any train even within their own territory though IR proposes to run 150 private trains. Ideally, states should be allowed to manage the railway network within their respective beats and IR should run only interstate trains. States can set up their own corporations and IR can provide training and consultancy during the initial stages. But IR is not ready to transfer this responsibility to states and cut down its flab. Otherwise, granting authority to states to manage the railway network in their respective beats would become the greatest reform in IR. If states are allowed to build and operate their own network, then four deficiencies mentioned at the start will be mitigated. Firstly, the missing links will be provided. Secondly, states will be able to lay their own new lines from their own budgets more quickly. Thirdly, the competition between carrying passengers by buses and trains will be reduced. Fourthly, ticketless travelling will be reduced to zero.

Low fares- IR is incurring a loss of Rs 35,000 crore annually due to very low or negligible fares in passenger trains. Fares of mail trains in the ordinary class too are comparatively low. For example, the bus fare between Delhi and Chandigarh is Rs 220 against a mere Rs 85 in the mail train. Besides this, IR charges only for 8 tickets in a month from pass holders. Ticketless travelling is another cause of revenue loss.

Need for separate railway budget- Before 2016, IR used to prepare its own budget and present it in the Parliament. This practice was abandoned for unknown reasons and deprived IR of two advantages. Firstly, IR used to brainstorm in order to prepare a sound and detailed budget clearly explaining the features like total budget outlay, revenue receipts, capital expenditure details, etc. Now, the public does not know anything about these details and consequently, transparency is gone. Thirdly, MPs have been deprived of the opportunity to comment and make good suggestions on the working of IR.

Freight Corridor Projects

IR is executing two freight corridor projects that consist of two dedicated new railway tracks i.e., Ludhiana-Kolkata on NE side and Dadri-Mumbai on SW side. These tracks will be used exclusively for running goods trains at a high speed of 100 km/hour, thus reducing the travel time by 60 per cent. Presently, a goods train runs at an average speed of 28 km/hour. Also, existing tracks will be relieved of goods trains, thus giving further scope for running additional fast passenger trains. The projects are likely to be completed by 2021. Piyush Goel, the Minister for IR has also suggested the construction of another dedicated railway line along the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway.

Replacing thermal powerplants with renewable energy

These days there is much talk of replacing thermal power plants located away from coal-heads with renewable energy power plants to reduce the carbon footprint. This project has a great bearing on IR. This is because 80 per cent of freight load carried by goods trains consists of coal carried from coal mines to thermal power plants located in different states. This will reduce the running of goods trains by equal percentage and will relieve the existing railway lines of the run of goods trains and allow additional mail trains.

Bottomline

IR will be able to revolutionise the transport system and boost economic growth if it improves or reforms it's working by getting rid of existing deficiencies mentioned at the start of the article. Sooner it is done, the better.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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