Freight Corridors Are Milestones, No Plans To Privatise And Pay Panel To Be A Burden: MoS Railways

by Arush Tandon - Feb 25, 2016 01:00 PM +05:30 IST
Freight Corridors Are Milestones, No Plans To Privatise And Pay Panel To Be A Burden: MoS RailwaysIndian Railways (BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Manoj Sinha, Union Minister of State for Railways, in an exclusive chat with Swarajya speaks about challenges before the railways and rail budget

Q: In his 2015 budget speech, Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu had said that “the legacy of the past decades would take some time to neutralise”. What are the big challenges?

A: I believe that the Indian Railways (IR) has been a victim of under-investment. The amount of investment that should have happened in IR, never happened. And if one were to look at the details: since Independence the IR network has grown by 2.25 times whereas the passenger traffic has grown by more than 17 times, and freight traffic by more than 9 times. So there is a massive gap between the traffic—both passenger and freight—and the network capacity. Bridging this gap is our biggest challenge.

The second challenge according to me is the delay. Countless projects were cleared without time frame of completion, 30 years or 35 years or more. This led to cost overruns as well as delays. Decisions used to be made keeping in mind political gains. IR has suffered heavily because of this.

Third, due to the slow growth in network, we have reached a state where there are about 492 sectors in IR whose utilisation is more than 100 percent. In sectors where ideally only 100 trains can run, nearly 150 to 160 services are running. So running trains on time is a big challenge.

These were the important challenges and we have taken some decisions in this regard. One, no decisions on the basis of political gains. Focus on completing priority projects at the earliest and decongestion of IR.

And we have worked to this plan in the last one and a half years.

Doubling, tripling and fourth-line works have been carried out on a large scale; and secondly, if you look at the investments, in the earlier budget the investment target was 58,000 crore, this time (Budget 2015-16) it was increased to one lakh crore, an increase of almost 52 percent in allocation.

So once the doubling, tripling and fourth line works are finished, I’m sure there’ll be relief.

Third, the Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFC). We have expedited their construction since taking charge. Tenders worth Rs 17,500 crore were finalised last November, and I think that in the coming March, tenders worth another Rs 17,000 crore would be finalised. When the prime minister undertakes review of projects, the DFC is one the projects he reviews. Even at the level of the ministry, the Rail Minister and myself regularly review the progress of the DFC. Everything is being done to ensure that the project is completed by 2019.

Our government thus has a three-pronged approach to the challenges of IR. The first part of this are the immediate solutions. For example, constructing long loops, or if there is an acute problem of congestion, easing it by creating satellite stations.

Then there are the medium-term solutions which include completing doubling, tripling and fourth-line works.

And then come the long-term solutions. The average speed of express trains today is only 60-65 km/hr and that of goods train, 25 km/hr. So we’ve taken upon ourselves to ensure that by 2019 the average speed of goods trains is 50 km/hr and of express trains is about 120 km/hr.

Minister of State for Railways, Manoj Sinha
Minister of State for Railways, Manoj Sinha

Q: You mentioned that decisions are not being taken on the basis of political interests. Given that political consideration has been one of the main drivers of decision-making in the railways in the past, how difficult it is to resist? Railway ministers have gifted new trains, facilities, factories etc. to their regions.

A: Given the state of Indian Railways, doing that was necessary. And I think that the strong will power of the Prime Minister also made it possible for us to take decisions which were for the interest of railways and the country rather than for political gains.

Q: In the last budget the Railway Minister had a set an investment target of Rs 8.5 lakh crore. How much of that has the ministry managed till now?

A: We have an MOU with the LIC for Rs 1.5 lakh crore. The Ministry of Coal and Energy has also increased its investment in IR. Apart from this there are more proposals under consideration with the Ministry. The target announced by the Rail Minister in Parliament will surely be met.

Q: In last year’s rail budget, the target for operating ratio for 2015-16 was set at 88.5. How close to that is the actual figure likely to be?

A: The targets in freight and passenger earnings have not been met. There are many reasons for that and I do not wish to go into them specifically but one of the reasons is the direct relation of IR with the Indian economy at large. Iron ore for example, or imported coal transport has fallen due to increasing productivity of Coal India. Compared to the last financial year, our revenues have increased but the ambitious target not met. I am hopeful that the Operating Ratio would come to be around 90.

A new problem that the IR is about to face is the Seventh Pay Commission. We are thinking over how best to meet the targets.

Q: Is there a fear that the operating ratio might cross 100 in FY 2016-17 after taking into account the implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission?

A: We have not yet estimated it in that respect but it may be around 100.

Q: So how this will be tackled is still under consideration?

A: The government is working on it as we speak. I don’t think it would be appropriate of me to disclose further before the budget, but a broad strategy is in place.

Q: What is the strategy of IR to increase its non-fare revenues?

A: Certainly, IR would become unsustainable if we do not increase our non-fare revenue. . .

Q: In some countries, the share of non-fare revenues is very high. . .

A: Traditionally, focus on it hasn’t been very high in India but now we have decided that non-fare revenue should be increased very substantially and more than one initiatives are being carried out in this regard.

If I could quote some figures to you: right now the non-fare revenue of IR is 3-4 percent of its total revenue. We have set a target to increase it to 10 percent by 2019 and we are working in that direction. A committee of experts has been constituted in this regard and you will surely see an increase in the non-fare revenue of IR.

Q: Coming to freight now: the long-standing issue of freight subsidising passenger services in IR, how do you plan to end or decrease this cross-subsidisation?

A: Today, the share of IR in freight movement in India is about 30 percent. We have set ourselves a target to increase this to 38 percent by 2019. It is true that the freight charges in India are amongst the highest in the world and when need be we would rationalise them too. After all, 67 percent of our revenue comes from freight. This is our bread and butter. We cannot run IR without freight and hence we are focussed on this.

Freight unloading at a terminal near Ahmedabad (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)
Freight unloading at a terminal near Ahmedabad (SAM PANTHAKY/AFP/Getty Images)

Q: The Railway Minister had spoken about creating time-table of freight trains. Has there been any progress in that ?

A: I think we would be able to do that conveniently once the Dedicated Frieght Corridors (DFCs) have been constructed because then we’d be able to give an assurance of delivering the load by a given time. Today, our difficulty is that on a single track you have an express train, a Rajdhani or Duranto, a passenger and train and goods train also. So time-tabling (of freight) is a difficult job today but this will be done.

Q: The Dedicated Freight Corridors would come under their own corporation (Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India, registered as a Company). Isn’t there a fear that this would take away the largest source of revenue—freight—from IR?

A: Not really. There are many corporations with IR like Container Corporation, IRCON etc. In a sense, they are autonomous while at the same time coming under the Railway Ministry. The Dedicated Freight Corridors would also function in a similar manner and the role of the Railway Ministry has been laid down from the outset. There is no need to change that.

Q: Writing for Swarajya, Dr Debroy had mentioned the possibility of private operators on the DFCs. Is IR considering any such move?

A: Let me clarify one thing here: we are promoting private and foreign investment in railways but we are not taking railways in the direction of privatisation. And as far as operations are concerned, that the railways will keep to itself. The private sector can help in making sidings, they are most welcome; they want to ally with IR in making PFTs, they are most welcome. But, operations will stay with IR.

Q: There is a competition between railways and roads for transporting cargo. What is the strategy of IR to increase the share of railways therein?

A: I have to worry about increasing the share of the railways. The main reason for railways lagging behind is absence of certainty. We are right now unable to assure a time of delivery. We are working to correct this situation and the DFC would be a milestone in that.

Secondly, we are trying to increase the average speed of goods trains from 25 to 50 km/hr. We’ve undertaken the task of fitting high horsepower engines for goods trains.

To attract more freight traffic especially, if there are any changes required in policy, we aren’t hesitant to do that either. Senior officials of the ministry have discussed the issue with various stakeholders and we have constantly emphasized that our freight operations must be increased.

Q: That brings me to my next question. The automobile industry, for example, has witnessed substantial growth in the last few years, so has the electronics sector. Why do we see motorcycles or TVs being transported only via roads? Why can’t railways also do that?

A: We do have a presence in that area. We did have tie-ups with Maruti and a couple of other automobile companies. But I agree that this needs to be pursued further and we are committed in that direction.

Q: Moving towards questions of safety; last year saw some unfortunate accidents on the IR network. Given that, what is the strategy of IR regarding safety?

A: We have set a target of zero accidents for the future but coming to the accidents which have happened, there were many reasons for them. 40 percent of all accidents happen at level-crossings. So we have taken up the elimination of level-crossings on a priority basis. There are about ten thousand of such crossings in India and they have to be eliminated via constructing ROBs and RUBs (Road Over-Bridges and Road Under-Bridges).

If you look at the previous budget, a lot of ROBs and RUBs have been sanctioned and we have set a goal that by 2019 there be no unmanned level crossings left in India.

Then we are also looking to harness technology to ensure safety. TCAS (Train Collision Avoidance System), for example, its pilot project is underway and IR is set to use it as widely as possible.

Track Detection Systems, implementation of that is also in the pipeline, so that if a track is defective, we get to know that in advance and take instant remedies.

So technology upgradation, elimination of unmanned level crossings and training the workforce; we are working in these areas to ensure an Indian Railway network without accidents.

Q: You mentioned ROBs and RUBs. As an outsider, one issue that comes to mind is that IR may be facing problems of land acquisition and of co-ordination with state governments. How is IR tackling those?

A: This should be looked at at two levels: some of our level-crossings are at national highways, so we have signed an MoU with the Ministry for Road Transport and Highways under which they have decided that for all level-crossings falling on national highways, the ROBs and RUBs will be constructed by them. That I think is a substantial achievement.

Second, we have level-crossings at state highways and at Major District Roads (MDRs) and on other roads. There the way it works is that half the expenditure for the ROB/RUB is borne by IR and half by the state government and we take a certificate from them which states that the district administration will help us in closing the level crossing. In that, there do arise some difficulties but with better cooperation from state governments, we should be able to take this forward.

Q: There was also the question of IR shifting from ICF coaches to LHB coaches since the latter are much safer. What is the rate of progress there? By when can we expect all coaches to be LHB?

A: We are aiming that in 5 years, all IR coaches should be LHB. This is an ambitious target which would not only increase the speed of our trains, it would also make them safer.

Q: Turning towards congestion; the Delhi-Calcutta route is the most congested one. What is the IR doing to decongest it?

A: The Delhi-Howrah route which is one of our trunk routes and in that the Mughalsarai-Allahabad section, is very congested. In the last budget, a third line has been cleared. Once the third line is complete, there will be a lot of relief. Along with that once the DFCs are finished and the goods traffic moves there, it would be a lot more convenient.

Apart from this, we are making satellite stations and loops. At the Allahabad junction for example, trains come at it from six directions, so we have developed two stations—Chhimki and Prayag—on that section and diverted 28 trains. Similarly, Manduadih and Banaras City in Varanasi, Gomti Nagar in Lucknow. Appropriate measures have been and are being taken because decongestion remains one of our priorities.

Q: If we talk of urban development and IR, then one of the possibilities is to connect big cities with smaller ones around them via high-speed rail network. For example, connecting Lucknow to Sitapur, Faizabad, Raebareli through high-speed trains. This would perhaps be more in the interest of the smaller cities. Is IR considering such an approach?

A: That approach is a necessity in today’s time, given the way the population in our cities is increasing. Providing means of transport has become important. We are trying to work with state governments in this direction.

There are two kinds of projects which we wish to pursue therein. The first kind are the bankable projects whose ROR is more than 14 percent. The second kind of projects are those which aren’t bankable but which are important for social interest. If railways reach a backward area for example, that leads to economic as well as social development of the area. So if state government share the work in these projects, then that is in the interest of those backward areas of the state.

Many state governments are playing an important role in this respect. The government of Jharkhand has not only provided land for 7-8 such projects but is also sharing 50 percent of the project cost. The government of Odisha has also come forward. The Ministry has sent a proposal to the Cabinet in this regard and it will be cleared soon.

So we’ll try and sign such MOUs with as many state governments as possible so that backward areas of states, which hitherto didn’t have rail connectivity, can have it. Projects which connect large cities to smaller ones nearby are also important. Although, we have already started to run DEMU and MEMU trains for such areas.

Q: This cooperation between IR and state governments is my next question. Railway security is right now under three agencies: RPF, GRP, and the state police. Is the IR trying for better coordination among these or will it move ahead for only one force for all rail security?

A: See, law and order is a state subject. Given the federal structure of our country, it is not possible for the railways to have complete control over it. The GRP and RPF are primarily entrusted with the security of IR. Half the amount of GRP salaries is paid for by IR. We also consistently require help from the state police.

The RPF acts focusses on the security of IR’s passengers and property. The talk of amending the act has been going on for long. Last year a meeting was called for the same purpose where both the Home Minister and Railway Minister were present. DGPs of various states or their representatives were also in attendance. However, we are yet to reach a consensus on the issue.

For the time being, the DG-RPF had a recent meeting with the DGPs to ensure better co-ordination between the RPF and state police.

We have also a helpline number— 182 which orovides immediate assistance to the passengers.

Keeping in mind women security, we are creating a Mahila Vahini in the RPF. We have also decided that at least 10 percent of all recruitments in RPF would be of women.

CCTVs, integrated security system at stations are the other measures we are taking. We are fully conscious of IR’s security requirements and steps have been and are being taken for them.

Q: What is the vision of IR regarding station development? What are the possibilities?

A: Stations, in reality, are the front end of railways. Our image gets a boost or get sullied by the condition of our stations. Hence, we give high priority to station development.

One of the aspects we are working on is traffic integration with road traffic for easy intermodal switch. We are also wanting to create better access to platforms through easier approaches via escalators, subways, lifts. Providing luggage trolley like in airports is also on our list. Clean premises and less passenger congestion are our prioritiesl.

We are also running campaigns to ensure the participation of people and volunteer organisations in keeping the station clean.

The cabinet has cleared the proposal of redevelopment of 400 stations. We are working towards ensuring that stations, per se, should become profit centres. We are also looking to gain commercially by using the airspace at stations. We have uploaded the list of 400 such stations online. Some government enterprises and private ones have shown interest. I’m sure we’ll begin well on this project.

Q: Is the IR also looking to eliminate waiting lists, so that whenever a passenger wishes, he/she gets an assured seat on a train?

A: That is difficult today. Given the population of our country, and as I told you before, the IR network has not increased in the same ratio as the population (of passengers). But, for the policies that we have made, I think in three years we will reach a state where you will get a ticket when required.


Q: How does IR wish to intergrate with the other projects of the NDA government like Make in India and StartUp India?

A: Under Make in India, the Rail Ministry has recently cleared two units to produce high-horsepower locomotives at Madhepura and Marhaurah. An investment of around Rs 35,000 crore will be made in these two projects.

As far as start-ups go, a few young people have started work in that regard. The need is to encourage them by lowering even some of the ordinary criteria for entry. Both, the Rail Minister and I are in favour of it.

Q: Are these people a part of IR or private citizens?

A: A student of BHU has created a water-vending machine. Now if IR were to release a tender for it, then the first condition would be that those who do not have experience of this field will not get entry. These students have created the machine only now, they wouldn’t even qualify under normal circumstances. We are working to make the entry criteria lenient for such projects and promote such initiatives.

Q: What would you like to be seen as the legacy of this term as Minister of State for Railways ?

A: We are concentrating on two-three main points. One, we have changed the feedback system of IR. IVRS has been implemented on all mail-express trains. Around four lakh people are called daily to gather feedback, out of which around a lakh materialise. In that we seek feedback on: cleanliness at station; cleanliness in coach; quality of linen; cooling in train, punctuality and food quality.

Second, this needs to be extended to ordinary passengers. The facilities for the travelling of common man need to be increased. There need to be more general coaches. Presently, the longest train in IR is 24 coaches long. In the previous budget, the Rail Minister had announced the decision to run 26-coach trains. Some trains with 26 coaches will be run. But where there is traffic, we’d like to add one or two general coaches to the train and run it so that ordinary citizens are provided with services and relief.

Third, and what in my estimation is a major achievement our part, is the decentralisation of powers. Some projects are cleared at the level of the GM itself. This year was a transition year for IR because we were in the process of decentralising. We have set a target that once a project enters the pink book, it should start on the ground within six months.

Fourth, ending mafia control over railway contracts in some parts of the country is a priority. The process of e-tendering commenced from 1, Febrary . Interestingly, the first three tenders are of Varanasi division (he is himself an MP from Ghazipur).

Q: What should the people and investors expect from the upcoming rail budget?

A: If I could first draw your attention to some of the highlights from the previous budget and year: we had aimed at 1,200 km of doubling, 500 km of new line, 1600 km of electrification and 800 km of gauge conversion. Today, we have the figures till December 2015 with us. And 620 km of doubling has been done, that is about 47 percent more than last year, and if you compare it with the year previous to that, this figure would come out to be around 62 percent more. 448 km of new lines have been laid, that is 162 percent more than last year. 245 km of gauge conversion has happened too, which is 23 percent more than in the year before. 982 km of electrification has been done, till December 2015, and that is 47 percent more than previous year’s figure.

And if you talk of connectivity, important and substantial progress has been made, like provision of rail network to Barak valley in the Northeast, or to the north bank of Brahmaputra, and Meghalaya.

Now coming to rail budget 2016-17, we had set out a roadmap for five years in the last budget itself. There wouldn’t be much deviations from that. Our focus remains the same: maximum doubling, tripling, fourth line and electrification projects to be completed for seamless movement of traffic.

Passenger facilities, like escalators, lifts, clean drinking water at stations, wi-fi at A1, A and B category stations are our priorities.

Our freight earnings should increase; we have consulted the relevant stakeholders in this regard and I think that will be reflected in the budget.

Full text of interview available here.

Arush Tandon is interested in icons of history, history of independent India and, Indian culture.

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