Michael Portillo, the British journalist, who has covered railways across the world in his television shows once remarked — “British-built railways in India helped the British to make money and maintain order and, as a by-product, served to unite the country, ripe for independence.”
Successive Indian governments could only find incremental meaning in Indian Railways after the British left. What now is the fourth largest railways network in the world was largely used for narrow and short-term political gains by most railways ministers.
One hundred and sixty years after the Indian Railways first ran a passenger train between Mumbai and Thane, the Narendra Modi government inherited a great legacy but also a litany of stubborn problems, which only grew in complexity with every passing year.
From bureaucracy to lack of investments, from burgeoning costs to poor passenger facilities, and from stagnating technology to accidents and safety concerns, Indian Railways kept flying into perfect storms every year.
Former Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu set the first foundations of changes in the Railways. His immediate focus was on customer experience.
Prabhu initiated leveraging the power of social media to solve problems of commuters. He also set in motion the plan for raising monetary resources through initiatives like station redevelopment.
This momentum has not just been carried forward by Piyush Goyal, the current Railways Minister, but also accelerated rapidly, since he took up the role in September 2017.
Improved Safety Record Of Indian Railways
The year 2019 was the safest year in the history of the transporter, with no passenger deaths recorded on account of accidents involving the Railways itself.
The financial year 2018-19 had seen 29 deaths, which was a 81 per cent drop from the fatalities witnessed in 2013-14 after which Narendra Modi government took over.
The Rashtriya Rail Sanrakshna Kosh (RRSK), a Rs 1 lakh crore fund dedicated to the safety of Railways, has been bearing dividends. The Railways has methodically chipped at the root cause of accidents in the last few years.
There has been a big push to construct foot overbridges and high platforms. There was similar focus on construction of rail overbridges, underpasses and subways to separate foot and road traffic from the rail lines.
The Railways also renewed rails at faster speed than ever last year with more than 5,000 kilometres of old rail replaced. The production of the old Integral Coach Factory (ICF) coaches was stopped completely — the design of these coaches led to higher fatalities in accidents compared to the design used in more modern coaches.
Another remarkable safety achievement for the Railways was the complete elimination of all unmanned level crossings on the broad-gauge network.
The government has recently approved an organisational restructuring of the Indian Railways, including the Railway Board, the apex body of the organisation. These organisational changes have been talked about for a while. Committees led by Prakash Tandon (1994), Rakesh Mohan (2001), Sam Pitroda (2012), and most recently, Bibek Debroy (2015), had made recommendations to this effect.
This ‘corporatisation’, where silos are broken to create the right mix of generalist and specialists, changes the very nature of Railways’ administration.
These changes, the biggest ever since the British created the Railway bureaucracy, will lead to faster decision-making as each project will have single-point ownership. Faster implementation of projects will eventually lead to cost savings.
The Railways has also been retiring some officers in public interest on grounds of inefficiency, doubtful integrity and conduct unbecoming of a railway servant as part of a periodic review. There were four such retirements in 2016-17 and 32 in December 2019.
Earlier in September 2019, the government transferred 50 out of the 200 directors working in the Railway Board to various zones to augment field staff capacity. A leaner decision-making body in Delhi is a long-pending change effected in the last few months.
There has been a two-fold increase in the capital expenditure (capex) made by the Indian Railways between 2014-2019 over 2009-2014, the preceding five years.
The capex in 2014-19 has been Rs 5.1 lakh crore, as opposed to Rs 2.3 lakh crore in the preceding five years. The year 2019-20 will see a single-year capex of more than Rs 1.5 lakh crore, which will be the highest ever for the Railways.
This is significant as Railways has been a key driver of government expenditure, which in turn has been a key driver of otherwise muted economic growth last few quarters.
Such spend resulted in national engineering assets like the iconic Bogibeel Bridge, which connects Arunachal Pradesh to the rest of the country. The bridge was sanctioned in 1997-98 but completed only 20 years later.
Targeted investments have also helped increase the value of past dud investments made by the Railways.
The Modern Coach Factory in Rae Bareli was commissioned amidst great fanfare in 2010 to produce a thousand coaches per year.
For years, it did nothing except giving finishing touches to coaches brought from the Kapurthala factory. Now, the Rae Bareli factory capacity has been increased to almost 3,000 coaches per year and it is now producing coaches.
Between 2020 and 2025, the capex made by Indian Railways will form a key component of the National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP), unveiled by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in December 2019. About 14 per cent of the NIP spend will be on Indian Railways, the third highest sectoral allocation.
Private Player Engagement
Privatisation of Railways is a contentious topic. Any talk of engagement of private players leads to massive resistance from the powerful unions and labour lobbies.
Separating the content from the carriage — unbundling services from the underlying infrastructure — has been the Modi government’s preferred way to encourage private participation in Railways, without stirring debates on ownership.
For the first time ever, a ‘private’ train Tejas Express was launched between Lucknow and Delhi, followed by another route addition in Ahmedabad to Mumbai.
While as of now, these trains are operated by Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) — an Indian Railways group company, the ambition is to launch 150 private trains across India.
Earlier, the Railways had encouraged private participation in areas like food delivery, creating a big choice of food delivery options at stations or in trains. Integrating services of private cab services at various stations has been another big initiative to facilitate last-mile connectivity for the travellers.
To raise off-budget resources and to monetise the assets of Indian Railways, a station redevelopment plan was put in place in 2015. Railways put in place a plan to redevelop 50 stations on lines of airport privatisation.
The programme got off to a start with the Habibganj (Bhopal) and Gandhinagar stations the first to be bid. The refurbished stations are likely to be thrown open to public over 2020.
The contracts for five other station redevelopment projects of Gomti Nagar (Lucknow), Charbagh (Lucknow), Puducherry, Tirupati and Chandigarh have been awarded.
Additionally, the Indian Railway Stations Development Corporation Limited (IRSDC), the nodal agency for station redevelopment projects, has invited bids for redevelopment of four railway stations — Nagpur, Gwalior, Amritsar and Sabarmati.
Beautification of more than 65 railway stations has been completed, depicting local art. A renewed focus has been put on installing escalators and passenger lifts at many stations.
Electrification of the Railways network has been a key priority for the Modi government. The government plans 100 per cent electrification of all broad-gauge routes by 2022. This electrification can save India more than Rs 13,000 crore in fuel bill by completing the move from diesel to electricity.
As this happens, new engineering initiatives are also being undertaken. The Diesel Locomotive Works factory in Varanasi performed the world’s first-ever conversion of diesel locomotive to electric locomotive.
Alstom produced a WAG-12 locomotive, referring to the 12,000 horsepower locomotive from its Madhepura factory in April 2018. Conceptualised in the mid-2000s, the project was approved by the Cabinet Committee of Economic Affairs (CCEA) in February 2007.
After many years of dilly-dallying on whether the government should run this project itself or a joint venture (JV) with a private player should be constituted, the Modi government went the JV route in November 2015 with Alstom.
The Madhepura Electric Locomotive Factory is a 3.5 billion euro project. It is one of the largest foreign direct investments in India.
Targeted Revenue Generation Via Tourism
The Railways is taking the lead to become more tourism focused. This is a source of revenue as well as a source to promote new infrastructure.
The Ramayana Express traces the path of Lord Ram during his 14-year exile in India and Sri Lanka. The trains were launched from three different destinations — Rajkot, Jaipur and Madurai — to ensure that travellers from across the country get to experience the modern pilgrimage.
The Buddhist circuit train covers Bodhgaya, Nalanda and Varanasi in its eight-day journey. This train attracts tourists not just from India but also from countries like China, Japan and Sri Lanka.
The Panj Takht Express is meant for Sikh pilgrims visiting the five most religiously significant gurudwaras in the country — Sri Akal Takht at Amritsar, Takht Keshgarh Sahib at Sri Anandpur Sahib, Takht Sri Damdama Sahib at Bhatinda, Takht Sri Patna Sahib at Patna, and Takht Sri Hazur Sahib at Nanded. The 10-day special package includes meals, stay, sightseeing and transfers.
The Railways has also launched special vistadome coach trains for travellers to appreciate natural beauty on key routes. These coaches, which have see-through glass roofs, have been deployed on routes like Vishakhapatnam — Araku Valley, Dadar (Mumbai) — Madgaon (Goa) and Shimla — Kalka.
Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFC)
India recently celebrated the fourteenth foundation day of the Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India Limited (DFCCIL), the company which has been working on the two DFCs — west and east. During this time, the DFCCIL has completed 500 of the 1,000 kilometres track length of the two DFCs.
The 194-kilometre-long Bhadan to Khurja section of the Eastern DFC has been completed and commercial trials have started on this corridor. Similarly, the 305 km-long Rewari to Madar section of the Western DFC has been completed with commercial trial runs starting.
The DFCCIL has also acquired almost all land required for the two projects. Owing to the speedy work in the last couple of years, it now appears that the two corridors will be fully operational in 2021 — good 15 years after the first steps were taken.
The Railways is also planning three more DFCs which will entail an investment of Rs 2.6 lakh crore over the next 10 years.
Train And Amenities Modernisation
One key area of focus has been putting modern trains in service. The Gatiman Express was the first semi high-speed train launched in 2016, which now runs between Delhi and Jhansi. The train covers the Delhi-Agra section in about 100 minutes.
Indigenous design, development and production of Train 18 — now the Vande Bharat Express — was a big achievement for the Railways.
The ICF in Chennai worked on the development of this modern train, which has two services now between Delhi and Varanasi and Delhi and Katra. The scale-up plan includes launching 44 new such trains in the coming years.
The Mumbai to Ahmedabad bullet train project, being executed with the help of the Japanese agencies, is also beginning to gather pace. It may not meet its originally-planned deadline of 2023-end completion going by the current activity levels.
Nonetheless, the project will set the right benchmark for the high-speed rail expansion in India.
Using Railways to solve mass urban rapid transport problems of Mumbai and Bengaluru will be a priority in the next five years.
Navi Mumbai suburbs have already seen better connectivity with the larger Mumbai local network. Projects worth Rs 70,000 crore are currently underway to improve the Mumbai local network.
Similarly, an investment of Rs 16,000 crore is planned for the Bengaluru local network, connecting busy areas of the city.
Integration of technology to improve efficiency, transparency and agility in the functioning of the government departments has been a key theme pursued by Piyush Goyal since 2014. After ‘consumerisation’ of the power sector, he adopted the same approach for the Railways too.
The Rail Drishti portal, which is now accessible publicly, is a one-stop-shop for interacting with the Railways. From tenders to public complaints to rail tracking to accounts payable — several areas of Railways’ working have been exposed digitally.
At its peak, the Google Play store had more than 250 apps related to various Railways’ services, with 50 coming from the government agencies and the rest by private players.
These apps let users enquire train status, look at the timetable, make reservations, book unreserved tickets, order food on trains, complain about cleanliness and other services and provide feedback to the Railways.
More than 5,500 stations now have free wi-fi services. Google has partnered with the Railways to provide services at several stations.
Railways is equipping its officials with point-of-sale machines to enable real-time allotment of vacant seats to wait-listed passengers.
For the first time since Independence, the Indian Railways is addressing the root causes of its lack of attaining global standards, despite being an early player.
The Narendra Modi government is looking at the business model, the user experience as well as the back-end operations and logistics of the transportation behemoth to bring about institutionalised changes to the Indian Railways.
This bold and ambitious approach needs to continue for the next decade or so to ensure that the Indian Railways not just catches up with the expectations of Indian commuters but also with its global peers.
Aashish Chandorkar is Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of India to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. He took up this role in September 2021. He writes on public policy in his personal capacity.
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