What ails Indian Railways

RN Malik *

Indian railways (IR) is a behemoth organization of India. Daily, it runs 8000 trains in different parts of the country and employs 15.o lac people. Only Indian Army comes close to it's omnibus size. Administrative structure of IR also resembles somewhat that of the army but the discipline , dedication management and planning of army is not there.

Unlike army IR is intimately connected with the life of the common man as 8 million people travel by trains daily. Train journey is considered faster, more comfortable and hassle free than the bus journey.

But lack of basic facilities and punctuality makes bus journey more popular these days. There was a time when 70 percent passenger and freight load was carried by IR and 30 percent by buses and trucks. Now the ratio has been reversed.

Presently IR suffers from following deficiencies-:

1. Late arrival of trains, particularly the long distance and passenger trains.
2. Poor sanitation level in non A. C. coaches and their toilets and along the railway tracks.
3. 55% tracks being grossly under-utilized. For example, hardly two passenger trains and run on newly laid Rohtak-Rewari and Sonepat -Jind lines. Same is the fate of Narwana-Kurukshetra line.
4. Saturation capacity has reached full on important routes like Delhi-Kolkata line leaving no scope for running new trains.
5. Great paucity of funds to accelerate the execution of ongoing and new projects. Recently members of Railway Board told the Consultative Committee of M. P. s that it would take decades to complete the ongoing projects if the low rate of fund allotment continues for ever.
6. 6.60% railway tracks need to be both electrified and doubled. Presently rate of electrification of tracks is fast (4000kms per year) but that of doubling the tracks is slow.
7. Operational cost being 96 percent of revenue receipts because of low fares particularly in passenger trains. The financial loss in running passenger trains is Rs. 35000 crore annually.
8. Lack of innovation in the design of light material coaches and high efficiency engines. Running of Metro type trains on railway lines will prove very popular.
9. Existence of Missing links in connecting two nearby main railway lines.
10. Inability of States to run trains in their own territories.

IR could have been a big engine of growth but for the aforesaid deficiencies. Things will improve once two freight corridors are completed and commissioned by December 2021.

How IR can become an engine of growth-:

Transport system is undoubtedly the backbone of economy. Railway is considered the best system of transport because of three clear advantages.

1. Trains consume less energy (50 percent) because of low coefficient of friction between the wheels and the rails.
2. Unlike buses and trucks, trains can run with electricity. Electric supply is available adequately in the country but the crude oil has to be imported at a huge cost thus putting heavy strain on foreign exchange reserves. Imagine the saving in consumption of oil if 80 percent freight and passenger load being carried by trains.
3. 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. 47000 crore annually. Drivers these days are known to indulge in high-handedness with the transporters because of shortage of good drivers and most of them indulge in drinking during the journey.

Presently most States do not have a widely spread railway network. If you glance over the Railway Map of India, you will find that Maharashtra state is the least covered. In Holland, the railway network is so well spread that people either travel by trains or by personal cars.

If all the states are crisscrossed with wide railway networks, IR will become the big engine of growth and able to carry 80 percent of freight and passenger load and provide lot of opportunities of employment and setting up ancillary units.

Inefficiency in IR-:

There are three factors that make IR an inefficient body. These are centralized administration, low fares and not presenting its own budget since 2016.

a) Centralized administration-:

Presently 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 net work 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. Look at how States have started laying metro rail lines of their own. For that matter, principle of running trains should based on the assumption as if India is a European Union where each country is having it's own independent system of railway network.

But IR is not ready to transfer this responsibility to States and cut down it's 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 missing links will be provided.

For example, a missing railway link of 25 kms between Delhi-Bhatinda main line and Sirsa-Rewari main line at Barwala will help Haryana Govt. to run direct train between Sirsa and Chandigarh. Total length of such missing lines may no be more than 2500 kms.

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.

b) Low fares-:

As stated earlier, IR is incurring a loss of Rs. 35000 crore annually due to very low or negligible fares in passenger trains. Fares of mail trains in ordinary class too are comparatively low. For example, the bus fare between Delhi and Chandigarh is Rs. 220 against Rs. 85 in the mail train.

Besides this, IR charges only for 8 tickets in a month from the pass holders. . almost a free travel. Ticketless travelling is another cause of revenue loss. These problems will be totally mitigated if States are allowed to manage railway network in their beats.

c) Need for Separate Railway Budget.

Before 2016, IR used to prepare it's 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 make a brainstorming exercise to prepare a sound and detailed budget clearly explaining the features like total budget outlay, revenue receipts, capital expenditure details and other details like new trains etc.

Now public does not know anything about these details and consequently, transparency is gone totally. Thirdly M. P. s also 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 N-E side and Dadri-Mumbai on S-W side. These tracks will be used exclusively for running goods trains at a high speed of 100 kms per hour thus reducing the travel time by 60 percent.

Presently goods train run at an average speed of 28 kms per 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. Now Sh. Piyush Goel, the Minister for IR has suggested to construct another dedicated railway line along the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway.

Replacing thermal powerplants with Renewable energy power plants-:

These days there is a talk of replacing thermal power plants located away from coal-heads with renewable energy power plants to reduce carbon foot printing. This project has great bearing on IR. This is because 80 percent 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 running additional mail trains thus increase the carrying capacity of passengers.


IR will be able to revolutionize 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.

* RN Malik wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on March 23, 2020.

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