Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Railways needs stability, not speed

Cricket, politics and railways —- these, perhaps, are the most popular topics of unstructured and spontaneous public debate in India. Which is why it came as no surprise when an across the board passenger fare hike last month brought the railways into media focus. But given the characteristic brevity of public protest in our country, the murmurs died down soon. However, a host of expectations took birth.

The switchover from rickety wooden coaches of the steam era to air-conditioned comfort at affordable prices had kept rail riders enamoured for a few years. The charm has now almost worn off with time, with issues like cleanliness, quality of food, punctuality of non-premium trains as well as incidents of lawlessness on trains haunting Indian Railways.

The railways has survived for most of the time on incremental growth of population, despite excessive cross subsidy in fares where volumes matter, and at the expense of freight and upper class travellers. A decade-long moratorium on fare hike, innumerable concessions, politically driven projects, unusually fat wage bill against the backdrop of roadways getting smarter and indications of revival in the aviation sector, leaves difficult choices before the railways.

Are we really happy with piecemeal measures and cosmetic sweeteners like incremental improvement in speed of trains, a la carte regional cuisine on trains, mobile ticketing, and tatkaal reservations, among others, or do we want railways to bring about a visible change in services in order to become a frontrunner amongst vehicles for infrastructural growth and regional integration?

History bears testimony to the fact that the British, as colonisers, also knew that resources accumulation/distribution and administrative integration, both of men and material over diverse areas and in big volumes, was possible only through railways. This was by far the least risky and strategically most reliable option with the advantage of higher axle load and the ease of moving all such vehicles in a single chain and single tractive source —the rail engine. A potential that we have been unable — or unwilling — to exploit in all these years, given the slow expansion of railway lines post-independence. The fact that our powerful neighbour, China, having embarked on a crash rail expansion plan, is rearing to connect railways across continents and wants India’s consent of passage and partnership, reinforces the centrestage position of railways in the world power axis and decisive implications on the regional balance of power in a fluid global scenario.

Safety and modernisation of the existing infrastructure in the face of depleting fund balances of Indian railways, loan servicing obligation, internal resource generation limitations on a saturated track, increased public expectations and a huge wage and pension liability calls for extraordinary support, as pontificated by various committees. The seventh pay commission is not so far away and railways, a behemoth employer, continue to tread into many non- core activities like making bottled water. Rightsizing, therefore, is going to be a big challenge.

The allocations/projections in NDA’s rail budget do not indicate that the scale of railways’ existing pursuits is going to be altered substantially. However, an announcement having a sizeable glamour quotient, of high speed rail (HSR) on Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor through FDI route caught immediate public attention. Finding mention in earlier budget speeches only in terms of feasibility studies, the weight of Narendra Modi behind the proposal has raised the expectation bar. Indians, rather uncomfortable with China’s rapid progress in this area, are jubilant, bearing testimony to the presumption that the announcement has had a positive public vibe. The more proactive state governments, like Kerala for example, are separately working on their own HSR projects (Thiruvananthapuram-Kasadgod), teasing the centre to do something quick in Mumbai-Ahmedabad, since the two are separate, standalone initiatives with great political mileage.

Since the latest initiatives to run trains at 160-200 kmph on existing tracks would require immediate capacity augmentation to avoid route congestion for other trains and consolidation of the present infrastructure to become safe and fit for higher speed, shall we presume that additional support from the central kitty for railways in the next annual plan would be higher? This is other than the HSR initiative.

Planning commission adviser, Anjali Goyal has made a strong pitch for a national policy on HSR and suggested alternatives drawing from international experience. She questions the standalone initiatives which raise issues of compatibility and management, and would also not be a mega region based approach like China, and would neither have the required volumes and consequent clout for cutting edge technology residency. The call “make in India” from the ramparts of Red Fort will assume reality in the rail sector only with enabling support.

The scale at which HSR has to come to India, its economics, including conflict of interest with the existing system, both in terms of business and resource allocation, needs attention and equanimity of treatment for Indian Railways to grow. Whether the FDI route will bring success remains to be seen and welcomed with open arms if successful.

(The writer is a serving senior officer in the Indian Railways)


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