Monday, August 22, 2016

The only private trains in India run at 13km/h and may be on their last legs.
22 Aug 2016

Cyclists wait at a crossing as the Shakuntala Express, which chugs along at 5-20km/h, passes by. Narendra Kaushik

At 7.05 in the morning when locomotive driver Pralhad Thakare switches on his engine at Murtizapur Junction, 600 kilometres northeast of Mumbai, he gets a token.

The token is a kind of fill-in for signals and a train communication system, which are non-existent on the 113-kilometre route between Murtizapur and Yavatmal. It also symbolises the authority and obligation for Thakare and his train guard to stop at 15 stations, issue tickets to passengers and navigate the Shakuntala Express over half-a-dozen 100-year-old bridges, through plains and hills at speeds ranging between 5 and 20 kilometres an hour.

The token has to be returned at the Murtizapur station after completion of the return journey at midnight. A similar arrangement exists when he pilots the train from Murtizapur to Achalpur, touching a dozen stations along the 76-kilometre stretch.

The two narrow-gauge sections with no infrastructure at 25 stations -- no buildings, no ticket counters and no communication systems -- constitute India's only private railway.

Built by the British company Killick-Nixon to transport cotton for export to Lancashire, the Murtizapur-Yavatmal line was opened in 1903, followed a decade later by the Murtizapur-Achalpur route. In 1910 the lines were transferred to Central Province Railways Company (CPRC) which has owned them ever since. The Central Railway division of state-owned Indian Railways also has run two passenger trains on the lines under contract with the CPRC for many decades.

Under the contract, Central Railway was supposed to pass on 55% of its revenues from the two sections to CPRC. The latter in return was supposed to take care of the maintenance of the tracks, trains and buildings. But Central Railway has not paid anything since 2002, alleging that the company failed to fulfil its part of the deal.

This year Central Railway declined to renew its contract and it is also demanding US$2.8 million from the company, saying the sum represents the money it has spent on repairs. And last month Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu announced plans to spend $225.4 million to replace the narrow-gauge tracks with broad-gauge lines.

"The contract has not been renewed so far," said Narendra Patil, chief public relations officer for Central Railway, adding that management would still have to make a final decision.

But CPRC maintains that the contract remains in force and that Central Railway should either make a one-time payment of $2.25 million or clear its outstanding obligations.

Indian Railways also operates some scheduled services on the Murtizapur-Yavatmal route through a contract arrangement with the line's private owner. Photos: Narendra Kaushik

"Everything is still under our company. The pending dues add up to over $9.2 million. If the narrow gauge is replaced with broad gauge, revenue from the two sections and our share will also grow," says Shivanand Rama Hemmady, director, company secretary and compliance officer with CPRC at Mumbai.

Hemmady told Asia Focus that besides the tracks, his company originally owned the trains, steam engines, station buildings and staff quarters. "But I do not know whether they are still using the same old coaches," he added.

Thakare said the steam engines were replaced with diesel locomotives in 1995. Even so, the speed of the train has only gone down since then.

"Earlier, the Shakuntala Express would cover the journey of 113 kilometres in four hours and run at 30km/h. Now it takes eight hours and 10 minutes," says Ravish Kumar, a guard who doubles as a ticket clerk on the train. "Its maximum speed is 20km/h. It chugs on bridges at 5 and 10km/h for a 23km stretch that has been posted as a caution zone. A daily-wage worker can earn his livelihood for the day in that time. Why should he waste all those hours on the train?"

Kumar puts the average daily earnings of the Shakuntala Express at the equivalent of 258 baht. "On return trip from Yavatmal to Murtizapur, we never get more than a handful of passengers," he said. The average daily earnings from the Murtizapur-Achalpur section are equivalent to 1,035 baht.

Hemmady does not believe that Indian Railways will follow through with plans for broad-gauge tracks on the two sections. "They are losing $900,000 every year on the two tracks. Why should they go broad gauge? But if they are going to do it, it will be good for us. We have a contract with Central Railway for income," he says.

Bhavana Gawali, the Indian lawmaker representing the Yavatmal-Washim parliamentary seat, is enthusiastic about the planned upgrade. "It will be good if train speed on the two sections is increased," she says. "Our poor farmers will benefit from it. The Maharashtra (state) government has announced the establishment of a textile park here."

The majority of the farmers in the region grow cotton and soybeans and many have committed suicide in recent years because of distress, the failure of monsoons and heavy debts.

The train is the preferred mode of transport for poor people in the region, since tickets cost the equivalent of 13 baht compared with 77 baht for a bus. However, the bus covers the journey from Yavatmal to Murtizapur in less than three hours.

The CPRC website says the company provides a "one-stop solution" for transport services through railways in India. But currently it operates with around half a dozen employees.

Before 1925, the company owned many other sections including Dhond-Baramati, Pulgaon-Arvi, Pachora-Jamner and Darwha-Pusad (all in Maharashtra) and ran trains in collaboration with Great India Peninsular Railway (GIPR), a company incorporated by an act of the British Parliament.

GIPR was merged into Indian Railways in 1925 and in 1951 the latter took over all other private sections except Murtizapur-Achalpur and Murtizapur-Yavatmal when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru nationalised the rail service.

Last year, however, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved up to 100% foreign investment in Indian rail businesses, a move many see as a precursor tor privatisation.


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