Realistic fares, faster and better service can put railways back on track

The scramble for train tickets along with the melee of men, women and children jostling into cramped compartments at stations signifies the ramshackle state of India’s rail assets and endemic shortage of supply.

While there is an almost insatiable clamour for more trains, IR’s high-density arterial routes remain clogged, its stations and maintenance wherewithal are overstretched, speeds remain low, and services far less than satisfactory. The more the number of passenger trains on a route, less the room for freight trains. And, freight trains are a critical support for country’s economic, industrial and agricultural needs, no less crucial for IR’s own financial health.

Inflicting an annual loss of over Rs 20,000 crore, its passenger business yields skewed returns: although passenger services aggregated 61% of IR’s total traffic in 2010-11 and freight 39%, earnings were inversely proportional: Rs 25,706 crore from passenger traffic versus Rs 60,687 crore from freight. While net freight earnings averaged an amount of Rs 599.91 per km, passenger trains caused an average net loss of Rs 334.68 per km. The passenger business is not inherently loss-making. IR is asked to deliver with its arms firmly tied.

The ordinary second-class fare, largely responsible for losses, has remained low at 15.8 paise per passenger km in 2010-11, and suburban travel still lower, at 12 paise per pkm. In comparison, the bus fare on state road transport services across the country in 2010-11 averaged 56 paise per pkm.

The purchasing power parity-adjusted rail fares in Japan are 9.4 times, in Russia 6.7 times, in Germany 6.2 times, and in China 2.7 times in comparison with India. Just to break even, rail fares have to increase by 400% for ordinary sleeper class, 125% for ordinary second class, 75% for mail and express second class, and 150% for suburban services.

While about 10 million passengers in India travel by air in a month, IR transports twice as many and more in a day. Even so, IR accounts for a meagre 10% of India’s total passenger traffic, roads carrying most of it. Rail travel demand far outstrips supply, and remains set to further grow given India’s continental distances, its burgeoning middle class, growth of urbanisation, and social and religious mores.

India’s per-capita passenger mobility is estimated to have increased from 100 km in 1950 to 3,020 km in 2000 at a 5.13% annual growth rate versus percapita GDP growth of 2.23%. More people are travelling now, and travelling more.

As slow farm growth drives migration from rural areas, railways need to facilitate large numbers to travel long distances cheaply for an integrated national labour market. Even an 8% rise in the number of passengers to be carried on IR will be from around 7.4 billion in 2009-10 to over 16 billion in 2019-20, and about 34.7 billion in 2029-30. The corresponding increase in passenger km at a 10% annual growth rate is projected to be from 839 billion in 2009-10 to 2,177 billion in 2019-20 and 5,646 billion in 2029-30.

In China, railways separated passenger and freight businesses, raised passenger fares by 75% between 1994 and 1998, discouraged shortdistance passenger traffic, reduced travel time of trains by increasing speeds and reducing train stops.

IR has its task cut out: (a) its capacity to expand exponentially, for garnering at least a 25% of total passenger traffic, up from the current 10% level, (b) its passenger and freight businesses to be managed as separate business units, (c) fares to rationally reconcile affordability by the bottom of the pyramid with viability of the organisation, (d) intra-urban, ‘regional’ and other stopping commuter services to be hived off and managed multi-modally by an autonomous corporate body in cooperation with state governments.

The total daily average of about 12,000 passenger trains include almost 4,200 short-distance non-suburban regional services, which need to be drastically curtailed and reorganised. They incur heavy losses and erode route capacity. IR must communicate: it should publish a white paper on its passenger business.

For IR, the critical area is medium and long lead passenger travel. IR needs to (a) substantially upgrade and expand long-distance (over 1,000 km) trains, aiming at 160-200 km per hour operation on post-dedicated freight corridor mixed-traffic routes, completing 1,500-km Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata journeys, for example, with sunset departure and sunrise arrival, (b) likewise, daylight Shatabdi-type fast services, distances up to, say, 500 km being covered within 3.5 hours, and (c) expand and accelerate overnight medium distance (500-1,000 km) trains like the many popular services IR operates in this segment.

It should also move to select high-speed (over 250 km per hour) corridors, aiming at some of them to be functional by 2020. Terminals by way of modern stations for operational and commercial transactions have been a casualty in IR’s planning process.

It needs to realistically target a total of 10-12 large stations across the country for them to come up as ‘worldclass’ stations by 2017, involving innovative designs and systems and services for booking and reservation, facilities at stations and on-board. Equally important is the critical aspect of modern, integrated production and maintenance facilities to be set up at appropriate locations.

Published in: on December 22, 2012 at 8:48 am  Leave a Comment  

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