Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train may hit tracks soon

Notwithstanding the recent turmoil in the railway ministry following the cash-for- job scam, the government’s ambitious plan to run a high speed rail corridor between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is slowly inching closer to becoming a reality.

Philippe Lorand, vice president, business development, SNCF, the French National Railways which is assisting the Indian Railways to develop the techno-feasibility road map of the over 534-km corridor – one of the six proposed high speed railway lines – told HT that the exercise is in the final stages of completion.

Considered one of the oldest operators of high speed trains, SNCF has 850 bullet trains – called TGV – that run at an average speed of 320 km per hour.

“We are in the final stages of completing our study and hope to submit our report by October. The railways will take a final call on the specifications recommended by us before inviting bids. We expect that this process would start early next year,” he said.

Building the high speed corridor is expected to cost R60,000crore at present day prices. And once work starts it will take 10 years to complete it.

Options for reforms in Indian Railways

The embarrassment over Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal resigning amidst charges of his relatives having received bribe for ‘managing’ a top posting may be very uncomfortable for the government, but the existence of corruption in the largest public sector organisation is a phenomenon well established by a series of massive exposés over the years.

Recently, the Chinese government dismantled its railway ministry with the aim of improving efficiency and rooting out corruption. That raises the inevitable question: would such a move help the Indian Railways fight corruption too?

Corruption had been a major issue in China, with a senior functionary connected to the bullet train network being removed from office two years ago on charges of bribery. Another official of the Chinese railways was said to have bought a house in Los Angeles for $8,60,000, though his monthly salary was a few hundred dollars.

As in India, the Chinese railways was a mammoth organisation with 2.1 million people employed for its 80,000-km track. The Indian Railways employs 1.4 million people for its 63,300-km track. Even as its finances are in dire need of revival — the gross traffic receipts fell short of the target of Rs 1,32,552 crore by Rs 6,872 crore — there is no dearth of money to be made on the sly, to which the focus has now shifted following the crores-for-plum-post case.

For votes, they won’t raise fares

The railways operating ratio, or working expenses as a ratio of traffic receipts, deteriorated from 75.9 per cent in 2007-08 (when Lalu Prasad was the Railway Minister) to 94.7 per cent in 2009-10 (when Mamata Banerjee was the minister) before improving to 88.8 per cent in 2012-13. But there is little that the minister or officials at Rail Bhavan have done over the years to improve the health of the Railways.

A mere 13,000-km of rail line has been added in the 66 years since Independence while ministers over the years have used the organisation as a political tool to keep their constituency happy.

The penchant of every Railway Minister to announce a slew of new trains has put so much pressure on the organisation that it is bursting at its seams with no solution in sight. The perception is that those concerned — whether serving boys on trains, ticket checkers or members of the Railway Board — are only interested in making money, rather than improving the health of the Railways, which pays Rs 20,000 crore in pensions. This amount is more than 60 per cent of its passenger earnings of Rs 32,500 crore for 2012-13.

Ministers are reluctant to raise passenger fares. Instead, they keep increasing freight rates to fill the coffers.

As a result, passenger fares in India are among the lowest in the world, and the freight rates are among the highest, leading to people transporting their goods by road rather than rail. Roads account for 57 per cent of the freight traffic in the country, much higher than the US (44 per cent) and China (22 per cent).

India, according to a World Bank report, has much more passenger service than freight, which constrains productivity, raises cost and invites political interference in operations and pricing.

Reaching new heights, only in corruption

The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) also sees the Railways as the most corrupt government organisation in the country. In its 2011 annual report, the CVC stated that the Railways topped the list of government organisations, with the maximum number of complaints of corruption lodged. Of course, that will also have to do with it being the largest employer.

In that year alone, the CVC received over 8,800 complaints of graft against railway employees — 500 more than the 8,330 in 2010. The 2010 figure had registered an 80 per cent increase over the preceding year.

The 2010 CVC report reveals that every third official penalised for corruption in the country belonged to the Railways. Out of the 2,982 officials who faced action in 2010, as many as 911 were from the Railways. In fact, the corruption index in the Railways has doubled since 2009, when 509 officials had faced the heat for corruption following the recommendation of the CVC.

The CBI has also exposed numerous cases of corruption by railway staff, the one involving Bansal’s nephew only being the latest. Among the cases that came to light were that of AK Bora, then Chairman of the Railway Recruitment Board, Northeast Frontier Railway, Guwahati (recruitment scam); and Vinayak Ramchandra Shewale, then station master of Byculla in Mumbai (was sentenced to two-year rigorous imprisonment and fined Rs 4,000 for demanding Rs 2,100 from a person to sell juice) at Byculla station.

In December 2012, Arvind Vijeta Mittal, then senior divisional engineer, Central Railway, was sentenced to three-year rigorous imprisonment and fined Rs 75,000 for amassing assets disproportionate to his known sources of income.

In October 2012, the CBI arrested a sub-inspector of the Railway Protection Force at Satna in Madhya Pradesh for accepting a bribe of Rs 2 lakh from a scrap vendor. He had allegedly demanded a bribe of Rs 10 lakh from the complainant for not implicating him in a theft case.

In August 2012, the CBI arrested a senior divisional engineer of South Western Railway at Hubli in Karnataka for accepting Rs 1.10 lakh from a contractor for passing a bill. The list has many more names.

Curtains to dispensers, there’s money in all

Officials say crores of rupees are gifted to vendors by the Railways, which lets them charge exorbitant rates for curtains and hundreds of other items that it buys every year — all this for the kickbacks they receive.

Atul Kumar, a railway store service official, had written to the then Railway Minister, Mamata Banerjee, detailing the modus operandi for the leakage of around Rs 5,000 crore each year. But his letter was not acknowledged.

“The Railways buys stuff from pre-approved vendors. After getting approved, the vendors take advantage and form cartels and quote exorbitant prices. They dictate prices and this is known to all. But due to the large kickbacks involved, or perhaps bureaucratic apathy, nothing fruitful is done,” Atul Kumar had said in his letter.

What is even more disconcerting about the cartels is that the Railways itself first breeds the cartels, and then the cartels bleed the organisation.

Atul Kumar had came out with startling ‘facts’. In the case of fragrance dispensers installed in AC 2-tier coaches and toilets in 2005, the Railways Research Design and Standards Organisation (RDSO) told the management to install a specific brand of odour-control system in trains. The brands were ‘Auto Janitor’ and ‘Microburst’ produced by a UK-based company and supplied by only three suppliers from Mumbai.

One of the companies imported the dispensers for Rs 415 each and sold them to the Railways for Rs 4,600 a piece. The dispenser refills were imported for Rs 226 and sold to the Railways for Rs 1,300 each.

Moreover, the Railways cut out competition by making specifications match a particular brand, leading to high pricing when similar locally made dispensers were available for about Rs 700 each.

Also in the case of side-bearer pads, which cost Rs 300 each in 2007, specifications were changed to benefit vested interests. By the end of 2008, they were sold to the Railways at Rs 4,160 each — 14 times the original cost.

Officials say every year the Railways buys goods worth around Rs 20,000 crore. The overpricing is by about 30 per cent, which goes from the exchequer into the pocket of the officials. Money can be made in all departments in the Railways. In 2004, a CAG report said the Railway Board undertook no independent cost analysis when a new product replaced an old one. Select firms approved to supply the new product ganged up, started quoting exorbitant prices, and made a killing.

Sources say not only do suppliers fix prices among themselves, but also find ways to fix the introduction of new modifications in collusion with the Railway Board and RDSO officials.

World experiments with privatisation

Analysts say like most PSUs, the Railways, too, has become a liability for the government. Its annual loss is a whopping Rs 27,000 crore. By privatising the Railways, India can turn the world’s third-largest rail network into a profitable entity, they claim. Japan, the US, UK and Argentina have shown the way, and China is the latest. Before privatisation, Argentina was losing more than $1 billion a year.

China’s state railways administration, to be supervised by the ministry of transport, will take up the existing administrative functions of the railway ministry, while a private entity, China Railway Corporation, will carry out the commercial functions of the railway ministry.

Experts say India can also draw up a model that works best for the Railways and implement reforms by seeking international expertise.

Though privatisation may lead to increase in travel costs, the money collected from the higher passenger classes can be used to subsidise travel in the general compartments. The government cannot wait any longer to improve the health of the terminally-ill behemoth. And this scam has given it the chance to start the clean-up process.

Railway caterer IRCTC has begun cooking for companies

When life handed it a lemon, the government-owned Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC) decided to make lemonade – and sell it to corporate clients.

The railway ministry made a policy decision in 2010 that the Indian Railways would gradually take over the management of train and station catering from IRCTC. The railways would also manage the contracts that IRCTC had signed with vendors. IRCTC, a ‘miniratna’ company, was set up in 2001, specifically to cater to railway passengers. But it now caters on just 39 trains, down from some 300 trains in 2010 – a loss of almost Rs 200 crore worth of business.

In 2011/12, IRCTC’s total income fell to Rs 554 crore from Rs 765 crore in 2010/11, and profit before tax fell to Rs 77 crore from Rs 130 crore. Income from IRCTC’s railway catering remained the same at around Rs 198 crore, but income from catering to nonrailway clients – such as companies and ministries – was Rs 10.8 crore in 2011/12, up from Rs 6.64 crore the previous year.

IRCTC had its own kitchens, as well as some that were operated by licensees. All licensee kitchens and part of the departmental ones have been transferred to the railways. So now, besides catering on 39 trains (including 23 Durontos), IRCTC runs three base kitchens, which supply food to trains and stations, 14 Jan Aahara self-service cafeterias and 10 refreshment rooms which serve light snacks. It also continues to cater to offices and institutions such as the external affairs and finance ministries, and the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

Over the past year, IRCTC’s corporate client list has grown. It now includes Samsung, the Aditya Birla Group, HCL Technologies, Jaipuria Institute of Management, Lava Mobiles and Tata McGraw-Hill. “Our vision is to provide hygienic and high quality meals,” says Sudhir Warrier, Joint General Manager, IRCTC. “We want corporates to see us as benchmark of quality.”

Perhaps IRCTC would have had to take the corporate route anyway , as the railway catering business was not breaking even, according to Warrier, who also heads the company’s Noida facility. This business incurred a loss of Rs 53.6 crore in 2011/12. An IRCTC official, who wishes to remain unnamed, says the company was losing almost Rs 6 per meal in the railway catering business, even though IRCTC was profitable overall.

The kitchen in Noida, near Delhi, was built with an initial investment of around Rs 6.5 crore. It uses imported equipment and is on par with kitchens that cater to airlines, with machines that cut up to 200 kilos of vegetables and crank out 1,000 chapatis in an hour. Work starts at 5.30 am and goes on until 7 pm. The staff of 120 – mostly graduates of hotel management institutes – includes 30 chefs. IRCTC has its own delivery vans that distribute meals in the National Capital Region.

The price of a meal varies between Rs 50 and Rs 70. “We get different demands from customers,” says Sumesh Surendran, head of production at the kitchen. We serve idli-vada to continental to Chinese.” The kitchen will soon complete a year, and has already earned around Rs 15 crore in revenues. “We look to break even this year, but we are not looking at profit margins right now,” says Warrier. The kitchen, which produces 10,000 meals a day, is increasing its capacity to 25,000. Its target is a turnover of Rs 35 crore by 2015.

IRCTC is also setting up such ‘food factories’ in the other metros. “We plan to start the Chennai facility this year, Kolkata in 2014 and Mumbai in 2015,” says Warrier.

Samsung employees are pleased with their new caterer. “We thought it would be like railway catering, but it turned out to be very good. It has a homely taste,” says Santosh Upadhyay at Samsung Noida Campus. Other clients endorse his view. “We chose IRCTC because of its brand name, and the rates are on par with the market rates,” says Parvez Sajid, Head of Administration, Lava Mobiles. Rita Nayyer, Assistant Manager, Administration, at Tata McGraw-Hill, agrees. “Our previous supplier didn’t directly supply the food. It used other vendors. IRCTC uses its own employees… They are all diploma holders and know how to behave with customers,” she says.

Arvind Singhal, Chairman of retail consultancy Technopak Advisors, however, sounds a note of caution. “They will face tough competition from regional players,” he says. “They were a monopoly. They are not used to competition.” He adds that IRCTC would do well to focus on the National Capital Region, rather than expand into other cities.

IRCTC also plans to step up bottled water production. At present, its Rail Neer brand of water is only sold on trains and at stations. Its three bottling plants are in Chennai, Patna and Nangloi in Delhi. A fourth is coming up in Maharashtra.

Pradeep Kundu, Joint General Manager, Public Relations, says: “We plan to start six more plants in the next five years.”

Railways reboots PPP programme

This is one green flag that many are not willing to let go of. Within two months of the government issuing a note allowing companies to own and operate private railway lines to transport goods, Indian Railways has received investment proposals worth Rs 1,360 crore, mostly from logistics companies and ports, an official said. He requested anonymity since he isn’t authorised to speak to the media.

Two months ago, the Railway Board asked its zonal general managers to publicise the new policy that allows ports, mines, logistics parks, etc, to construct and own private rail lines. So far, ports at Dhamra, Rewas and Astranga have submitted proposals to the railway ministry. Several other companies in the ports and mining segments have also shown an interest in building railway lines stretching over 26-67 km.

This is the first time the ministry has come out with a policy inviting private firms to build and also own private railway lines. Prior to 1947, the railways were aclutch of 42 networks of which 32 were operated by private companies owned by the princely states. After Independence, all of them were nationalised to form what is today known as the Indian Railways.

For many years now, the railways has been plagued by losses, prompting the Centre to try out several models of sharing infrastructure work and revenues with the private sector. A Railway Board member told ETthe senior leadership at Rail Bhawan is now convinced that it would be impossible to meet future requirements for transporting goods through the existing rail network. The new policy, cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure, has labeled such “new lines” as “nongovernment railways”.

Private players will have to acquire land and build the new lines, and the railways will provide the trains and staff required to run them. A company building a railway line has to meet operational costs and make a payment to the railways while the latter hands over the revenue after deducting a 5 per cent fee.

The railways draws powers from the Railway Act of 1989, which touches upon the idea of non-governmental railways to encourage private ownership.

“Non-government railways could totally change existing business models. As of now, companies need to be situated close to a railway line to cut costs. But since land prices have escalated, this has an impact on project costs. However, with this new policy, companies can buy land in remote areas and then construct their own lines. This will help the private sector build big projects in an efficient manner,” said a railway board official who also didn’t wish to be identified.

In fact, most public-private partnerships in railways had failed because companies had to return ownership of projects to the railways on expiry of lease. “The private sector told us that it was not interested in investing unless it was allowed to own and operate lines. We need the investment to decongest the network and run more trains,” the second official added

Anubhuti rail coaches may roll out from Rae Bareli

The new Anubhuti coaches may be rolled out from the rail coach factory in Rae Bareli, the constituency of the UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi.

This is a proposal under the consideration of the Railway Ministry.

Another option is to have such coaches manufactured at each of the coach factories, including Rail Coach Factory, Kapurthala and Integrated Coach Factory, Chennai.


The new proposed coaches of the Indian Railways with better interiors — termed as Anubhuti or experience — may be priced about 40 per cent higher than the AC chair car.

These coaches will have about 50 seats in one coach as against 56 in the executive class coaches.

Improved facilities

“They would have much better interiors, more space for a person, improved lighting, upgraded toilets, automatic opening and closing of internal doors, roller blinds as curtains, LCD video screen, amongst others,” Keshav Chandra, Member-Mechanical, Railway Board, said recently.

Shatabdi trains

The plan is to place one Anubhuti coach in each of the Shatabdi trains that ply on a range of about 400 km, with a travel time of four-six hours.

The Executive Chair Car coaches cost about Rs 2.5 crore. These coaches will cost another Rs 30-40 lakh extra.


Coach interiors of Anubhuti would be on the lines of mocks designed by West Central Railway Coach Rehab Workshop, Bhopal, for other coaches.

The mock-ups of improved chair car, AC 2 tier, and AC 3-tier coaches were at the coach care centre near New Delhi Railway Station. Two Vadodara-based vendors — Kemrock Industries and Exports and Hindustan Fibre Glass Works — have supplied raw material for the new coaches.

Mock models of Anubhuti coaches have not been designed yet, said Railway officials.

To ensure train drivers get sleep, Rlys ropes in families

To ensure safety, the Railways wants its drivers to get a good night’s sleep. And to provide that, it is reaching out to their families, telling them to have in place a conducive atmosphere that allows it.

Zonal railways have been holding interactive sessions with families of loco pilots and assistant loco pilots, telling them nothing at home should come in the way of the drivers’ fill of rest and uninterrupted sleep when they arrive after duty, including household chores.

The move follows increasing incidents of accidents due to train drivers jumping signals. In May last year, 24 people were killed when the driver of Hampi Express had overshot a signal and rammed into the rear of a stationary goods train in Andhra Pradesh.

A set of guidelines reiterated by the Railway Ministry recently also stressed on measures to identify drivers who “indulge in activities other than rest” and to counsel them.

“The sessions are very helpful because when a person is at his home station after long hours of duty, it is natural that he gets caught up in household responsibilities and chores. We have realised that it often prevents them from getting a fair share of sleep before the next assignment,” a senior Railway Ministry official said.

‘Signal Passing At Danger’ — the term used for accidents or near-accidents due to jumping of signals — is often attributed to drivers not being alert enough to spot “stop” signals especially at night.

Recently, K K Srivastava, Member (Traffic), Railway Board, had also issued a letter saying that proper rest for drivers was of paramount importance as cases of signal jumps are increasing due to “non-observance of proper rules”.

“It has been observed that drivers who have been inducted departmentally and drivers who are performing duty after availing headquarters rest are more prone to ‘SPAD’,” Srivastava wrote.

Engine drivers have been complaining for years about long and continuous duty hours depriving them of rest. Their duty hours as a routine stretch beyond 15 hours.

Rail Radar to guide passengers through the fog

Panicking in a dense fog at Odhaniya Chacha, an unfamiliar station in Rajasthan, and unable to get any response from a gawky officials at a half-open information counter? Try the Indian Railways’ new offering: Rail Radar.

With an interactive Google map, this new software, designed by the railway ministry’s IT wing Centre for Railway Information Systems, is a live tracker of all passenger train traffic in real time and was launched just before winter set in.

“Map your trains live. Train travel made easy,” said Sunil Bajpai at CRIS, while sharing the new software, available at The software is available in the form of a website and an Android app. It allows users to continuously watch the movement, with a graphic description, of trains that are currently running in India.

The colour coding: blue for ontime and red for delayed trains. There is a box that deals with trains affected, in a span of 24 hours, by fog alone. There is even a tab showing the expected time of arrival (ETA) using an algorithm that is fed inputs from the local control offices and monitoring stations.

“This is one of our endeavours to eliminate inconvenience to people. The family members now need not come to stations and wait for hours,” said railway minister Pawan Bansal. For the extra curious, there is an option that gives passengers the route covered by a specific train and the trains arriving at and departing from a particular station.

The system has a minor accuracy offset. “The data is refreshed every 5 minutes. Plus, there is no control on weather, breakdowns and congestions,” said CRIS managing director Vikram Chopra. Also, cargo and goods trains have been kept out of the application. Some officials have raised security concerns with tracking trains. “The assertion that knowing a train’s whereabouts or routing promotes terror or is a security risk is baseless paranoia,” said the CRIS official.

Catering contracts set for revamp

Rail travellers may soon see a change in food quality as well as tariffs in trains as well as stations.

For, railway catering contracts to provide food valued at about Rs 2,000 crore a year are set for a revamp.

About 5.22 lakh meals are served everyday by caterers in trains and Railways-operated kiosks at stations. Over the next four months, the Ministry will focus on implementing a common bidding format across zones, providing branded food items. It will empanel brands for certain items and make it mandatory for caterers to invest in base kitchens.

The Railway Ministry is also evaluating the option to have labs where food can be tested.

“The aim is to provide good quality, basic hygienic food to passengers,” Railway Minister, Pawan Kumar Bansal told reporters. The bidding norms have provisions to prevent a few catering firms from capturing a large share of business.

The Railways will now implement a 2010 catering policy, for which common bidding documents were not yet implemented across zones. The rights will be provided to caterers for five years, extendable by another five years.


The next time you have a problem regarding food served in trains, feel free to call a common toll-free number and register your complaint. “We have launched a toll-free number — 1800 111321 — where passengers can call between 7 a.m-10 p.m. This will be tracked on real-time basis and we shall try to take corrective action,” Bansal said.

This will basically streamline the complaint recording system, which had somewhat destabilised after the catering job moved from the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation to Railway zones.


Also, be sure to ask for a receipt in case you are ordering food in mail and express trains, where the food bill is not a part of the ticket fare. The move is expected to prevent over-billing. In trains such as Rajdhanis and Shatabdis, the food bill is included in the fare.


“The Ministry will be looking at the quantity of food to be provided. There is no point in flooding passengers with food, which then goes waste. All food served is anyway billed to passengers,” Bansal said.

He added that the tariffs may be revised, but added that the Railways’ job should not be to make money out of catering.

He added that 30 lakh bottled water of a litre each are consumed in the Railways system every day.

Rail Neer plants have a capacity of three lakh bottles a day, with another three lakh slated to be added.

CCI rejects complaint against Railway Ministry

Observing that there is no “prima facie case”, fair trade regulator the Competition Commission of India ( CCI) has rejected a complaint alleging the Railway Ministry was abusing dominant position by charging different rates for transporting commodities.

The complaint, filed against the Railway Ministry and the Railway Board, had alleged that transportation charges were based on end use of commodities.

The CCI, in its order on December 13, said there was no evidence of violation of Competition Act.

“…In the absence of any prima facie case of violations of the provisions of the [Competition] Act, being made out on the basis of available material, the Commission is of the view that no interference is warranted by the Commission in this case,” it said.

As per the norms, the Railway Ministry and the Railway Board have the right to reclassify and revise the rates of commodities transported by railways in India.

“… The Commission is of the view that in exercise of its function of re-classification and revision of rates/freight no prima facie violation of the provisions of the [Competition] Act has been established,” CCI said.

Further, the regulator noted that the complainant — Mineral Enterprises — has not clearly defined the relevant market related to the case.

Mineral Enterprises, engaged in mining and exporting iron ore, alleged that the Railway Board has re-classified charges for transporting iron ore on the basis of its end use, resulting in different freights rates.

However, in a dissenting order, CCI member R Prasad said that prima facie, it can be concluded that unfair and discriminatory levy imposed by the Railways based on end use was affecting competition in the sector in an adverse manner.

Noting that there are no other operators in the railway services market or the railway freight market, Prasad said there is no doubt about the dominance of the Indian railways in this market.

“In fact in the market of rail freight services there is no substitutability and interchangeability with any other service,” Prasad said.

Railway modernization, safety will need Rs 660,000 crore

The modernization and safety of Indian Railways will require Rs.660,000 crore ($120 billion), parliament was told Friday.

The Expert Group for Modernization of Indian Railways has indicated that modernization would need Rs.560,000 crore over the 12th and 13th Five Year Plans, Railway Minister P.K. Bansal said.

The High Level Safety Review Committee has indicated an investment requirement of Rs.100,000 crore over a period of five years, Bansal told the Rajya Sabha.

While the modernization group was headed by Sam Pitroda, the safety committee was chaired by Anil Kakodkar.

The minister said the recommendations of both the panels were under examination in the railway ministry.

“The actual requirement of resources for modernization and safety would depend on the recommendations accepted by the government,” he said.

Published in: on December 15, 2012 at 8:58 am  Leave a Comment  
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