The growth, evolution and floundering of Indian Railways

From the construction of the first railroad in India that began in 1850, and the first train that was run on April 16, 1853 from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Thana (Thane), to the unimaginable growth of the railway network, the country’s biggest Public Sector Undertaking has come a long way. But at every stage in its evolution, Indian Railways have faced a new set of problems and raised fresh controversies.

Whatever those problems or issues that confront the system there can be no gainsaying the fact that it remains a showpiece within the country and outside. Never mind the upkeep of the assets or rolling stock, along with China and Russia, the Indian Railways top the list of being the largest network. Carrying well over a million passengers every day and moving about 1,000 million tonnes of freight per year, the very fact that the operations have continued for over a century and a half stands testimony to the strength of the systems.

Largest employer

In terms of employment generation, the Railways provide jobs to about 15 million people, not to talk about the indirect employment. Long before the government of India took up the massive National Highways expansion and upgradation programme, the Railways virtually connected every corner of the country and put in place an effective and efficient network to move people and goods across the country.

When the British decided to launch a railway system and network, the objective was entirely different — to maximise political and commercial advantages along specific routes and to provide for both administrative convenience as well as holidaying. But today the norms are different. In addition to expanding the existing network and providing better connectivity, the focus has been on offering more comfort, greater speed, and modernisation of the systems.

The Railways now have a complex system of suburban systems, the Metro rails, the zonal railways, inter-city trains, and the long distance expresses, not to mention the slower intra-regional passenger trains.

From the time of Independence, successive Railway Ministers have done their bit to expand and modernise the systems. From an entirely metre gauge system, it went on to broad gauge as well to gain speed. Finally, it was decided to adopt a unigauge system for easy travel and connections. From coal-fired locomotives, it moved to diesel and then a massive electrification through an overhead electric traction.


Now, the Railways have moved on to super-fast trains, the Rajdhanis and Durantos. Of course, they have not yet reached the age of bullet trains or the special elevated corridors. Plans are being firmed up for these special corridors and semi-bullet kind of inter-city trains. But that will take time.

The Ministry controls the whole show, but the Railway Board takes care of the day-to-day operations. This is the only PSU that has a budget of its own. Like the general budget presented annually to Parliament by the Finance Minister, there is a Railway budget presented by its Minister every year.

The Ministry also has a few smaller undertakings related to the Railways — the Indian Railway Construction company or IRCON, the Container Corporation of India or CONCOR, the Rail India Technical and Economic Services or RITES, IRFC, CRIS, and the IRCTC that handles the catering and the online booking system. The Indian Railways have planned joint ventures to take up the massive Western and Eastern Corridors that will link New Delhi with Mumbai and Kolkata respectively. Several manufacturing units such as the Integral Coach Factory, the Rail Coach Factory, the locomotives units and several other such units like the Wheel and Axle plant, come under the Railways too.

The challenges

It must be to Nitish Kumar’s credit that an objective and professional White Paper was presented to Parliament under the NDA regime. That was when the Railways seriously introspected and identified avenues to save precious resources and invest wisely on projects. But the decisions taken during his tenure paid dividends when his successor Lalu Prasad took over and he cornered much of the credit for the now famous turnaround in its fortunes. The State Governments had to share costs for all new projects and metro rails to ease the burden. Even then, there has been a marked downslide in the Railways, which the present incumbent, Mr. Bansal, is trying to reverse.

The Railways have to become lean and mean, competitive and efficient. The operating ratio, now almost 90, has to come back to below the 80 level. Second, they have to compete with the airlines for one segment of passengers, and with road transport for the movement of goods. Third, despite talking about the potential for private sector participation for years, the Railways have not managed to attract private investments, mainly because they have not been able to spell out a clear policy. Given the need for such massive doses of investment, it is about time that the Ministry and the Board sit with the private sector to make it attractive for PPPs.

Railways invites states to share costs of rail projects

A cash strapped Railways, has given a “standing invitation” to all states to share costs of Rail projects which states may consider “essential” but which the Railways considers “unremunerative”. Bansal who was bombarded with questions in the Rajya Sabha over the inordinate delay in completion of Railway projects, first reminded MPs over the “vociferous demands” made by them for new projects and how it was financially difficult for the Railways to cope up with them and deliver results. A frank Railways minister thereafter praised Opposition ruled Karnataka for coming forward and sharing the cost of Rail projects with the Centre. The minister then urged that states “should bear the cost of land and 50 per cent of the total cost of construction.”

Interestingly, Congress has taken charge of the Railways portfolio after a long period of 16 years. A fact that Samajwadi Party MP, Naresh Aggarwal stated while congratulating the new Railway minister saying “after a long time of captivity (the ministry) has finally been unshackled”, in an obvious hint to the ministry having become a hostage to the whims of political parties and coalition partners like the TMC and prior to that the RJD.

Pawan Bansal, who appears to have already started taking stock of pending rail projects and how to expedite them, then added that he had already “written a good many letters to some of the Chief Ministers, requesting them that in such cases, they should bear the cost of land and 50 per cent of the total cost construction.” In a recent step, Haryana had come forward for offering to share the cost of one project. Taking this cue, Bansal went onto to urge Congress ruled Rajasthan to follow Haryana’s example. Responding to the repeated complaints by an MP from the state, Bansal in turn urged him to “persuade the Government of Rajasthan to share the cost that way.”

A prudent Rail minister sensing the political compulsions of state governments for whom certain local projects assume immense significance but which translate into little financial viability or commercial logic for the Railways ministry, seems to have found a mid path between the two.

His proposal urging states to come on board and bear the cost of land and 50 per cent of the costs, would thereby help in meeting both the needs of the state government as well as of the cash strapped ministry.
The Railways at present requires Rs 1,47,187 crore for 347 projects under three categories — new lines, gauge conversion and doubling according to the minister.

Break-down trains to be kept ready for fire emergencies

In the wake of spurt in cases of trains catching fire, the railways has decided to equip its break-down trains with fire-fighting equipment to meet emergency situations before fire tenders from Department of Fire and Emergency Services reach accident spots.

This plan is likely to be put into operation within eight months, and the railways is working out the cost of equipment and procurement procedure. According to officials, break-down trains will be fitted with four to five pumps, will have arrangements to store sufficient water and long pipes, and they will be stationed at important railway stations.

At present, five kg portable fire extinguishers are available in air-conditioned coaches, guards’ cabins, pantry cars and with locomotive pilots. Normally, each train will have at least 8-10 portable fire extinguishers to douse small-scale fires. But, they may not be effective if there is a major accident such as the one that occurred near Nellore on Monday.

Earlier, the railways had a separate fire service at all important stations. However, it was dismantled 10 years ago following directions from Railway Board which cited cost factor.

Since then, the railways is depending on respective state fire and emergency services department for assistance during emergencies. About the fire safety measures at Bangalore Railway Station, A K Agarwal, Divisional Railway Manager, Bangalore, said the station was fully equipped with fire safety measures to deal with any eventuality. All departments in administrative block had portable fire extinguishers, but they were depending on the state Department of Fire and Emergency Services to put out major fire, he said.

Agarwal said every platform had pipeline with round-the-clock water supply. Fire alarms were installed on all platforms to alert passengers of any emergency, and staff were available all the time to evacuate stranded passengers, he added.

The DRM said fire tenders hardly require five minutes to reach the administrative block and platforms from the fire station on Seshadri Road. Since all the roads around the station were busy all the time, there was a special entrance from the cargo section for easy accessibility to all platforms, he added.

RPF might be separated from railways

The Railway Protection Force ( RPF) is likely to be separated from the railways, and some plans are afoot in this regard.

While RPF sources said IB has given some reasons for it, it has not been decided when and how it will be done. But the RPF employees are apprehensive about it.

On some earlier occasions, although discussions on the issue were held, it is for first time when the question raised about separation of RPF from the railways, sources said.

If the IB report is implemented, the Central Government could take a decision to give responsibility of RPF to home ministry by year- end.

IB has raised several questions on the existence of RPF. Sources further said an association has been formed in RPF which is coming in the way of smooth working of the organisation.

Sources further said earlier an exercise was done to merge GRP with the district police but the state governments were opposed the proposal. As a result, the Central Government did not take any initiative towards this direction.

IB said the RPF staff was not properly trained to deal with the crimes taking place on trains.

During the last few years scenario of crime has changed but the RPF team has not changed.

IB further said even after several efforts, the trains and passengers are not safe. Working pattern of GRP has also been mentioned in the proposal. It was said that as two police forces work in the railways, they try to put the blame on each other, sources added. So, proper investigation of crimes could not be done and neither GRP, nor RPF take the responsibility for any crime.

RPF was given status of semi- military force on September 20, 1985 and ever since then it has been working to the status.

Published in: on July 21, 2012 at 4:01 pm  Comments (1)  
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