Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Putting railways on track for 2047

The Railways, before 2047, would have all common travellers in AC coaches, somewhat cramped, but provided with basic amenities at a price at least 30% lower than the present AC 3 tariff

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Indian Railways (IR) in 2047! I am conscious that what I visualise should not sound like a dream and it must be backed up by a vision and an action plan, lest it may turn out to be only a fantasy, or worse, a nightmare. My range of views, which I would like to see in my lifetime and therefore even before 2047, must be well within the realm of possibility, albeit requiring firm resolve and commitment by the stakeholders.

The Indian Railways has had a plethora of vision documents over the decades which are remembered more for non-fulfillment than for tractability, all prepared with some fanfare with an aim to develop it as a world-class system while catering to the demand of passenger and freight transportation and complimenting the economic development of the country. The latest one, the National Rail Plan (NRP), with 2050 as the horizon, brings out many projections and numbers. One hopes it succeeds more in compliance than in omission. I will, however, try to moot a vision without much stress on numbers, which, at times, obfuscate the issues.

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“WAPCOS is the official sponsor of PSU Watch’s Special Initiative India At 2047 Series”

A recent report by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) declared that India, with its bulging working age population, inter alia, could transform into a US$ 40 trillion economy by 2047, the 100th anniversary of independence, from around US$ 3 trillion today. It appears to be a long shot as it is predicated on a consistent 11 percent growth over 25 years. An optimistic but reasonable projection should be for India to be the third-biggest economy in the world, after US and China, and if we grow consistently between 7 to 9 percent per year, we can top US$ 20 trillion. Another hopeful number is our population which should stabilise at around 1.6 billion before 2047.

The inflation rate for consumer prices has varied widely from 1960 to 2021, with the average being around 7 percent per year. If this is regulated well through appropriate policy initiatives, which has been done in many good years, the GDP per capita in India can rise to three to four times what it is today in real terms. One can easily picture the impact it would have on poverty alleviation and the spending capability of the common man. This is where my vision of IR in 2047 would begin.

AC coaches for all travellers

Would the common aspirational Indians travel like they do it today in lower classes, at times packed like sardines with practically no amenities? Absolutely not. It, therefore, follows that a roadmap for passenger travel on IR must envisage everyone, down to the poorest migrant labourer, travelling in air-conditioned comfort and it must happen before 2047. Even today, many medium-income level countries run only AC trains and it makes obvious sense in India due to our largely very warm climate. Since the life of a passenger coach is 30 to 36 years, this is the time to decide or else we would be saddled with a large number of non-AC coaches with residual life but of no use.

The railways recently introduced the AC Economy coach which has 83 berths vis-à-vis 72 in regular AC three-tier (AC 3) coach, with 8 percent lesser fare. The IR had made an equivocal announcement earlier that non-AC coaches would be replaced with AC ones in every mail/express train. But is that happening? More than a thousand non-AC coaches would still be manufactured in 2022-23. IR has to catch the bull by the horn and totally discontinue the manufacturing of non-AC coaches. There is a bogus discourse that the railways is working for the higher-income groups, sacrificing the interest of the common man. The truth in this common man versus privileged class debate lies somewhere in between as neither the common men nor the privileged ones are happy. Why publicise this coach for luxury and not for its simple comfort?

For the railways, only AC 3 and Chair Car travels are remunerative, whereas the AC 2 and AC 1 tickets do not cover the cost, so, in a way, are subsidised

The IR, before 2047, would have all common travellers in AC coaches, designed to accommodate nearly 100 in Sleeper and 120 in sitting coaches, somewhat cramped, but provided with basic amenities at a price at least 30 percent lower than the present AC 3 tariff in real terms. So, would it affect IR’s finances drastically? No, because the higher-end travellers would mostly travel in trainsets, both Sleeper and Chair Car versions, zipping around major cities at speeds around 200 kmph and they would gladly pay rates roughly 20 percent higher than the respective AC fares today in real terms. This would set right the dichotomy of unnecessary favours to higher-end travellers today — for the railways, only AC 3 and Chair Car travels are remunerative, whereas the AC 2 and AC 1 tickets do not cover the cost, so, in a way, are subsidised!

But the higher-end passengers too would not be getting a raw deal. In any case, for a privileged clientele, which has to choose between air and train travel, Vande Bharat-equivalent trains with their reduced travel time and better comfort are the answer. These trains are good for 160 kmph today and in 25 years, the infrastructure and the trains themselves can easily be upgraded to 200 kmph speed. These trains have, as it is, proved to be profitable with very high occupancy. A win-win for IR in terms of revenues and for passengers who get a more comfortable alternative to air travel.

Even the short-distance Electrical Multiple Unit (EMU) commuter services would also employ only AC coaches, like Metro coaches which are fully air-conditioned. And a beginning has been made in Mumbai. This would require that all the suburban and commuter services be synergised and gradually made a responsibility of the local city bodies, instead of the Railways carrying the burden of heavy subsidies. In any case, the fares should be made commensurate with Metro fares. With the increasing spending power of people, this is absolutely doable as commuters are accustomed to paying higher fares as compared to IR’s suburban services. The decision may be a little unpopular but if this switchover is planned over a long time, say, 15 years, it will not cost any government much antagonism amongst the masses. The bullet would have been bitten and everyone would be happy by the end of this time period.

High-speed rail travel

Many intercity Rapid Rail Transit Systems (RRTS) are proposed in the country. Since train sets are the future for inter-city travel, the development of RRTS cannot be kept separate from IR otherwise they would keep going with their elitist way of acquiring train sets designed abroad by multinationals. Genuine Atmanirbharta has to play out in this field and the Ministries of Railways and Urban Affairs should work together to help make Indian companies a global powerhouse for trains. Even if RRTS continue as independent entities, the type of trains deployed and their fare structure must be aligned with what the Railways does in the segment.

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High-speed rail (HSR) travel, including a new disruptive technology like MagLav or Hyperloop, cannot be lost sight of. It is quite feasible that in spite of the hiccups we have faced during the first HSR between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, all the important cities of the country would be connected with HSR, or a new type of train like Hyperloop, independent of IR, like Delhi-Lucknow-Varanasi-Patna-Kolkata-Bhubneshwar-Vizag-Chennai-Bangalore-Hyderabad-Nagpur-Mumbai-Jaipur-Bhopal-Delhi etc. The time has come for India to assume leadership in some spheres of the sector. So, why not Hyperloop which is still nascent everywhere? In any case, HSR is the best option from the standpoint of environment-friendliness. A clientele ready to pay close to air fares would certainly emerge.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagging off the first Semi-High Speed Train,’Vande Bharat Express,’ from New Delhi Railway Station on February 15, 2019 (File photo)

Railways freight transportation

What about the freight transportation scenario? The railways has 26 percent share of the freight business, with the rest mainly dominated by roads. The Indian Railways will shed, or will be forced to shed, its historic focus and overdependence on the coal movement, which forms 49 percent of its commodity, as well as other bulk commodities. The market conditions or technology would certainly change in favour of non-bulk traffic. Non-bulk freight traffic comprises of packages of voluminous, perishables, and consumer goods which need time-bound, low-inventory door-to-door service, employing multimodal means. It is nearly half of the railways’ overall freight business today and its share is certain to grow up as the Indian economy grows. IR must work more strongly to develop rail infrastructure at both origin and destination and start working out novel solutions for multi-modal transportation and logistics interfaces with other modes of transport. It is good that this aspect has seen traction in recent years under PM-GatiShakti, a platform to bring concerned ministries, including IR, together for coordinated planning and implementation of infrastructure towards seamless connectivity and movement of goods from one mode to another. But a lot more needs to be done, and fast, to realise the vision of IR gaining market share, both in quality and quantity.

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The optics

Our thrust merely towards modern and speedier trains would be a waste without a commensurate improvement in stations as both are inseparably linked. Stations of IR must act as the gateways and symbols of cities, as they did when they were first built as world-class facilities at the time. For the last two decades, the mention of ‘world-class’ stations, mooted by successive governments, now evokes sardonic cynicism. And in spite of all the hype, the Railways has perhaps only three stations which it itself brackets as ‘world-class,’ viz, Byappanhalli, Gandhinagar and Habibganj!

It is all right to have a vision for the railways and the economy but a country which lacks empathy for those who toil away their blood, sweat and tears cannot hope to progress

We do need integrated development of our stations to be financially self-sustaining, but developing one like a shopping mall, a hotel or as we fashion it, an airport, cannot be a primary objective. We need stations to be functionally effective with a seamless experience for a traveller for entry and exit, embarking and disembarking, information and signages, orderly lack of crowding, pleasant waiting area and reasonable catering. If India of 2047 achieves this for its major 500 stations, it would be a good job done. If this is achieved with full exploitation of the commercial value of the land, including air space above platforms/tracks, in liaison with local urban bodies, it would be a bonus.

It is all right to have a vision for the railways and the economy but a country which lacks empathy for those who toil away their blood, sweat and tears cannot hope to progress.
The image and dignity of labour must improve in India by 2047, or rather much before that, and it cannot afford to have porters carrying head loads in 3 tier, poorly dressed labourers pushing a hand cart loaded haphazardly while shouting at passengers to clear out or Safai karmcharis doing their work in foul and grungy conditions. This may be dismissed as trivial by many but poor optics do a lot of damage to the perception of Railways’ professionalism. I dare say I speak from a vantage position here because I was able to transform all these aspects at Secunderabad and Bangalore and all it took was commitment and empathy. This almost medieval aspect of railway stations must be transformed early.

Private participation

Before I conclude, a word about Railways’ structure. The Indian Railways is a behemoth and that makes it inflexible. I would advocate assigning the operation of high-end trains to private players. Although a beginning was made in this regard in 2020, it was botched. This should be revived. But more importantly, for manufacturing, an optimum mix of public and private enterprise is required. There is no other developed railway system in the world with rolling stock manufacturing resting in the hands of the government. The process of corporatisation and privatisation must start. The process to bring IR’s seven production units (PUs) under one entity, a corporation tentatively called Indian Railways Rolling Stock Company, which the BJP government announced as part of its 100-day action plan on re-election in 2019, must be revived. Although the government succeeded in the corporatisation of Ordnance Factories, the same for IR PUs turned out to be more ticklish, perhaps due to political reasons. What is now notable is that all the rolling stock tenders invite private parties to build trains and locomotives inside PUs, employing partly the staff of these units. This is a long-term measure towards gradual privatisation without calling it so, perhaps an elegant way to infuse technology and increase private participation. So, I give my thumbs up to this.

It is time, now, to work with wisdom and devoir. We can, in 25 years, harness resources and excite young buoyant countrymen to give India a top-class railway system.

The author led the Train 18/Vande Bharat Express project, the first ever indigenous semi high-speed train in India, from concept to delivery. His journey in leading and completing this unique project is recounted in his best-seller book My Train 18 Story.

Disclaimer: This is an Op-ed article. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. PSU Watch does not endorse nor support views, opinions or conclusions drawn in this post and we are not responsible or liable for any content within the article or for any damage or loss caused by and in connection to it.

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