The Railway Minister, who talked just about everything germane to the efficient working of the railways, sadly did not even remotely refer to speed while presenting the rail budget 2013-14. Last year, on the contrary, Dinesh Trivedi, the then Railway Minister, not only spoke about speed but promised to run a few trains at 160 km per hour on a pilot basis.
At a leisurely 66 km per hour, Tamil Nadu Express plying between New Delhi and Chennai comes under the category of superfast trains. The same is the fate of numerous other trains which the railways audaciously describe as superfast. The Indian Railways can take pardonable pride in being the largest organisation and employer in the world, but seems to be caught in a time warp as far as speed is concerned, barring Shatabdi Express trains that do medium distances at a speed of 90-100 km per hour.
The reasons routinely trotted out for decades for running our trains at a lumbering average speed of less than 40 km per hour are unsuitability of the tracks to take on high-speed trains and lack of safety devices that inevitably are required while plying at a breakneck speed.
BENEFITS OF SPEED
Given the will, these impediments can be easily overcome without much expenditure. A speed of 160 kmph is not asking for the moon, given the fact that train from Tibet to Beijing runs at a speed of 345 kmph in difficult terrain. What it would mean is Delhi-Chennai can be commuted in less than 15 hours.
Restless youth want both Wi-Fi and speed provision of Wi-Fi on select trains would be welcomed by the minuscule net savvy segment of our rail travellers. But what they want is speed, so that they can reach their destinations faster.
Speed is not being insisted upon just as a fetish or to reduce the drudgery of long travel. It has many other important spin-offs. For freight trains, enhanced speed means greater ability on the part of Railways to take on competition from the more nimble-footed truckers, besides ensuring minimal losses for perishables.
Coming back to passenger trains, speed would have the effect of weaning away both wannabe and regular air travellers.
This would incidentally have the effect of reducing our fuel consumption, given the fact that aircrafts are fuel guzzlers and trains are energy-efficient in terms of consumption per passenger or kg. A spin-off of greater speed would be there would be that much less pressure on pantry cars and base kitchens.
Hike in fares
With passengers spending lesser time inside trains, the food consumption would also come down as indeed would the urge to relieve oneself, which would hopefully result in our toilets and tracks being that much more clean. While the passenger fares have not been increased generally, there is a proposal to hike the superfast surcharge, which would impact a large number of trains, given the rather liberal definition of the term obtaining in the Indian Railway lexicon.
No right-minded person grudges a reasonable fare hike from time to time, which indeed would be the norm in future with fares being made partially variable to accommodate the vicissitudes in fuel prices.
A beginning has already been made in this direction as far as freight is concerned by this Budget. The point is superfast trains must clock at least 100 kmph to deserve that appellation and the surcharge.
(The author is a New Delhi-based chartered accountant.)