A jump in passenger earnings, slowdown in freight, sustained capex, and safety concerns sum up the performance of Indian Railways during financial year 2023-24 (FY24). 

At ₹73,000 crore, passenger earnings grew beyond a healthy 15 per cent from ₹63,000 in FY23. The number of passengers grew from 6.4 billion to 6.8 billion. The number of passengers and revenue could have been higher but for the railways’ inability to absorb waiting lists in popular trains. 

Freight earnings, at ₹1.69 lakh crore, have grown by less than 5 per cent from ₹1.63 lakh crore in FY23. Even the originating loading (freight loaded in a financial year), at 1,580 million tonnes (mt), is not much of an improvement over 1,508 mt in FY23 and far short of the targeted 3,000-mt mark in five years. This performance is certainly inconsistent with an economy growing at over 7 per cent and calls for course correction.

The projected capex for FY25, at ₹2.55 lakh crore, exceeds the capex of ₹2.4 lakh crore for FY24. The capex has been more than adequate over the past few years, consistently outstripping the pace of execution. While the targeted network expansion is being achieved, other areas give rise to concern. 

Kashmir rail connectivity, the last but vital lag of the western dedicated freight corridor that will provide connectivity with JNPT port, needs to be completed early.

Similarly, the deployment of the anti-collision technology KAVACH has been slow, with media reports still focused on successful trials rather than coverage of new routes.

Diesel savings

On the positive side, energy expenditure for traction has been decreasing despite the incremental increase in traffic, thanks to a sharp drop in diesel consumption with more than 90 per cent of routes electrified. This has also insulated the railways from the vagaries of pricing and availability of imported crude oil.

All is not rosy on the rolling stock front, however, with recent media reports about the cancellation of a mega tender for producing aluminium rakes for Vande Bharat trains.

Similarly, the production of Vande Bharat trains and locomotives under mega tenders awarded during the previous financial year has not commenced yet. 

The production of wagons is far short of requirement, with private organisations barred from placing orders with domestic wagon manufacturers until railway orders have been fulfilled. 

The railways is still dependent on imports for ‘forged’ wheel sets.

Staff rationalisation

The expenditure on staff salary, allowances and pension liabilities consumes over 70 per cent of railway earnings from core operations. Staff cuts are needed in non-core areas. 

Train crew are reportedly stabling trains en route on completing their duty hours. One of the reasons for this is the slowing down of trains after the resumption of the passenger trains that were discontinued due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Another reason for cutting the maximum permissible speeds of freight trains are the recurring troubles with the brake system and the blocking of traffic to carry out infrastructure works.

Indian Railways must accelerate the pace of infrastructure augmentation, improve safety, and increase speeds. Hopefully, these issues will receive better attention in the full budget presented by the new government in July.

(The writer is retired General Manager, East Central Railway. Views expressed are personal)