Central Railway, the zone which runs the country’s most used suburban network in Mumbai city, has just about broken even this fiscal. A zone from where Railways in India started on April 16, 1853 (Great Indian Peninsular Railway as it was then called), Central Railway has come a long way in addressing the travel needs of a city teeming with people. It runs 1,618 services carrying 42 lakh passengers each day on its suburban network.

In an exclusive interview to BusinessLine , Sunil Kumar Sood, the soft-spoken General Manager of Central Railway, spoke on various issues such as improving punctuality in train operations, death on tracks, DC/AC conversion and new projects, among other things. Edited excerpts:

What are the challenges in terms of generating revenue and reviewing costs?

We operate at less than 11 paise a kilometre and pay our motormen about ₹1.5 lakh a month. Take the case of private metro railway where the fares are about ₹10-11 per km and the motormen paid about ₹15,000-20,000 a month. Their system is advanced. However, it has resulted in a man-made stampede on Indian Railways (IR). IR demands more maintenance.

In other suburban networks, the number of deaths on rail tracks is a quarter of that in Mumbai. The crowd in, say, Kolkata is distributed between metro and buses. However, no private bus operator will develop in Mumbai because of 11 paise per km that IR offers. It will be great if running of mela specials is left to the respective zones.

What initiatives are you taking to reduce the cost of maintenance – for tracks, bridges, rolling stock, locos, over head equipment, signalling assets – without compromising on safety?

The fact is we have to pump in more money. Sixty-five paise of every rupee earned by Railways go to the employees on a cost-to-company basis. Twenty paise are fuel cost, 8 paise the dividend payout to the Centre and with the remaining seven paise we have to do maintenance, procure materials and machines.

We are cannibalising material (fitting the parts on the coach of an incoming train onto an outgoing train) and this is labour-intensive. Money will come only by an increase in fares. There is resistance to fare hikes.

What projects are likely to be up and running this fiscal?

We have done heavy-duty flooring of goods sheds in Satara and Pune using discarded concrete sleepers kept upside down to level the goods shed. No cement is used. This would be done to all goods sheds on CR (about 25-30 of them) and it will last for at least 30-40 years. We are concentrating on enhancing traffic facilities third line, fourth line and doubling.

We are also planning to do away with pantry cars in trains. Instead, we are planning to provide two mini pantries in each coach besides adjusting the size of toilets by putting four toilets in the space of two. These pantries would be given to vendors of e-catering for servicing their clientele and will unlock one coach per load.

What precautions are you taking to prevent a repeat of Itarsi fire on the Central Railway’s jurisdiction?

We have taken two-pronged action. In the short term, all false ceilings have been removed in RRI cabins. All cable trays have been made visible. We have done away with window ACs. Only split or centralised air-conditioning is in use to ensure that the AC units are at a safe distance.

All electrical switches and boards are outside the building. We have installed fire alarms that can detect any temperature increase and smoke.

As a long-term measure, we have asked S&T to design route relay inter-locking cabin (RRIs) in a modular fashion. It will consist of 10-12 modules of electrical relays which will be repeated in various RRIs. Maybe 20 such sets will be able to replicate the whole RRI.

What are you doing to ensure that one of India’s oldest trains – the Howrah-Mumbai Mail via Allahabad – regains its punctuality? Are number of rakes, an issue?

More number of tracks is the answer as this train traverses through some of India’s most congested routes. We will try to make up by up to 2-3 hours and absorb up to 90 per cent of lost time by deploying double the manpower required for turnaround of the rake.

Will you be able to augment capacity by lengthening rakes?

Introduction of 26 coach trains will involve yard modification about ₹50 crore per yard and many other works which go hand in hand for which a thorough estimation in monetary terms is yet to be done. Right now, there is no action point to go for it.