A multi-track approach to railway reform

Raghu Dayal | Updated on March 09, 2018

Serpentine journey Better planning can make a diference   -  KK Mustafah

The Railways needs to get smart and efficient by rationalising fares and routes. Unmet demand for rail will remain high

The erstwhile Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu in his 2016-17 Rail Budget speech held out hopes of time-tabled freight trains running with credible service guarantees; reserved accommodation on passenger trains available on demand; average speed of freight trains to rise to 50 km/h (from less than 24 km/h now) and of Mail/Express trains to 80 km/h (from around 60 km/h); semi-high speed trains running along the golden quadrilateral; high-end technology to significantly improve safety. A three-year report card would show none of the boxes ticked. IR is nowhere near redeeming the assurances.

IR’s 7,000 trains carry three million tonnes of freight daily over an average distance of 620 km, sustaining its agriculture, industry and commerce; another 13,000 passenger trains transport 23 million travellers every day, knitting the country together. Although freight business has been crucial for IR’s financial health, it is passenger segment that directly impacts popular perception.

Slow progress

The countrywide scramble for train accommodation signifies an endemic shortage of supply. IR’s seven high-density corridors stretched over 10,500 km remain clogged; its stations and maintenance wherewithal over-stretched; train speeds remain low; and services far less than satisfactory. Passengers face hassles of ticketing, irksome access to large stations, unhygienic and unkempt platforms and coaches and unpunctual trains. Worse, unhygienic food cooked in dirty premises and filthy blankets for AC passengers.

Passenger business has been a big drag on railways’ finances. Each passenger train incurs a loss of as much as ₹487 (in 2015-16) per km. Railways traverses a perilous, route — often hiking freight charges and upper class, mostly AC, passenger fares. High freight charges have adversely impacted its business. With low cost air carriers looming large, it must refrain from raising AC train fares.

As it is, upper class segment aggregates just 145 million journeys in a year, only 1.8 per cent of IR’s overall riderships, but contribute more than 31 per cent (₹13,756 crore, in 2015-16) of total passenger earnings. The ordinary second class segment is the major culprit: class II ordinary rail ticket at 20 paise per km costs less than one-fourth of the bus fare.

IR needs to keep its strategy for passenger business simple, to make a perceptible difference in pre-board facilities (booking and reservation, clean station platforms, uncluttered with parcels, vendors or kiosks) and on-board amenities (clean coaches and toilets, good food, besides trains running on time).

It appears feasible to reduce travel time on selected routes straightaway by rationalising halts and easing some speed restrictions, and, say, in a year or so, saving substantial time by improving track curves and turn-outs. Unmanned level crossings can be replaced by overpasses, fencing vulnerable locations, and providing cab signalling, also for automatic train protection. Some trains can run end-to-end with minimum intermediate halts.

Losing proposition

IR’s ‘A’ routes (14,000 track km track structure of 60 kg UIC rails, 1660 sleeper density, 300 mm ballast cushion), among the five groups ‘A’ to ‘E’ in which its network is classified on basis of maximum permissible speeds, supports 160 km/h operation. The category ‘A’ tracks include Delhi-Howrah (Kolkata), Delhi-Mumbai Central, Delhi-Chennai Central, and Howrah (Kolkata)-Nagpur-Mumbai CST. The routes for enhanced speeds up to 160 km/h, in the interim, later to 200 km/h on commissioning of exclusive freight corridors hopefully by 2019-20, will, inter alia, include the 500 km Chennai-Bengaluru-Mysore route studied by a Chinese team and the 1,400 km Delhi-Mumbai corridor recommended by Japanese experts at speeds up to 160 km/h (like the Gatimaan on 200 km Delhi-Agra route).

Strangely, IR has now felt jolted at the ‘discovery’ that it is fast losing its passenger business to buses and airlines. The number of air passengers, which constituted just about 1 per cent of ‘upper’ class rail passengers in 1950-51, now exceeds 75 per cent, and is poised to surpass the rail share sooner than 2020.

Total rail riderships in 2016-17 was 8,219 million, a mere 0.84 per cent more than in 2015-16. As NHDP’s golden quadrilateral network progresses, high-capacity vehicles cover inter-city distances, posing a formidable challenge to IR. Again, in the context of UDAAN riding on the 2016 National Civil Aviation Policy, airlines are weaning away IR’s upper class medium and long haul travellers.

There is no dearth of demand for rail travel. Future mobility trends indicate that, by 2020-21, Indians will travel on average thrice as much as they travelled in 2000-01. In 2016-17, airlines carried 6.73 million passengers, or about 10,000 per day in each direction, between Delhi and Mumbai. With an appropriate product, say, 12 hour journey, AC II/III tickets not costlier than of budget airlines, and hygienic standardised food, Rajdhani type trains can legitimately target half of these numbers. That would imply at least five Rajdhanis running daily each way for clearing just the through passengers between Delhi and Mumbai.

Getting on reform track

IR operates a daily average of 13,300 passenger trains — including about 3,500 long-distance inter-city mail and express services, 4,700 short-distance stopping ‘regional’ trains, besides around 5,100 sub-urban ‘locals’, mostly in Mumbai and Kolkata.

The ‘regional’ services cause maximum loss in passenger. An autonomous corporate entity, under IR umbrella, will effectively manage ‘regional’ and ‘local’ rail services, and better coordinate with respective States,for multi-modal transport, especially where rail services make no sense, economically and rationally.

As IR sincerely needs to view itself essentially as a commercial entity, pricing its passenger services rationally, it may run a few additional long-distance trains on some highly under-served popular route(s) for all intending passengers to get confirmed accommodation on demand. It may well mean good economics as much as good politics. Another important aspect IR needs to address on priority is to provide additional terminal facilities, including for maintenance of train sets, for major metros.

After undergoing some serious pain, passenger traffic on British Rail has risen since 1995, aided by technological improvements in infrastructure and rolling stock, on-time runs, easier ticketing, friendly tariffs, and enhanced ambience of train travel. Chinese Railways separated passenger and freight businesses, increased service speeds, cut train halts, raised passenger fares, effectively discouraged short-distance passengers, and drastically reduced travel times.

Already with world’s largest ‘bullet’ train network of some 22,000 route km, and few of world’s best rail stations akin to airports, China Rail clocked 1,196 billion passenger km in 2015, overtaking IR which recorded 1,147 billion pkm in 2014-15.

The writer is the former CMD of Concor

Published on November 01, 2017

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