Indian Railways: The Need for Speed…And Much More!

Mumbai’s Elphinstone Station last week witnessed the tragic death of over 22 people when over-crowding turned into a stampede on its narrow foot bridge. On August 23rd, 10 coaches of Kaifiyat Express derailed in Uttar Pradesh, injuring over 20 people. This was only days after 22 people were killed in the Kalinga Utkal Express derailment in the same state. More than 800 rail accidents have been registered in the past 6 years. These appalling figures are suggestive of the pitiable condition of a mammoth system. With the new Railways Minister settling down in concurrence with the launch of a $14.7bn high-speed rail project between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, it becomes more pertinent than ever to probe the dismal condition of the slothful behemoth known as the Indian Railways (IR).

This is not a piece against the bullet train project. Yes, no doubt the Railways has more pressing issues, but progress in the real world mostly proceeds in parallel rather than as a sequence. It is sincerely hoped that the glitz and excitement of the high-speed rail project does not take the government’s attention away from some fundamental safety issues one has attempted to elucidate.

165 years have progressed since the commencement of the IR in April, 1853. With a route length spanning across 63,028 km, the network serves over 37,840 passenger vehicles and 222,147 freight wagons. Plying over 13 million passengers every day and supporting a workforce of 1.54 million, the IR has metamorphosed into one of the world’s largest railway systems. More than a century and a half later, railways remains an essential carrier choice for both passengers and freight in India, owing to its economical fares and last-mile connectivity.

However, the IR fails miserably to match up to its colonial glory. Plagued by underinvestment, the IR system is grappling with poor infrastructure, over-saturated lines and obsolete signalling systems. The over-burdened colonial-era system trails far behind in terms of advancing modern technology.

Underinvestment and lack of funds remain the principal hindrance to modernisation. Breaking a century old tradition, this year the Rail Budget was announced as part of the Union Budget. The merger anticipated a greater focus on funding, while providing considerable relief from the burden of annual dividend pay-outs (estimated at c. INR10,000cr annually) in exchange for gross budgetary support from the government.

IR clocked a revenue of INR165,068cr in 2016–17. Of this, while passenger and freight revenue accounted for 28% and 63% of the pie respectively, non-fare revenue contributed merely c. 6.2%. In an attempt to reduce its dependence on fare based revenues, the Ministry of Railways intermittently adopts piecemeal initiatives encouraging other sources, including monetisation of vacant land, installation of advertising hoardings and billboards, branding of trains, and setting up of ATMs at platforms. According to the Ministry, the new policy will increase the non-fare revenue of the IR by around INR16,500cr in the next ten years. Additionally, the IR is set to adopt a reverse bidding process for high-value items like rolling stock parts, track equipment and cement, which is likely to reduce their procurement expenditure. Furthermore, digitisation of processes like tenders roll-outs, auctions, bill submissions and payments have been suggested at various times, not only increase supply chain efficiencies but also to insure seamless flow of finances.

According to a PhillipCapital India October, 2016 report, IR has as much as $65bn worth of pending projects with almost half of them under construction for more than five years, leading to cost-escalations and making many of them un-bankable. Of these 83% are construction related — new lines, doubling and gauge conversion — while the rest are related to road safety, signalling, and investments. The numbers are reminiscent of everything that is wrong with the enterprise.

The maximum number of accidents have occurred due to derailment of train coaches. Despite several steps being taken by the Ministry to prevent accidents, basic deficiencies in maintenance remain. There have been many long-pending technology upgradation plans such as the installation of Train Collision Avoidance Systems or the Train Protection Warning System which have not been taken forward in line with the requirement. Pilot projects for new technologies like condition-based monitoring system for rolling stock and Track and Ultrasonic Broken Rail Detection System are being introduced in a limited section. Most of the tracks are to date inspected by gangmen, manually fixing faults such as a loose key, a missing fishplate or a missing nut and raising an alert in case of a fracture. Even in areas where the Ultrasonic Flaw Detection System (USFD) technology has been deployed, it is based on a dated technology which tests tracks at a rate of 5 km a day. India has much to learn from international precedents who carry out real-time track diagnostics through a vehicle-borne USFD — a faster and more efficient alternative whose minimum potential speed of testing is around 40 km per hour. The railways should completely switch to the Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches that do not witness higher casualties in case of derailments as the coaches do not pile upon each other.

The security arrangements at rail premises are also in deplorable conditions. Only a handful of stations have an integrated security system (ISS) — comprising CCTV, baggage checking devices, door frame metal detectors, dog squad and adequate railway police force deployment at essential spots crucial for fool-proof security. INR500cr from the Nirbhaya fund has been allocated for installing CCTV cameras at 983 stations. While the number sounds impressive, it is noteworthy to consider that India has over 7,000 stations across the country. The New Delhi station, which has 16 platforms and handles about 300 trains and 5 lakh passengers every day is guarded by just three dogs. Unmanned level crossings continue to be the biggest cause of casualties.

However, despite the Ministry’s supposed intention to turnaround the situation, the steps have clearly not percolated to the ground level. In an interview with The Economic Times this week, the new Railway Minister Piyush Goyal elaborated on his plans to eliminate all unmanned level crossings in a year, introduce safer LHB coaches, redevelop stations, electrify tracks and revive non-fare revenues. However, in a sector of such formidable scale, announcements like these are meaningless without political will and solid implementation. Cynicism amongst polity comes easy as these issues are not new. Infact most can be found in the Sam Pitroda Committee Report on Railway Modernisation which came in 2012. It seems the requisite to-do list was lost in the sea of tweets with complaints and suggestions on inadequate cleaning in coach washrooms. Well, here are our two cents.

By Stuti Tripathi, English graduate with specialisation in Gender Studies and Simi Sebastian, Research Associate, Transfin

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