The Indian Railways have been running some goods trains without guards during the night hours, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw said in the last session of Parliament. Trains without guards would be the end state of modernised railways. But the reality, as unearthed by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) after the Union Budget showed a surplus, is that the Railways are not left with the financial capacity to fill many of the three lakh vacant posts.
Since CAG reports come with a time lag, the last one for 2019-20 found that the Centre had left uncovered a loss of about Rs 35,000 crore in passenger operations. The claimed net surplus when Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Budget was Rs 1,589.62 crore. The impression was that while the Railways were on an all-out modernising spree, it managed to keep its head above water. Not so, says the CAG. The Railways would, in fact, have ended up with a negative balance of Rs 26,000 crore had the Rs 48,626 crore for pension payments been appropriated to the Pension Fund. Meanwhile, the Railways continue to get pushed deeper into debt — long-term loans jumped from Rs 2 lakh crore in 2018-19 toRs 2.68 lakh crore in 2019-20.
Forget semi high-speed trains, there is still no sign of completion of the Western and Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridors, a UPA initiative which preferred Japanese financing for these projects, rather than an offer for a Bullet Train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai. The corridors would have ensured that goods trains run as per time tables, enabling exporters and importers to accurately plan shipments and keep inventories down. But more important, by absorbing the lumbering goods traffic, these corridors would have left tracks free for faster trains. The two-hour Chandigarh-Delhi journey still remains a promise.
On the contrary, the Railways levy ‘superfast’ surcharges on 478 trains. But, the scheduled speed of a quarter of them was less than 55 kmph, and yet passengers continue to be charged more. ‘Mission Raftaar’ in 2016 promised to increase the speed of freight trains to 75 kmph in five years. But the average observed speed of freight trains is still around 25 kmph.
The station modernising saga — these would be ‘world class’ stations, we were told — is parked in the slow lane. Take the Ambala railway station. From Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar to the French, all have expressed their intentions to modernise one of the busiest stations in the Northern Railways. In 2017, an MoU was signed by the Railways and the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD). In 2018, Haryana set up a committee to expedite work on redevelopment of 13 railway stations in the state through the “Swiss Challenge method”. Apparently unaware of the Haryana initiative, France signed an MoU the same year to develop Ludhiana and Ambala railway stations as model stations. But in 2021, the Indian Railways Station Development Corporation, which was to oversee all this, was dissolved. It is now back to the drawing board.
As for the Vande Bharat trains, 400 train sets will now be ordered with inbuilt engines. Faced with this demand, railway production units are now paring the existing assembly line for making the LHB and ICF coaches. Apart from the fact that Vande Bharat train sets are four times more expensive than the existing rakes, what happens to the agreement with the US to manufacture more powerful electric engines? The return on equity of Railway PSUs has fallen from 9.17 per cent in 2017-18 to 7.53 per cent in 2019-20. With such improvisation underway, there are no guesses which way it is headed. And the main question remains unanswered: will the Railways not raise fares and absorb losses by introducing the more expensive Vande Bharat train sets? Or will it set market prices for sleeper trains, which are bound to be more expensive than airfare?
If future planning remains hazy despite a National Rail Plan 2030, some blame should be attributed to the musical chairs played in Rail Bhavan. In the past eight years, there have been four Ministers — Sadanand Gowda, Suresh Prabhu, Piyush Goyal and Ashwini Vaishnaw.
None could make a difference to the basics. Coal, iron ore and cements still contribute 63 per cent of the total freight revenue. The high freight rates on these captive commodities still help the Railways to cross-finance losses of over Rs 60,000 crore incurred on running passenger services.
Thanks to PM Modi’s accent on Swachh Bharat and bio-toilets, passengers waiting on platforms do not have to confront the hideous sight of overfed bandicoot rats darting between mounds of turds on tracks. But CAG found that the food the Railways serve is not fit for human consumption. Passengers would do well to avoid flavoured milk, juices, sandwiches and biscuits, to name a few. Purified water was not available at many stations. Coffee, tea and soups in 22 inspected trains were made from dirty water. Inspections in 14 depots revealed that no blanket had been dry-cleaned for two years. Surely, this was a legacy that could have been overturned in eight years.
And now, the government has dissolved several cadres of technically trained Railway officers, who did indulge in vicious infighting to the detriment of the organisation. But they had a certain culture of competence, which somehow kept the wheels rolling despite ministers of the ilk of Ram Vilas Paswan, Mamata Banerjee and Lalu Prasad Yadav, who did so much damage with their populism, as well as four of the Modi era during which they were at a loss about the broad direction.
As accountants say, the bottom line matters. The compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.1 per cent between 2012-13 and 2018-19 has now fallen to 5.9 per cent between 2018-19 and 2021-22. Is the Railways becoming more like a Potemkin village, where an impressive facade hid an undesirable condition?
At night, the hills of Garhwal reverberate with the noise of tunnel-boring machines as work continues 24 hours on the Rishikesh-Karnaprayag line. It is as much for pilgrimage to the Char Dham shrines as it is of geo-strategic importance since it will help faster troop movement to the China border. As is the case with the Bullet Train, this was also on the drawing board of the UPA. The Modi government imparted it momentum by roping in foreign experts and declaring it a project of national importance. Once complete, though grave doubts of environmental nature persist, it will cut the travel time between Rishikesh and Karnaprayag to four hours from the present 10-hour grind by road through steep gradients.
Sri Lanka by rail?
Nearly 58 years ago, one of the most powerful storms that struck India swept the Pamban-Dhanushkodi passenger train, its 200 passengers and chunks of the bridge’s girders into a raging sea, obliterating all traces within minutes. The Railways now plan to develop an 18-km-long line between Rameswaram and Dhanushkodi. Gradually, a link to Sri Lanka will be set in motion. The novelty for tourists and pilgrims who head for Sri Lanka is that they will no longer have to take the more expensive and time-consuming flights to Colombo.
Another colour will flash by
Most coaches are coloured blue. The next in numbers are red-coloured coaches, made in Kapurthala. Fanners have now started spotting more of white-coloured coaches. The blue ones are called Integral Coach Factory coaches and can travel up to 110 kmph. The red coaches are known as Linke Hofmann Busch, or LHB. Much sleeker, they can reach speeds of 160 kmph. They also do not telescope (stack on top of each other) in case of an accident. The 15,000 red LHB coaches and the 35,000 blue ICF coaches now have a companion in the Vande Bharat train sets, liveried in white. There are plans to introduce 400 Vande Bharat trains with a sleeper version. Currently, 102 Vande Bharat Express trains are chair cars.
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