Saturday, September 30, 2023

What Indian Railways Really Needs

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By Anang Pal Malik

Indian Railways intrigues both, the politicians and the public, alike. Almost every Minister for Railways soon after taking charge appoints a committee to study it, and public never seems to learn about it beyond the TTE (travelling ticket examiner) they chase for that elusive berth. Very few Indians outside Railway fraternity know that there is great organisation behind the TTE, that makes those berths possible.

Numerous committees after Independence have almost each suggested sweeping changes in the administrative set up, and have always seen their reports being thrown into dustbin. Ministers also soon reconcile to the fact that there is not much that can be done. For the simple reason that no committee has ever come close to even identifying the problem, and therefore their solutions are also not solutions, but paper exercises of men who come to be identified as “experts” by some hitherto unknown process.

Indian Railways so intrigues people because of its character. It is a business enterprise but run as a government department. Essentially, as far as administrative set up is concerned, there is no difference between Indian Railways and say, Public Works Department, or Indian Army. It is a business enterprise, but not registered as a company. This characteristic itself confuses both, the “experts” and the public alike. In fact, even the officers who manage it most of the time live under the false impression of running a business enterprise, use the lingo of business enterprise, but when they actually want to run it as a business enterprise discover that they are bound by the rules governing a government department, not a business enterprise.

In its essence, Indian Railways is headed by Railway Board, which also doubles as the secretariat, i.e. Ministry, for the Railway minister. Railway Board comprises a Chairman Railway Board, and Members who essentially are the heads of departments that manage different components of Railway business: Member Traffic is the head of operations and commercial functions; Member Engineering is the head of the branch that is in charge of track, bridges, and buildings; Member Mechanical is the head of the branch that is in charge of rolling stock, that is coaches, diesel locos, workshops for maintaining the same, and production units for manufacturing of the same; Member Electrical is similarly heads the branch that is in charge of electric locos, overhead equipment (OHE) that supplies electricity to the locos, electricity supply to Railway buildings and colonies, train lighting, and production units for the production of electric locos. Member Staff is the Human Resources head of the Railways, and Finance Commissioner is the controller of its finances and accounts. Railway Board is assisted by a huge army of officers stationed in the same building, and they are collectively called Railway Board in common parlance. Railway Board sets the broad policy for the Railways.

Day to day policy matters are managed by the Zonal units. Currently there are 16 Zones which manage day to day policy issues in their territorial jurisdiction. Actual operation and day to day maintenance of assets is carried out by the Divisions which report to the Zones. There are currently 69 Divisions on Indian Railways.

It is the divisions that control the TTEs.

Zones roughly correspond to the private companies which established Railways in India, and which were nationalised at different times. Divisions are mostly the division points where routes merge and diverge, and where in the old times, when Railways used to accept smalls and wagon loads, the wagons were sorted and marshalled into new rakes according to their destinations.

This is about the set up of Railways which most of the committees are tasked to study and suggest “reforms” to. And all these committees fail for this simple reason. Because this set up is not a problem at all. This is the set up which is more or less followed by Railway systems all over the world. Even where Railways are still private companies, for example in the USA. This is a very good and well oiled administrative set up, running a highly efficient system in a country in which almost nothing else works.

So what are the real problems facing the Indian Railways?

Indian Railways exists for its customers. That is, the passengers, and those who want their goods to be carried by the Railways. So to know the problems facing the Indian Railways, we should better ask the passengers and the goods traders. If we ask them, we immediately come to know the problems: passengers are facing the problem of non-availability of berths, they also want their journey time to reduce, and they also want a clean and safe environment at stations and on the trains. In addition to that they also want signages so that they reach, from the point they alight at the station to their berths, without having to ask anybody directions, and without having to negotiate a crowd. This is their complete wishlist.

The goods traders only want that they get the train rakes placed at the goods platform for loading whenever they need them, the loaded rakes are quickly carried to the destination, and are placed for unloading.

So the whole problem facing the Indian Railways is reduced to shortage of capacity in both, the passenger and goods segment.

And solution is also that simple: increase the carrying capacity in both the segments. Ideally both berths and goods rake should be available on demand.

In the remainder of this article, the causes why the capacity is not being added at the rate required, and their solutions are discussed.

Railways earns through passenger tickets and freight it charges from the goods traders. It has to necessarily spend on staff, on the consumables like fuels and parts, and on replacement of existing assets like locos, coaches and wagons; and repair & maintenance, and replacement of fixed assets like track, bridges, OHE, signalling equipment, and buildings.

What is left of its annual earnings after meeting above essential annual expenditure, is available for capacity addition; that is to lay new tracks, and buy new rolling stock like loco, coaches, and wagons.

And this is where the role of politicians comes into picture. In fact becomes the picture itself.

In large parts of India, Railways is the only thing that moves. It also has huge scope for patronage and rent seeking. Therefore, it is very popular among the politicians. Especially from the eastern India.

In the coalition era of last two decades, the coalition partner in the best position to blackmail the leading party in the coalition managed to to get the Railways Ministry. And almost in all cases, then proceeded to use Railways as the ticket to win next election by sanctioning new lines in the areas where not required, to give jobs to its workers and supporters, to introduce new trains without matching infrastructure, and in many cases, without even matching demand. And Railways has also been increasingly used to collect funds for next elections. Party leaders come to occupy various committees, and effectively start lording over the Railway officers, harassing them for petty things, forcing them, under the threat of transfer, to bend rules and bypass procedures.

Therefore we have new lines, daily running just one pair of train comprising half a dozen coaches with total number of passengers in single digit, whereas at the same time, routes gasping for capacity.

There is on paper a rational method to decide need for new lines, doubling, and other capacity enhancement works, but they are almost never followed. Ministers decide where the new lines and other capacity enhancement works are to be undertaken, and they are almost always pure wastage of hard earned and small Railways earnings surplus.

In the long run, Railways in India will go the way it has gone in all developed countries: Long distance passengers will shift to air travel, goods will shift to road, and Railways will be left with mass commuter traffic in big cities.

But above scenario is still at least 50 years away in India, because looking to current state of prosperity, long distance passengers are going to stay with the Railways at least that long, and that too assuming that we indeed become a developed country. And in case of goods traffic also; coal, ore, iron & steel, cement, and fertiliser are also going to be with Railways till they stay commodities of need in India, which will also be at least half a century. Finished goods mostly move in smalls, and therefore they go by road even now. But in case of export and import, container traffic is increasing and it is mostly carried by rail.

Most of the long distance passenger traffic in India is from eastern states to western states, and ideally the eastern states should themselves get developed and this traffic should cease. But that is also many decades away.

Therefore, to meet the current demand, we will have to create capacity which would seem surplus after say five decades, but badly needed during the period.

To create carrying capacity, Railways typically move in following stages, depending upon demand: single line to double line to automatic block signalling to three lines to four lines.

Of the above steps, automatic signalling is the missing link in case of lines outside metros. Scope for capacity enhancement using this technique has not been fully exhausted yet.

In fact Indian Railways have moved to the next stage in case of route between Delhi and Kolkata; & between Delhi and Mumbai, without first exhausting above stages by going for dedicated freight corridors on these two routes.

Another method to increase capacity is to use Electric Multiple Units (EMU) sets even for long distance trains. That increases capacity by enabling longer trains, and better acceleration and deceleration, thus increasing average speed.

And in addition to above, another low cost method to increase capacity dramatically is to use longer loops and high speed turn outs, as detailed here.

In case of goods traffic, Indian Railways must work on lower axle loads but higher speeds. That would increase capacity by reducing difference in speed of goods and passenger trains, and by increasing average speed of goods trains.

Goods terminals must also be reconfigured to add to capacity.

It should by now be clear that no changes in the administrative set up are required. That will not lead to increase in capacity which is what is required.

Instead, Railway Ministers need to become honest, and do what is required, not use Indian Railways to build political careers, win elections, and amass fortune. And if they are not honest, tinkering with administration will not change anything. In fact that will only take apart a finally tuned and efficiently working machine called Indian Railways.

Therefore, following actions, and only following actions, are immediately required:

  1. Complete the work on dedicated freight corridor within next four years by arranging funds, and by delegating powers to the MD of DFCCL the way it has been done in case of DMRC. This will release huge capacity for passenger traffic, and create capacity of goods traffic that will take care of all future needs of the country for goods carrying capacity. One of the ways to arrange funds is to increase passenger fares which are insanely low now because of populism. Passenger fares for non-AC classes have scope to be doubled from what they are now, and that should be achieved by raising them at regular intervals.
  2. Electrify the route from Bihar to Delhi via Gorakhpur & Lucknow; and Ahmedabad to Delhi and all related branch lines, and convert most long distance trains into EMUs.
  3. Identify and locate bottlenecks in section capacity, and do doubling or lay more lines only there, and review contractor procurement system to ensure speedy execution.
  4. Most of the delays in execution of Railway projects occur because of bad framing of initial proposals, delay in finalisation of plans, frequent changes in plans, defective contractor procurement system, and arbitrary fund allocation across ongoing projects. These are the problems of personal honesty and integrity of officers at all levels, and if the Ministers of Railways become honest, Railway officers will become honest and delays would disappear. Because then Railway officers would do what is right, not what pleases the Minister. Because Minister will not ask them to do what in his warped view will fetch him the votes in next election, but what will actually create capacity. For procurement of proper contractors, delegation of powers must be done, and procedure adopted; as available in DMRC.
  5. Rest all are frills, better avoided: like wifi at stations and on trains, and so called world class stations, etc. These are the frills used to attract customers. Indian Railways are not facing shortage of customers, but a surfeit, in fact a deluge of them.


Rest of the problems that reduce carrying capacity even in the present physical infrastructure available; like low productivity of the workers, indiscipline, absenteeism, bullying by the unions are the problems created by progressive loss of authority by the officers because of their own corruption and corruption of the ministers, and general degradation of labour productivity in India. As ministers and officers become honest, and general work culture improves in the country, labour issues will reduce. Railways can not be an island of worker productivity in a very bad labour environment in the country brought about by labour laws, and mafia control of the trade unions.

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