There is a touch of wry irony in the fact that today most of the news about the Indian Railways concerns Vande Bharat trains, and more particularly the fact that every new Vande Bharat train is being personally flagged off by the Prime Minister.
For, a little over four years ago, the launch of Train 18, the precursor to the Vande Bharat train, was heralded by the initiation of vigilance investigations against some of the top architects of the project on wholly specious grounds. The Train 18 project was one that was wholly conceived, planned and executed with élan in record time, by a team of inspired, talented and committed Railway professionals of the Integral Coach Factory, Perambur, Chennai, with minimum official support.
Thankfully, the witch hunt came to naught. Today it seems it is raining Vande Bharat trains all over the country, a unique example of the success of a purely local initiative driving policy at the highest level. Amid the publicity blitz and euphoria surrounding the successive introduction of Vande Bharat trains, almost on a weekly basis in various parts of the country, it is easy to lose sight of the larger picture and the serious issues confronting the Indian Railways.
With the elimination of a separate Railway Budget and its merger with the General Budget from 2017 onwards, there has been a welcome shift towards ramping up investments in the Indian Railways, both through increased budgetary support from the General Exchequer and through institutional borrowings, aimed at creating additional rail transport capacity ahead of demand.
Accordingly, the Annual Plan outlay of the Indian Railways which was ₹1,09,935 crore in 2016-17 in the last separate Railway Budget has ballooned to ₹2,60,200 crore in the Budget for 2023-24, an increase of 137% While unprecedented levels of investment to build rail infrastructure are a welcome development, unless these investments translate into concrete progress towards capacity building, highlighting only the inputs without looking at the outcomes serves no purpose. Therefore, the performance of the Indian Railways needs to be evaluated using more relevant metrics. This article will look at two areas (one each on the freight and the passenger fronts).
The National Rail Plan 2030 (NRP) envisages raising the rail share in freight traffic vis-à-vis roadways from 27% to 45% by 2050 and the raising of the average speed of goods trains to 50 kilometres per hour from the present 25 kmph and concurrent reduction in tariff rates for freight by up to 30%. It may be mentioned that the rail share of freight carried reduced from 51.5.% in 2008-09 to 32.4% in 2018-19 for leads over 300 km.
Further, almost the entire increase in volume of traffic carried by rail over the decade 2008-09 to 2018-19 has been in short lead traffic (leads up to 300 km) and 55% of the increase was through the transport of just one commodity, viz. coal. As yet, there is no evidence of higher levels of traffic being achieved concurrently with diversification of commodities carried or an increase in rail share vis-à-vis road transport. In other words, in the race towards achieving the targets set in NRP 2030, the Indian Railways is at or near the starting block.
On the passenger front, perhaps the single most important operational index is punctuality. Here, a radical shift in emphasis is called for. If stations in the Indian Railways network can be remodelled to ‘international standards’, perhaps it is time to aim for international standards in punctuality of trains as well. Japanese Railways reckon the punctuality of their high speed trains in seconds. The Indian Railways should aim to be at least within five minutes (without any adjustment) of the scheduled time. While published statistics of punctuality usually are above 90%, these figures are arrived at with a dose of adjustment and only the destination arrival time is considered irrespective of the fact that a train might have been off schedule en route at all the important intermediate stations.
More than a decade ago, when an exercise was undertaken to plot the status of all passenger trains on the move in the Indian Railways network on real time basis, the punctuality of all passenger-carrying trains at any given time hovered around 60%. It is high time to move away from the traditional concept of destination punctuality and evolve an index of punctuality that will also reflect the punctuality at select intermediate stations, at least for all mail/express trains. With developments in IT and data analytics, this should be possible. Real time punctuality of 90% should be a challenging target to aim for. The focus should be to improve overall passenger experience, not merely statistics.
These are only two examples. There is a vast range of issues such as financial performance, physical performance, safety, organisational/human resource issues, project execution, customer relations, effect of the dedicated freight corridors on the Indian Railways system capacity and so on that need to be critically analysed/ reviewed and the necessary course corrections effected. Seven years ago, in the wake of the elimination of a separate Rail Budget, an article by this writer (Railway Budget — a vanishing trick, September 22, 2016) had suggested that the government should consider tabling an annual report on the performance of the Railways in Parliament — on the lines of the annual Economic Survey prepared by the Finance Ministry ahead of the General Budget.
This report, unlike a publicity pamphlet like the Indian Railways Year Book, should be an internal performance audit that should serve as a valuable resource for policymakers, serious students and also researchers in the field of rail transport. No government or organisation would willingly submit itself to such a self-analysis in the public domain. But with the huge sums already invested, and proposed to be invested in the future in the rail sector, the nation can ill-afford to let the performance of its prime transporter and its largest public undertaking to be judged merely on the basis of the number of Vande Bharat trains introduced, the glitz and opulence of its remodelled stations or the record-breaking length of its railway station platforms.
This article is authored by K. Balakesari, belonging to the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers. He was Member Staff, Railway Board. The views are personal.
(First appraed at The Hindu)