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Missing the train

Rail budget has statements of intent that are not backed by a roadmap or timeline.

Sadananda Gowda’s rail budget is a missed opportunity. Sadananda Gowda’s rail budget is a missed opportunity.

I still remember when, at the end of 2011, a team from the famous James Bond unit approached me seeking permission to film the current Bond, Daniel Craig, for his movie Skyfall, which was released in 2012, I had three conditions: one, no compromise with safety. Two, no scene showing passengers on the roof of the train. And finally, that James Bond would become brand ambassador for the Indian Railways and would say, “Indian Railways is stronger than James Bond!”

While there was no issue with the first and third conditions, the crew had a problem with the second. I was told that the very purpose of approaching the Indian Railways was to shoot Bond travelling and fighting on the rooftop of a train. Later, I realised that even the popular Hindi film song “chhaiyyan chhaiyyan” was shot with people travelling on the roof of a train. This is, by and large, how our railways is perceived by the outside world.

The fact is, in non-electrified areas of the Indian Railways, travelling on the roof is not uncommon. We often compare ourselves with China in terms of growth and economic progress, but just about 20 years ago, China was 15 years behind the Indian Railways, and now it has gone so far ahead that I don’t think we will ever be able to reach anywhere near it. Just by looking at the efficiency of the railway system/ transportation network of a country — or the lack of it — one can safely categorise the country as economically developed, developing or underdeveloped. Given the condition of the trains in which the masses travel and the way in which freight is hauled, it is difficult to say in what category India falls.

The time has come to decide how one should define the Indian Railways. Is it only a poor man’s transportation system from point A to point B under conditions of suffocation and uncertainty, or an asset that should add at least 2.5 per cent to the GDP while efficiently and safely transporting goods and people? What needs to drastically change is the mindset of our political parties. First, the Indian Railways needs to be depoliticised; and second, there is a need for a national policy on the Indian Railways so that, even with changes in government, minister, the chairman of the railway board or its members, policy does not change.

At present, railway policy is minister-centric, there is no national policy. The Indian Railways is a capable organisation, with a dedicated workforce. It is a well-integrated family of railway men headed by knowledgeable, experienced and capable board members despite the fact that various departments work in silos. Our political system has not understood the potential of the Indian Railways.

India cannot eliminate poverty or contain inflation without an efficient transportation system, and given the constraint of land and the limitation of road transport, which is also polluting, the only answer is an efficient railway system that can move not only consumer and industrial goods, but also essentials like foodgrains to eliminate hunger and malnutrition in remote areas. Without a safer, larger and faster railway network, India’s growth will be truncated and the distribution of wealth uneven.

There is a lot of hype about bullet/ Shinkansen trains, which is like talking about building a 100-storey building without a foundation. The need of the hour is to strengthen infrastructure, namely tracks, bridges, signalling and telecommunications, rolling stock, stations and freight terminals. Without strengthening basic infrastructure, we will not be able to address safety issues, let alone efficiency.

As railway minister, I had proposed a five-year rail budget. We need to present at least a 10-year rail budget, which could be the national railway policy that would detail where the railways ought to be, say in 2025, and how and from where resources would be generated. I had also proposed setting up a station development authority which, besides modernising railway stations, could earn immense revenue. I recall that during Mamata Banerjee’s tenure as railway minister, when Sam Pitroda was made advisor for RailTel, I, as chairman of the passenger amenities committee, worked during the NDA regime to make it a profitable organisation that could have provided the country with a telecommunications backbone. At that time, none of the present telecom players were prominent. The kind of profitability these companies together have today could have easily been tapped by the railways.

Railway Minister Sadananda Gowda’s rail budget is a missed opportunity. The country awaited a pathbreaking rail budget, but it did not meet expectations. In a budget document, the choice before any minister is that of incremental versus generational change. Given the BJP’s mandate, I would have expected the latter. Unfortunately, I don’t even see an incremental change while what we are looking for are long-term sustainable solutions. At best, one can say that statements of intent are not backed up by a roadmap or timeline to achieve them.

To begin with, if Rs 60,000 crore is required for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train (500 km at Rs 120 crore per km), only Rs 100 crore has been provided to conduct techno-economic studies. Resources for construction are to be arranged through FDI or PPP, with no concrete plan for generating the funds. The difficulties in acquiring the land to create a bullet train corridor will also have to be dealt with. This is nothing short of an unrealistic dream.

Two, trying “to make the Indian Railways the biggest freight carrier” is wishful thinking. The average system velocity of the US freight railroad is about 25 mph, whereas India’s speed is about 15 mph. Faster trains are possible when more power is applied — more horsepower per tonne and better signalling. US inter-model trains apply about 5 hp/tonne while in India, it is about 0.8 hp/tonne. India needs three times as much locomotive power to match the US or China. Better signalling enables superior safety, and hence greater safe speed. The average length of US trains is also much longer than India’s freight trains, leading to a scale advantage. As a result, India’s freight cost is four times that of the US or China. So we are at a disadvantage in terms of cost of distribution of goods and food. Food inflation is directly related to efficient distribution through the rail network.

Three, for 2014-15, the surplus after meeting expenses as projected will be less than Rs 15,000 crore, which is grossly insufficient for the planned expenditure. Four, the idea of creating passenger amenities in stations — foot overbridges, escalators, elevators, etc, through the PPP route doesn’t appear to be practical as no financial model has been presented. Five, no target has been set for any activity. The proposals are open-ended, without monitorable milestones. Even for introducing semi-high-speed trains (160-200 kmph), no sector-wise target has been specified. Six, the mention of ongoing activities, like building stations of international standard, coal connectivity projects, increasing the use of computers and IT, a private freight terminal, introduction of new trains and announcement of surveys, is routine.

Comparisons are made to the Chinese railway system. China’s outlay is approximately $116 billion, while ours is approximately $10-12 billion. China hauls three times as much freight as the Indian Railways.

I hope that some day, a rail budget will be presented not for one year, but for a decade, and the yearly budgeting exercise will boil down to reviewing the progress.

The writer, a TMC Lok Sabha MP, was Union railway minister who had to resign after presenting the 2012-13 rail budget

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