The Prime Minister, it seems, is not impressed with the Railways. During an infrastructure review meeting at NITI Aayog last week, Narendra Modi is learnt to have complained that there was hardly any “visible progress” on key projects. These included the redevelopment of 400 stations and setting up of a Rail University, and other initiatives such as using advertisements for generating revenue.
After the meeting, Modi tweeted about the “commendable” work done by the Railways in electrification and commissioning of lines last year. But during a presentation by Railway officials at the meeting, Modi expressed his reservations about the slow pace of change, sources who attended the meeting told The Indian Express. The Prime Minister is also said to have quoted the example of cricket to illustrate how advertisement revenue can be garnered using creative methods.
After the meeting, sources said, the Railway Board issued internal instructions for “the need to take immediate action” to ensure “perceptible progress” by the next review, which may be held in the first week of July.
Sources said Modi was particularly miffed about the slow progress made in the station redevelopment project. Of the 400 stations to be redeveloped with private participation, only the one in Bhopal’s Habibganj has seen any significant change.
When contacted, A K Mital, chairman, Railway Board, told The Indian Express: “The Prime Minister said station development is an important area and needs to be expedited. He said that a lot of revenue can be generated from station development.”
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The Railways obtained Cabinet approval for the redevelopment plan last July. But after carrying out the financial bidding process for months, it is getting ready to award the Letter of Intent to the highest bidder only now.
The aim of this initiative is to let private players develop modern stations by paying Railways a fee and obtaining time-bound rights to commercially exploit the property. Through Habibganj, Railways has been hoping to devise a successful PPP template to be replicated elsewhere.
The Rail University is another area where the Prime Minister sought faster progress. The proposal was first mooted two years ago in the NDA’s first Rail Budget. But again, it’s only now that a draft bill to set up the university in the Railway campus in Vadodara has been submitted to NITI Aayog for appraisal.
The Prime Minister, sources said, was also unimpressed by the lack of creative utilisation of rail infrastructure for revenue. One area where Railways has been asked to seriously step up its efforts is better utilisation of rakes running empty after delivering loads.
For this, Railways plans to now seek suggestions from other ministries how best to use them, with the Cabinet Secretary asked to coordinate the process.
The Prime Minister is also learnt to be keen on Railways utilising MNREGA funds more for its various works for rural job-creation. The Railways has been asked to weed out procedural issues by working with the Rural Development Ministry, according to the internal note issued by the Board.
On the issue of better utilisation of empty rakes, Mital said the Railways’ record was “not bad”. “If I take coal from Dhanbad to Punjab, that rake needs to come back to Dhanbad to pick up coal again. This is normal. Our empty rake utilisation is not bad at around 40 per cent, which almost on a par with global practices,” he said.
The Railways has been announcing various schemes for the industry to better utilise empty rakes and made non-fare revenue generation one of the objectives in this year’s Rail Budget with a separate directorate set up for it.