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C O V E R  S T O R Y


indian railways

Indian Railways…on the right track?
In India, the transportation system is primarily rail based. While the colonial powers used railways to drain India economically, the same network was put to good use in independent India. Today, in terms of passenger traffic IR ranks as the second largest in the world after Russia. It runs around 8000 passenger trains and has an extensive network, spread over 63,028 route kilometres. IR owns as many as 216,717 wagons, 39,936 coaches and 7,339 locomotives.

Yet all is not well with IR. Let’s find out why…

Rail freight…a dying lifeline
Indian Railways has been the lifeline for many industries carrying goods ranging from mineral ores, agricultural produce, petroleum and vehicles. Freight carriage has been the real revenue earner, accounting for 70 per cent of the annual revenue that railway earns. Of this the major share comes from transporting bulk commodities like coal, cement, iron ore and steel. In terms of tonnage, share of bulk commodities has increased from 80 per cent to around 98 per cent over the last 30 years. Coal remains the most important bulk commodity, its share increasing from 30 per cent in 1971 to 50 per cent today.

In the 1950’s IR carried the major bulk of commodities. But economic liberalisation in the 90’s brought a change in the type of freight and IR began to lose out on freight share to roadways. When we look at actual share in freight movement today, IR’s share has fallen from a high of 89 per cent in 1951 to a meagre 40 per cent.

During 1967-1987 IR’s freight share expanded by 3.3 per cent annually while, freight share for roads expanded at the rate of 8.8 per cent. In 1985, for the first time, the road freight share (52 per cent) exceeded that of railways (48 per cent). Even passenger shares, which were about equal in 1961, had become 79 per cent by road in 1985.

Why did IR lose out?
The main reasons have been lopsided government policies and technological failures.

Passengers pay less
Social and political considerations force IR to increase freight rates to subsidise passenger traffic. IR’s freight tariff is around the highest in the world at US$ .062 per ton-km. On the other hand the passenger train fares are one of the lowest in the world. They are about 2.5 times lower than bus fares in the country.

For example, the cost of making a 6-minute STD call from Delhi to Lucknow is same as the Mail/Express fare between the two cities. Now, compare that to passenger fare for rail and road. The cost of travelling from Mumbai to Hyderabad is around Rs 216 by bus while it is just Rs 69 by train. The train fare obviously does not cover the actual costs.

But, despite cross-subsidies, IR has been losing passenger traffic due to delays and poor service.

Barely chugging along
The average speed of goods trains in India is very slow. It has been stagnant at around 24kms per hour for several years. The main reason is technological failure that occurs on the tracks. Train failures not only delay the affected train but also the trains that follow in the same track.

Regaining lost fortunes
But IR can still take the centre stage in the transport scene. Experts have come up with several options it could adopt to increase its efficiency. What are these?

Why not ‘non-bulk’?
Since the golden age of railways (1950-60) IR has carried the major part of bulk cargo like iron, coal and other primary goods. But non-bulk cargo, or consumer/packaged goods, forms only 2-3 per cent of its total freight traffic. But this is the segment that is growing! And the demand for transport of such goods has skyrocketted since the 1990s. Our trains should gear up to carry such lighter stuff, if they want to make some heavy profits.

Point to point service
Studies by French railways show that a plane uses four times more energy than France’s train grande vitesse or TGV per passenger-km, and a car 2.5 times more. So are fast intercity passenger trains the future for IR?

Yes, say experts.Let me tell you how…

Saving time: fast trains cut waiting time in airports for check-in and boarding. For instance, the actual flight time between Bangalore and Chennai is 35 minutes, but check-in, arrival/departure and road transit adds up to 2-3 hours. A fast train can make the same journey in 90 minutes.

Energy use: a magnetically elevated or Maglev train consumes only one-fourth the total energy of a Boeing 737-300 for a 200 to 1,000 kilometre trip.

Passenger capacity: fast trains can carry 12,000 passengers per hour in each direction. Highway traffic would require at least 10 lanes both ways to ferry the same number.

Blockage on tracks
Confused, are you? You are wondering if IR has so many pluses, why is its pace of growth so slow….

It faces too many roadblocks, you see. The most serious is the out-dated technology in its day-to-day operations. IR still operates on a basic technology that was imported way back in the ‘60s!

It’s not as if programmes and schemes are not being devised to ‘modernise’ IR. But they seem to be designed without much thought or planning. For instance, IR authorities have concentrated on electrifying main routes, exclusively. But no attention has been paid to the fact that with increase in traffic density, signalling and telecom systems need to be upgraded, too. IR spends only 2.6 per cent of its total funds in signalling and safety works.

Green signal for growth… where is it?

Electric or diesel?

The myth is that electric traction is pollution free as compared to diesel. But where does the electricity come from? Electric locomotives use power produced by thermal power plants, which also cause pollution. So electric trains pollute indirectly. A comparison between the two show that diesel locomotives are more environment-friendly.

Diesel locos mainly emit nitrogen oxide (NOX) and particulate emissions, while thermal power plants spew suspended particulate matter (SPM), NOX, sulphur dioxide (SO2) and ash.

However, things will have to change now. Because modern India is moving ahead at the fastest pace ever. And as its primary carrier, IR just cannot afford to lag behind any more.

Just think about it. In the coming decade, our freight transport demand is expected to double. The passenger load, too, will double every eight to ten years. How will our railway network, already crumbling under pressure, cater to the burgeoning billions? And if it fails, it is bound to slow down the progress of the entire country. How can economy prosper without a fast-paced, modern transport system?

But the government just does not seem to care enough. Instead of planning to put in more funds to nurture the mammoth body, its investment in the Railways has declined ever since the Third Plan!

The budget estimate for IR in 2004-2005 is Rs 134.3 billion—five billion less than the amount allotted in 2003-2004.

There is no doubt whatsoever that in terms of energy use, passenger capacity, time consumption, the Railway is a winner all the way. All it needs is a bit of fuelling: fresh ideas, new funds and smarter management.

Here’s wishing IR a smoother journey ahead.

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