The train chugged out of the station. Rachna, sitting glued to the window of the compartment, saw factories, clusters of houses, and traffic snarls, as it crossed the bridge. Then the city receded from view. Giving way to paddy fields dotted with mango and pipal trees. There was a water mill and here a farmer briskly sowed seeds. The scenes changed so fast! Night fell, and a few lights winked here and there. Except when some towns flew past, and the blazing tubelights took over.
Around 4.00 am Rachna woke up to cries of chai garam, garam chai! The train had stopped at a station. But even as the tea seller pushed little earthen cups through the window bars they were moving on. As it became brighter, a fresh new scene greeted her...hills in the horizon. She saw sal forests with little plots of land in between, where brinjal and cabbage grew.
And she knew she had reached her destination. She got down and walked past the engine that had hauled her such a long distance. When did these ‘iron horses’ begin their journey?, she wondered..
The journey begins...
It began in the early 19th century. Technology was the buzz word of that era..with scientists springing life-changing surprises on people. The telegraph and sewing machine. But no invention had such sweeping impact as the trains. People were familiar with steam power, but the originality of railways was in putting rails and steam power together. And then using this power to move heavy goods and people over long distances. Railways changed the way human beings and their goods moved. Drastically. In 1838, railway tracks covered 805 kilometres in Britain, but by 1855 there were over 12,875 kilometres.
This expansion scaled down the cost of travel and more people could afford to do so. Just consider this. A round ticket from London to Manchester would cost L3 and 10 cents by the stagecoach – the most popular form of travel till then. By 1851, the train fare for the same journey cost only 5 cents. That meant a far quicker and more comfortable journey on the trains for only a seventh of the stagecoach fare!
Horses and ships had been the most efficient means of transport, till then. But ships could not reach the interior and horses could not match the speed and power of this latest invention. Now thanks to the railways businesses flourished in remote areas. Also, all commodities became cheaper, because transport time and costs were reduced. Crops were carried longer distances to distant markets, and businessmen could now entertain clients from lands faraway.
In England, industries such as iron, glass, and stone made large profits because these materials were used for the rails and to build the stations. This new technology spread rapidly to other countries – France had railroads by 1829, Germany by 1835. It arrived in Italy by 1839 and in Spain by 1848. Like Britain, most of these countries had extensive colonies.
And it did not take the colonial administrators long to figure out that such an infrastructure in the colonies would generate huge profits. It would provide a faster mode of transport for government officials, and also help mobilise troops over long distances. And most importantly, finished products ranging from tinned goods, mill cloth, boot polish and toys, could be sold in remotest corners of the colonies.
Beginning of the Indian Chapter
The railways came relatively late to India. The first rail link was established in 1853, when 14 railway carriages carrying 400 people covered the distance of 33.6 kilometres from Boribunder to Thane. The British rulers set it up for a particular purpose. In the mid-19th century, the British textile mills needed huge supplies of cotton and most of it came from the Deep South in North America.
The failure of the American cotton crop in 1846 followed by the Civil War, however, forced the British merchants to look elsewhere for supplies. As India produced a large quantity of raw cotton, she was the obvious answer, but transport needed to be faster to keep the Lancashire mills rolling. So the East India Railway Company (1845) and the Great Indian Peninsular Railway (1849) were set up.
British industrialists, keen to move cotton, spices and tea from the Indian hinterland to the ports, financed the railway constructions. Soon, the Indian railway network was copied in other colonies to transport other crops. Rubber in Malaysia, coffee in South America, grain in Canada and livestock in Australia and New Zealand. Railway construction progressed rapidly in India. Private companies like Bengal Nagpur Railways laid down about 1.5 kilometres a day, even though most of the work was done manually!! By 1947— when the British finally left the India — more than 58,000 kilometres of tracks crisscrossed the country.
Driving in disaster?
But for India, the progress of railways came with a huge price tag. In their single-minded drive to provide mobility to officers and merchants, the colonial rulers cleared great swathes of forests to lay down rail tracks and to cater to the railways’ demand for wood. Take the case of the Himalayan region in India, that we now know as Uttaranchal. July, 1888: After surveying the chir forests on the left bank of Tons river in Tehri and Jaunsar, A. Smythies, Assistant Conservator of Forests, declared that 100,000 broad gauge sleepers could be supplied annually from here.
The British used wooden sleepers to build rail tracks and Uttaranchal forests were the mostused source. Even though metal sleepers were more durable, wooden ones were preferred because they were light, easy to work with and cheaper. During 1870-1878, the forest departments supplied around 1,834,927 deodar sleepers to the state railways. On an average the number of sleepers supplied annually from Uttaranchal varied between 0.2 and 0.3 million. Again, during the World Wars the extraction of chir sleepers increased. While 400,000 sleepers were exported in the First World War, this number rose to 440,000 during the Second World War.
Rail tracks are built on embankments or a strip of raised land, which often disrupt the natural drainage system. August 21, 1918, Bogra: A deluge devastated the region. The farmers had lost their crops in the previous years, and they knew more misery would follow. All of this began when the railways came chugging into the Rajshahi division in eastern Bengal. The Chalan beel (lake) in the Rajshahi division was a vast hollow where 47 rivers and waterways of Northern Bengal converged. It was also a springboard for many rivers that flowed further.
Then the beel began to be bounded by the Eastern Bengal Railway main line on the west and the Santahar- Bogra branch line on the north. In this low-lying area tracks were built on embankments which blocked the natural streams on both sides. As the railway companies made very few culverts and outlets, water from 47 streams collected along the embankments, drowning the crops. The villagers appealed repeatedly for more openings in the embankments. But the authorities ignored their pleas.
But the train is still a boon...
But that was in the past. The colonial rulers laid tracks with an eye on their profit shares only, sparing no thoughts on long-term effects. Should we then equate the arrival of railways to the opening of Pandora’s box? On the contrary! In the modern context, railways can be described as the most ecofriendly option of all the modes of surface transport available today. Not convinced? Well, just read on…
The Congressional Budget Office in the United States has done a study comparing various modes of transport in terms of energy use. It concludes that in terms of energy per ton-mile, trucks use more than railroads, and cargo planes are at the bottom of the efficiency range. Unit trains carrying coal require less than 900 BTUs (British Thermal Unit) per tonmile of cargo. Intercity trucks consume much more energy – they need about 3,400 BTUs per tonmile of cargo. That’s twice the rail average.
There’s more. The carrying capacity of railways is much higher than trucks. Light rail and subways, driven by electric motors, reduce air pollution. Even diesel-electric locomotives pollute less than auto travel.
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 tonkm. 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 nonbulk 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 à 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 checkin 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-today 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?
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.