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Indian railways needs radical reform

An open, continuous and uninterrupted tragedy is unfolding within Indian Railways (IR) with none so poor to find solutions to end the daily carnage on the metal rails of this public sector monopoly’s runaway killer trains. Twenty-nine train accidents were reported in the first six months of this calendar year which killed 57 people and injured 58. The major causes of accidents are derailments and unmanned level crossings indicating under-investment in track and infrastructure maintenance. 

This is hardly surprising given that 96.6 percent of the massive annual revenue of IR (Rs.168,300 crore) is spent by way of operational expenses (salaries and maintenance of essential infrastructure) and mainly on the remuneration of its 1.33 million employees, leaving precious little for capital investment. In effect, IR — the country’s #1 employer — is a state within the State with its own schools, hospitals, pension schemes, whose prime concern is welfare of its 1.33 million employees. Everything else — including passenger comfort and safety — is secondary.

With operational expenses draining its finances, IR’s problems are further compounded by gross under-investment by the Central government in developing modern infrastructure to match rising public demand. On the one hand, there’s a political consensus that passenger fares — currently the lowest worldwide — cannot rise. This is compensated by routinely raising freight fares to the extent that haulage of freight by road of all except the heaviest, has become cheaper than by rail for almost all categories of goods. A recent report of the Parliament standing committee on IR noted that against 4,500 km of track length required to be renewed annually, barely 2,700 km is. Moreover, as any well-travelled individual will testify, IR’s rolling stock (compartments, engines, toilets, in-train services) is hopelessly obsolete by global standards. 

Even as the problems of IR are well-known, and the basic cause is the incapability of the resource-strapped Centre to provide sufficient budgetary support for its growth, development and modernisation, a curious analysis-paralysis seems to have disabled the country’s politicians, intelligentsia and the middle class from preventing the slide of this valuable legacy of the British Raj into anarchy. The solution advanced by your editor for over four decades is to transform IR into an essentially track maintenance corporation which auctions its tracks to private corporates and travel companies to run trains in various time slots between destinations of their choice. 

This will hugely augment the revenue of the corporation which can be invested in safety, modernisation and infrastructure development. Coterminously, IR can continue its services in other time slots. Similar reforms have been introduced in civil aviation and telecom with remarkable success. But strategic reform of IR on these lines is not even debated by the country’s feeble intelligentsia and greedy middle class addicted to subsidies, which are in effect funded by the poor and most underprivileged of Indian society.

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