THE SUNDAY STORY India’s Railways are caught in a time warp. They serve millions, but are unable to meet modern standards. China is racing ahead, while U.S. rail plans face opposition. The world view.

The task of the Indian Railways is getting more and more challenging as the system grows in size. The attempt at modernisation and development is also producing a contrast in services.

About 93 per cent of the 840-crore passenger trips made using the railways are in the unreserved class. The figure is expected to reach the 900-crore mark in 2013-14, with most of the passengers using the general class.

The gap between this desperate lot and the privileged classes is set to widen further, as the Railways power their growth to catch up with global practices and improved services.

The Railways’ prime objective is to set their finances in order, but it can be achieved only at the cost of infrastructure development. To cut expenditure, the Railways have slashed the targets for building new lines, track doubling and gauge conversion. This is expected to bring down the operating ratio to 88.8 per cent this fiscal and to 87.8 per cent in 2013-14. Much of the small surplus generated will be used for technology upgrade and creating amenities for passengers in reserved compartments and in executive lounges.

Sadly enough, the overburdened unreserved compartments do not have power-points for charging mobile phones. The condition of toilets and the security of passengers are way down the priority list.

The Mumbai tracks claim anything between 10 and 15 lives a day. The official answer to that is more trains being added to reduce accident risk.

Another cause for concern is that unreserved compartments are not quite crashworthy and are much behind the safety quotient of the LHB coaches of Rajdhani trains.

As for increasing the number of coaches, the fact is that about 3,000 are added each year; but about 2,500 are taken out as ‘condemned.’

On the infrastructure front, the only option is to increase the potential speed of trains, explains railway watcher Vivek Khare, and use the infrastructure for passenger traffic, with a separate corridor for freight. The Railways have not revised the speed classification of the mainline routes since 1972: 160 km an hour for “A” line main routes and 130 for “B” line routes, with an average of 80 km an hour for the Rajdhani. Increasing the potential speed to 200 km an hour on the 18,000-km length of tracks, which bear 80 per cent of the traffic, will sufficiently meet the national requirement and yield an average speed of 120 km.

That is what Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal intends to do: increase the speed of trains starting with Shatabdi. He told The Hindu that high-speed trains were expensive, and their introduction would take time.

Track improvement by raising the ballast cushion height with quality chips will help without adding to the financial burden. This will go a long way in improving punctuality, but the Railways are yet to find a solution to the problem of fog and inclement weather.

Improving tracks is paramount for safety. But major improvement will be taken up later, with the emphasis being on improving the signalling system and doing away with manned and unmanned level crossings for now. It may be a distant dream for the Railways to regain lost glory. The system enjoyed around 85 per cent of the market share in both the traffic and passenger segments at the time of Independence, but is now down to about 30 per cent and 10 per cent.

Punctuality and checking pilferage are vital to attract more people. The Railways have progressed little from the 54,000-km route length acquired from the British, adding just 10,000 km. The network is yet to touch the capitals of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Sikkim.

Keywords: Indian Railways

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