The move by the Indian Railways to privatise a section of passenger traffic, and the launch by Minister Mallikarjun Kharge of the High Speed Rail Corporation, at this juncture, need to be very closely evaluated. The talk of privatisation in the Railways has gone on for long, though not many efforts had borne fruit in the past. There needs to be some clarity and a clear policy on privatisation in India’s biggest monolithic public sector undertaking. It must be remembered that only the Railways have an annual budget of their own, outside the general budget. So long as this route and the Public-Private Partnership model were looked at from the commercial or goods movement angle, or even for the production of coaches and locomotives, there was no problem. Obviously, the Railways cannot keep on investing in new production units. These efforts have succeeded only to a limited extent. Is that why the Railways have now turned to opening up a segment of passenger traffic to the private sector? When they speak of high speed corridors and the need to run trains at 160 kmph or even 200 kmph, it naturally means creating new infrastructure that calls for massive investment — which the Indian Railways cannot afford now.
But the decision to offer seven identified high-density traffic corridors to this model is fraught with danger. Take the Mumbai-Ahmedabad or Chennai-Bangalore sectors, for instance. Any number of trains or flights on these routes are bound to be full. Of course, the rail routes have reached a saturation point and there is need to go in for dedicated, perhaps elevated, high speed corridors. The country’s experience with the private sector in the transport field has not been too good. Air India remains a standing example of how the public sector was made to lose out to private airlines. Private bus transport stumped the nationalised road transport corporations for a variety of reasons. The seven corridors likely to be offered in PPP mode can surely generate enough profits for the private investor. What do the Railways get from it? Where is the regulator to look at traffic, tariff, and safety on the rails? The Commissioner of Railway Safety can handle only the track, and nothing more. There needs to be a larger debate on this proposal and this government, which is nearing the end of its current innings, should not be taking such a major plunge. Having delayed this concept for so many years, nothing will be lost if all these issues are discussed threadbare, and the new government next year can take the right decision with all the inputs. Meanwhile, it would do well to focus on the many major infrastructure projects that are waiting to be implemented.