Despite being a key player in India’s transport ecosystem, the railways have been steadily losing passengers to the fast-expanding aviation market providing connectivity to tier-II cities. The following article looks at the possibilities of India’s Speed Up Campaign in regaining the passenger market and the challenges to the campaign from an infrastructural perspective.
The railways globally, especially in India, have occupied a prominent position in the post-independence economy. However, the railway systems of first-and-third-world countries are notably distinct in their management styles and the proportions of investment in expanding their infrastructure.
In the contemporary transport sector, the keyword dominating the game is ‘speed’. This, however, is also a point of contention, where the railways have constantly been lagging in the long-distance segment against the rapidly growing aviation market. The aviation market has been comparatively dynamic when looking at approaches such as Low-Cost Carriers and Inter-Regional Connectivity or the UDAN scheme, helping connect metro cities with tier-II cities and providing access to air travel at affordable fares. The railways are no exception to the idea of affordability and accessibility. Despite the fast-growing aviation market, railways are the primary means of transport for many remote communities deprived of air connectivity.
Apart from India’s much-discussed high-speed rail corridor projects being executed under the diamond quadrilateral programme, which aims to upgrade the existing golden quadrilateral (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata) and its diagonals to high-speed rail corridors, there is an emerging need for an increase in speed on its mainstream railway network. India has been pursuing the idea of speed since 1969 after Japan pushed for High-Speed Railway in 1964, which had its share of challenges in its inception stages.
The decision to increase train speeds amplified the need for infrastructural investment, which remains a challenge plaguing India’s vision for speed. Tracks and signalling contribute significantly to the issue and require foremost attention. Per a response by Ashwini Vaishnaw in the Rajya Sabha, 13 incidents of signalling failure have been reported on the Indian railway network. Post Balasore Train Tragedy, the outlay for the upgradation of the signalling system on the trunk routes has increased to avert signal malfunctioning. The railways have also planned to install Kavach System on the railway network for an automatic train protection system. Similarly, the ministry has allocated INR 307 billion and INR 173 billion for track doubling and renewals, respectively. India’s quest for speed revived post-liberalisation. The high-speed railway made headway into the 2000 railway budget speech by the then railway minister Mamata Banerjee proposing high-speed freight routes to accelerate the transportation of freight commodities.
Major Roadblocks in India’s Pursuit of Speed
In the years following independence and economic liberalisation, India has been slow in adapting to the changes experienced in the global railway communities because of social, economic, and policy challenges. Some changes are regarding adapting to the passengers’ needs with evolving times because of strict entry regulation, excluding the possibility of providing innovative forms of low-cost rail transport, which would help meet the needs of poor segments of society, or meeting the demands of those who are willing to pay. Another challenge from the social perspective was observed when India’s first high-speed train service, Rajdhani Express, was first launched. It witnessed resistance because of its perceived catering to the upper class rather than fulfilling the social welfare objectives of the Indian railways. This was when comfort and ambience were not the government’s priority (Aklekar, 2019).
Furthermore, the growing operational ratio and decline in revenues post revenue indicate low resource allocation for spending on infrastructure renewal. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India, in its report, indicated the decline in track renewal works from INR 9607 crores in 2018-19 to INR 7,417 crore in 2019-20. India’s transport policies are plagued by a top-down approach with abrupt legislative interventions and an apprehensive bureaucracy working in silos. The policies are also beset by a disproportionate focus on capital-intensive projects such as the high-speed rail corridor involving investments worth INR 1,07,000 crores, with an uncertain return on investments. The uncertainty can be attributed to cheaper airfares than before and an expanding network of roads, providing alternative and economical options to the people.
The Kakodkar Committee had projected a total investment of INR 100,000 crores for improving the safety of Indian Railways, which has been progressing at a moderate pace and requires prioritisation to help enhance safety before increasing train speeds. This includes fencing of tracks on high-speed routes, elimination of level crossings, installation of automatic signals, and complete transition from traditional ICF coaches to LHB coaches to increase the speed of trains while also minimising impacts in cases of accidents.
The Way Forward
India’s Speed Up Campaign has been a long pending demand since the opening of the Indian economy in 1991. The government opened the Indian aviation market for private players and gradually developed a low-cost carrier concept making air travel accessible across income levels. However, the railways were slow to the changing economic scenario, failed to grab the pulse of the travelling public, and were increasingly resistant and sceptical to changes recommended by various committees. The most prominent is the Rakesh Mohan Committee. The committee has been instrumental in pushing forth the idea of railway restructuring during the 2001 financial crisis when the railways were severely cash strapped with only Rs.359 crores, inadequate to repay for the ageing assets. The committee has also been instrumental in promoting the idea of Public – Private Partnership at a time when the railways was a prohibited sector with the private players restricted from entering the railway sector.
The railway sector lacks a creative and accommodating bureaucracy that has been trapped since time immemorial, with every new idea subjected to conflicting opinions between experts and bureaucrats. The coming of private players into the foray presents opportunities and challenges. For instance, the participation of private players can help the railways distinguish roles between policy making and operation and maintenance. The private players can focus on the latter, while the apex body of the railways can focus on formulating and executing policies. Furthermore, they can supplement the efforts in railway modernisation.
The policymaking process must be decentralised to help railways achieve infrastructure modernisation. This will help facilitate equal participation of the railway zones, private players and transport experts. It will also emphasise on the technicalities of infrastructure and train operations. This will provide a holistic outlook to policy distribution, expand their ambit, and balance the dominance of the road and aviation sectors. Increasing train speeds will reduce the travel time and regain a significant portion of the passenger traffic, which has been lost to airlines, improving the reputation of railways in the passenger segment.
The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.