Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not derive much comfort from the fact that Indian Railways, the government’s single biggest public connect, is in bad shape. India’s railway network, recognised as one of the world’s largest railway systems under single management, carries some 24 million passengers daily. Politically, that is like addressing 240 mega public meetings daily with an average audience count of one lakh persons each. The Railways represents the face of the national government. The Indian Railways owns approximately 4.77 lakh hectare of land which is bigger than the size of some of the states. In the past, some of the country’s most illustrious political personalities had headed the railway ministry. They included Lal Bahadur Shastri, Babu Jagjivan Ram, Gulzarilal Nanda, Kamalapati Tripathi, S.K. Patil, Madhu Dandavate, A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury, Lalu Prasad Yadav, George Fernandes, Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee.
A majority of the rail passengers are long-distance travellers. They belong to every part of the country and every section of Indian society. Unfortunately, the Railways today provides little comfort to these travellers. Trains hardly run on time. Coaches and toilets are dirty. Even high-profile Shatabdi Express trains fail to provide good seats, snack trays, clean toilets and eatables for which passengers pay dearly at the time of booking tickets. Long-distance trains, including Rajdhani Express, connecting state capitals with Delhi, are also in shambles. Little is spent on the maintenance and upkeep of coaches, seats, toilets, and catering services for minimum passenger comfort. The lately introduced Vande Bharat by the prime minister himself is little concerned about passengers’ growing discomforts with regards to running schedule and poor toilet conditions. Launched in February 2019, 25 train sets of the indigenously developed semi-high-speed Vande Bharat are currently operating 50 services on various routes of the world’s fifth-largest rail network. The Railways has targeted to roll out 75 train sets or 150 services in the current fiscal.
The train travel could be unsafe as well. The Railways rarely shares such information. According to the data made public in response to an RTI query, over 1.71 lakh theft cases were reported by railway passengers between 2009 and 2018. The theft cases have gone up significantly since 2014. The cases of theft reached the highest mark of 36,584 in 2018. However, no data on theft cases is available in the last four years. The theft aboard trains across the country doubled in 2017 compared to the previous year, while robbery cases increased by almost 70 per cent. Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh topped the list of states where the most crime was reported.
Generally, India has a poor rail safety record. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, more than 16,000 people were killed in nearly 18,000 railway accidents in 2021. The less spoken about the goods train is better. Last year, the Railways carried 203.88 million tonnes of freight. The major commodities carried by the Railways are coal, iron ore, food grains, iron and steel, cement, petroleum products, fertiliser and containerised traffic. The theft of commodities such as coal and food grains is said to be common. The time schedules of goods trains depend upon the track availability.
Introduction of new trains such as Vande Bharat and speed running always hog the limelight. Few are concerned about the state of the railway tracks, interlocking and signalling systems. The government’s costly rail modernization programme focuses more on the exterior. The programme was under intense scrutiny after the country’s worst train disaster in decades that claimed the lives of at least 275 people and injured more than 1,000 following the collusion of three trains at Balasore in Odisha on June 2. The Chennai-bound train veered on to the wrong track and hit a freight train before a second passenger train hit the wreckage. However, the public memory is short. The track was repaired within weeks. The route is operating as usual. Trains have been an essential lifeline for the world’s most populous country boasting over 60,000 kilometres of tracks.
Last year, a massive expenditure was committed on new trains and stations as part of a modernisation plan that aims to deliver 100 percent electrification by 2024 and a target of net zero emission by 2030. At 65.8 percent, India boasts a higher proportion of its network electrified than France (60 percent) or the UK (38 percent). The highest ever capital expenditure of Rs 2,03,983 crore was achieved in 2022-23. The Railways’ capex has increased from Rs 53,989 crore in 2013-14 to Rs 2,60,200 crore in 2023-24. Yet, the fact remains that the government seems to be prioritising eye catching big-ticket projects at the cost of less glamorous upgrades to existing stock. It is said that the Railways will fast-track its modernization programme with 800 semi-high speed Vande Bharat train sets by 2030 amidst reports of big manufacturing delays at Kapurthala coach factory. What about the poor standards of the existing coaches? The latter need to be replaced more urgently. There is little attention from the authorities to this regard. The passenger services, especially in the long distant trains, continue to be in the doldrums.
The massive fall in the standard of operating passenger train services may be the result of the ways the Railways is being run since 2017-18, when the government decided to merge Rail Budget with the Union Budget, ending a 92-year-old practice of a separate budget providing a special identity for the nation’s largest transporter. The Railways doesn’t even have a full-time independent minister now. The Rs.2.5 lakh crore Department of Railways is headed by Ashwini Vaishnaw, who also leads the fast growing Rs.90,000 crore Department of Electronics and Information Technology and Department of Communications portfolios — all three as a union minister. A former IAS officer turned a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament, Vaishnav is the 39th Railway Minister, 55th Communications Minister, and second Electronics and Information Technology minister, all at the same time. Such an unconnected high-profile simultaneous portfolio sharing arrangement is simply a recipe for inevitable disaster. No matter the competence of the minister himself, it is simply too overstretched to avoid that. Thus, few can blame Vaishnaw for the down trend in the operational performance of the Railways and dwindling passenger comforts. (IPA Service)