Time for an overhaul

Having served the country for more than a century and a half, the Indian Railways has taken apathy in its stride. Politicians’ whims, and not economic planning, have dictated its existence. But now, the tracks on which the giant moves have begun to show signs of stress. The health of this ailing mammoth needs to be restored. Arnab Pratim Dutta and Anupam Chakravartty trace the network’s ailments and examine ways to bring it back on track

By Arnab Pratim Dutta, Anupam Chakravartty
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

Time for an overhaul


IT was already 10 pm. The Taj Express should have been crawling into Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin station. Porters should have been hustling into coaches, their entry blocked by passengers eager to alight after a long journey. Amid the flurry, the woman at the public announcement system should have announced the train’s arrival, on time.

But this was not to be. The Taj Express was stranded near Faridabad. The frustrated passengers had started to play the blame game. While one accused the driver of steering the train too slowly until the signal turned red, another wondered if it was giving way to a passing train. “The train had reached Mathura on time. Indian Railways is so inefficient that it can even delay a train running on time,” said one. Just then Bhopal Shatabdi, the country’s fastest train, whizzed past. The Taj Express had sacrificed its on-time performance for the prestigious train. It reached Hazrat Nizamuddin station 45 minutes behind schedule.

Passengers are accustomed to such delays. Poorly maintained coaches, unhygienic toilets and bad food add to the frustration. And yet, one cannot but marvel at the world’s largest people mover. The railways carried 7.2 billion people—more than five times the country’s population—to their destinations in 2010-2011. Despite the delays, it has managed to maintain an on-time performance of over 80 per cent.


Track record

The railways has always given much more than it has received. Official statistics hammer this point home. Independent India inherited close to 50,000 km of tracks from the British. In 64 long years, the country could add only 15,000 km. What the country did increase was the number of passenger trains. In the past 10 years, close to 1,000 trains were brought on the tracks.

“More trains, increase in their frequency and addition of more coaches per train have left the railways in a peculiar situation,” says the report of a high level safety review committee chaired by Anil Kakodkar, former chief of the Atomic Energy Commission Board. “Such massive additions every year … without a serious thought … have severe implications on safety preparedness of railways,” the report submitted to the railway ministry in February 2012 says.

Similar doubts were raised by Vision 2020 for the railways presented to Parliament in 2009. The trunk route, or Route A, connects the country’s four main metros—Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. The route comprises 16 per cent of the total track length but it bears 50 per cent of the railway’s traffic, it says. A senior railway official concurs. The route between Kolkata and Delhi bears about 150 per cent of its capacity, he says. The other trunk routes are also oversaturated and bear 120-130 per cent of their capacities.


Difference in speeds of trains is another big problem. The railways has planned dedicated corridors for freight and high-speed passenger traffic. But they will continue to use the same tracks for about five years, creating logjams. “We have a network where goods trains run at a speed of 25-40 km per hour,” says a railway official. On the same network, the Bhopal Shatabdi Express speeds up to 150 km per hour. Slow passenger trains run at 40 km per hour on the same track as the Rajdhani Express, which speeds up to 130 km per hour. “Considering the heavy congestion and very high speed differential among trains, it is extraordinary that the railways operates efficiently,” says an official.

  The trend of appeasing political allies with the railway portfolio started in 1996 when the BJP came to power and formed a coalition  
In politics, railways has become a portfolio that can appease important allies and guarantee a stable government. For the last decade and a half, coalitions of parties have formed governments at the Centre. The trend of appeasing allies started in 1996 when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power and Ram Vilas Paswan of Lok Janshakti Party was made the railway minister.

C K Jaffer Sharief (1990-95) and Suresh Kalmadi (1995-96) were the last two railway ministers when the Congress was in power on its own. Ever since coalition politics took over, the railway budget has become a tool to promote populism. Politicians use it as an easy means to project a pro-people image. Train fares have not increased in the past eight years. In fact, in 2004-05 the then railway minister Lalu Prasad decreased the fare by Rs 1 for the cheapest class and by seven per cent for the higher classes.

Road over rail

Long wait for bookings has made railways’ commercial operations unattractive. Passengers have to book train tickets months in advance. The situation is no better on the freight front. “We have to refuse bookings quite often. We give preference to those who ask for the entire rake over those who seek a wagon or two,” says a senior railway official.

It was for this reason that Ramesh Solanki, who runs an import-export firm in Vadodara, was suffering a long delay. When Down To Earth met him in February 2011, he had been waiting for four weeks at the Inland Container Depot in Dasarath village to get his container on the train that connects to the Mazgaon dock in Mumbai. Solanki had to send the container to a vessel waiting to go to South Africa. The delay was because only two trains ply between the Mumbai port and Vadodara. It is the long wait that makes business unprofitable.

Many transporters now prefer road network over railways (see ‘Freight share’). But it is not an easy choice. The Vadodara-Mumbai highway, for instance, has seven toll gates that charge between Rs 200 and Rs 400 for a 450-km journey. Additional expenditure for a truck could be as high as Rs 2,500. The proposition becomes very expensive. In comparison, railways charges 56 paise per km for a one-tonne container.

  The 11th Five Year Plan gave railways Rs 8,000 crore for modernisation. In comparison, roadways got Rs 60,000 crore and airways Rs 30,000 crore  
For passengers, railways promises cheaper travel at higher comfort levels. The 933-km travel from Ahmedabad to Delhi by sleeper class costs Rs 343, or about Rs 37 per km. An AC III tier ticket costs between Rs 570 and Rs 1,000 depending on the train. Buses charge between Rs 700 and Rs 1,200 for the same journey.

Not only is railways cheaper, it is also more benign towards the environment, say reports. The Planning Commission’s Expert Group Report on low-carbon strategies for inclusive growth suggests that railways and waterways should be promoted for their low carbon footprint. In 2007-08, railways’ carbon emission for moving one tonne of freight over a kilometre was three tonnes. In comparison, the road sector’s carbon emission for the same was 66 tonnes, the report says. Intercity passenger trains emitted four tonnes of carbon for every passenger per kilometre compared to 35 tonnes for road transport (see ‘Rail, road carbon emission share’).


Rail fares better than road in terms of energy consumption and thus reduces pollution, says V S Ghai, senior fellow at the Delhi-based Asian Institute of Transport Development, an independent transport research organisation. Rail transport makes only about a fifth of the effort of road transport to move goods. In a rail-bound system, it is easy to form long trains, says Ghai.

Yet, businesses have shifted from railways to roadways. In the 1950s, railways commanded a monopolistic share of over 88 per cent in the freight segment. Now, road transport controls more than three quarter of the total market (see ‘Economics of passenger services’). In 2009-10, railways carried close to 900 million tonnes freight and transported 7.4 billion people. The figure sounds impressive. But roadways’ figure overshadows it. It carried 1,230 million tonnes freight and 10 billion passengers.


Railways’ share in freight traffic has declined from 24.07 per cent in 2001-02 to 20.89 per cent in 2009, says the journal of transport of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). In 2009, roadways shared 79.11 of the freight traffic. In the past decade, road transportation has grown by 7-8 per cent.

IMAGERailways, however, has stagnated at less than five per cent growth. While the projected growth rate in commodity freight traffic was about 9 per cent for 2011-12, the railways could only achieve 4.4 per cent.

Investment: nil

Call it a systemic rot or government’s failure, the railways, as the Kakodkar committee points out, is on the brink of collapse. No expert is required to say that this is because of meagre investments. The overall balance sheet is in the red, be it because of passenger services or freight operations.

As per its own white paper, in 2008-2009 the railways spent Rs 550.97 for every passenger kilometre. What it earned was Rs 412.22. That year alone, passenger services incurred losses close to Rs 14,000 crore.

What transport modes want
  RAILWAYS: The proposed modernisation plans for the Indian Railways in the 12th and the 13th five year plan promise to add 1.5-2 per cent to the present freight growth rate of 7 per cent per annum. The plans propose to improve 21,225 kilometres, including the proposed Dedicated Freight Corridor of 3,000 km. The corridor has achieved financial closure with Rs 204 lakh crores.

The 11th Five Year Plan had targeted passenger kilometre volume growth rate of 6.2 per cent. But in the first three years of the plan, growth rate had reached 9.9 per cent. To modernise services railways needs Rs 560,000 crore.

ROADWAYS: The National Roads Policy, published for the 11th Five Year Plan, says that the average annual growth rate of this sector is 9 per cent. According to the National Highway Development Programme, a seven-phase road development programme scheduled to end by 2016, will cost Rs 169,500 crore. The programme includes six-laning and four-laning of highways and creation of 1,000 kilometre of expressway.

AIRWAYS: The total airspace of India is about 2.8 million nautical square miles. Passenger traffic is expected to grow from Rs 11.97 crore in 2010-11 to Rs 31.66 crore in 2022-23, at a growth rate of 8.44 per cent.

The department of economic affairs in the finance ministry says that although the year 2008-09 saw a dip in the growth rate, by 2022-23 air cargo traffic is expected to grow by 8.14 per cent. The Indian market would require additional cargo capacity. As many as 1,000 commercial jets costing approximately Rs 4.27 lakh crore would be needed by 2030.
While passenger services consumed about 60 per cent of the network capacity, their share in the earning was a measly 33 per cent. In the past five years, the difference between revenue and expenditure has widened to dangerous levels. “Lack of a tariff regulatory authority, autonomy in taking decisions across various departments and a far-sighted vision are leading the Indian Railways to losses,” says G Raghuram, faculty at the Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad and member of the Pitroda Committee. The panel, headed by Sam Pitroda, was formed last year to recommend ways and means to modernise the railways.

But without adequate funds, the railways cannot undertake operation and maintenance activities, replace old assets, or develop new assets based on advanced technology, says the Kakodkar committee report.

In 2009-2010, the railways earned close to Rs 90,000 crore. But its total expenditure was a high Rs 84,000 crore. Increase in wages after the sixth pay commission was a big reason for the high operating ratio. The staff cost doubled within two years from about Rs 26,000 crore in 2007-08 to about Rs 51,000 crore in 2009-2010. Now, the railways spends 60 per cent of its earnings on wages (see ‘Railways finances’). At present, the operating ratio of railways stands at 92 per cent. The ideal ratio for a sustainable enterprise, says Raghuram, is about 80 per cent. The extra income could be used for expansion and upkeep.

The 11th Five Year Plan did not draw enough investments to modernise its systems. In the past five years, less than Rs 8,000 crore was invested in railways, says a planning commission official. Compared to this, roadways got Rs 60,000 crore and airways Rs 30,000 crore. Most of the money for development of roads and airports came through private participation. There has been no private sector project in the railways (see ‘What transport modes want’).

A World Bank consultant on major transport concurs. Private players, he says, are excited about the projects because of their business propositions. Once a road or an airport becomes operational, cash starts flowing immediately through toll tax or airport service fee. No such concept exists in the railways.

The government plans to set up new tracks parallel to congested routes, which bear 120 per cent more than their capacity. But the parallel route will take only about 20-30 per cent of the traffic. “Imagine, private players will have to wait for 10-15 years for the new line to get adequate traffic. No private developer would be willing to spend so much time and money,” says the consultant.

Green Signal

Railways is all set to modernise. To start with, it has taken up projects on dedicated freight corridors and bullet trains


The signs are good. After years of apathy, the Centre looks upbeat about transforming Indian Railways, the world’s biggest people mover and fifth largest freight transporter, into an efficient, well-oiled machinery. If all goes well, the turnaround will happen in the next five years.

In its first step towards modernisation, railways aims to concentrate on two key areas—dedicated freight corridors (DFCs) and high-speed rails. Dedicated corridors will be constructed parallel to the existing tracks which will take most of the freight load. Freight trains, on these corridors, will run at 100-120 km per hour (kmph), two to three times the current speed. Special ‘roll-on and roll-off’ carriages will be made for intermodal change of freight. These will carry high-value freight like new automobiles. Two to three such trains are likely to be introduced once DFC becomes operational. Their axle weight will be increased from 23.9 tonnes to 25 tonnes, improving the train’s freight carrying capacity.


Work on 2,762 km of eastern and western dedicated corridors has begun. The eastern corridor, about 1,800 km, will connect Ludhiana in Punjab with Dankuni in West Bengal. By 2017, railways plans to construct three sections of the eastern corridor—from Ludhiana to Mughalsarai, Mughalsarai to Khurja and Khurja to Kanpur. The last section will be built first and financed by the World Bank with a loan of US $975 million. The western corridor will connect Badarpur in Delhi with Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Mumbai. The two corridors will be linked at Khurja in Uttar Pradesh. Rail India Technical Economic Services Ltd (RITES) estimated in 2005-06 that the eastern corridor, along with the existing tracks, will carry 145 million tonnes of freight by 2021. About 65 per cent of this would be transportation of coal from the mines in the east to thermal power plants in the north. Once the corridor is set up, freight traffic in the stretch will increase by 92 million tonnes, say RITES’ projections.

The western corridor has been planned in line with the projected growth in the container segment. This corridor will target containers from the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Mumbai Port in Maharashtra, and ports of Pipavav, Mundra and Kandla in Gujarat bound for Inland Container Depots in northern India. Seven new ports and 147 special economic zones have been planned in the tracks’ vicinity.


Analysing the DFC, World Bank’s project appraisal document says the corridors will be able to take 85 per cent of the current freight traffic. This will allow better performance of passenger trains. On certain stretches, freight trains will have the liberty to speed up from 55 kmph to 70 kmph, saving about one hour on every 300-km journey. Freight services will also become economical because the network will no longer have to suffer “stop-go” situations where goods trains have to make way for passenger trains. According to the document, railways will save on cash from reduced energy consumption by running trains at steady speeds and by-passing stations and sheds.

At present, railways spends 41.9 paise for every tonne of goods hauled over a kilometre. After the freight corridors become operational, the cost is expected to reduce to 31.4 paise, a saving of 25 per cent.

Pitroda panel recommends
  The eight-member expert committee headed by Sam Pitroda, former chairperson of the Knowledge Commission, was set up in September 2011. It was formed to improve safety efficiency of the Indian Railways with focus on track signalling, rolling stock, stations and terminals.

In its report submitted to the prime minister on February 25, 2012, the panel made 113 recommendations in 15 key areas.

The busiest 19,000-km stretch of tracks that connect the country’s four big cities need to be upgraded to a robust network, the report says. This would make high-speed transport with 25-tonne axle load carriages possible on the network.

The committee recommends elimination of level crossings through construction of railway overbridges or underpasses, strengthening of existing bridges and 100 per cent mechanised track maintenance. Besides, there is need for flawless signalling backed by GSM networks, apart from a train protection warning system.

To increase efficiency, the report suggests introduction of next-generation electric and high horsepower diesel locomotives. LHB, or Linke Holfmann Bush, coaches, which can speed up to 200 kmph, could be immediately introduced.

The expert group has estimated requirement of Rs 560,396 crore in the next five years to initiate the modernisation plan.

Immediate measures by railways should be taken to raise the amount, the committee says. The entire fund can be sourced from gross budgetary support, internal generation, leasing and borrowings, public-private partnership investments, dividend rebate and Road Safety Fund. Together, they can yield about Rs 822,671 crore.
But all is not well with DFC. The project was to be completed by 2013. But it has been delayed by five years. Costs have also overshot by almost 150 per cent from the initial Rs 28,000 crore. This forced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to step in. Last month, he met chief secretaries of states through which the DFC will pass and asked them to expedite work. Officials say land acquisition is a big problem, leading to delays. Former railway minister Mamata Banerjee had stopped forcible land acquisitions. “About 65 per cent of the land required for the project has been acquired. Earth works and building of bridges and underpasses are also in progress. But acquiring the rest 35 per cent land is a problem,” a railway official says.

High-speed rails

If DFC promises faster transportation of goods, passengers may also get a taste of high speed soon. Since the late 1980s, railways has been conducting studies on introducing bullet trains in India. But the idea gained momentum in the ministry only after a series of bilateral meetings with Japan in 2006.

Bullet trains are far more convenient and environment-friendly than road transport, say railway officials. That’s why six routes have been identified and studies commissioned to ascertain their feasibility. Of these, three are in the south, two in western India and one each in northern and eastern parts.

Railways’ Vision 2020 document states that 2,000 km of high-speed corridors will be built on which trains will run at over 300 kmph per hour. At present, the average speed between the four big metros is below 90 kmph. It takes 17 to 38 hours to commute between two of these cities. High-speed rail can turn a 17-hour journey between Mumbai and Delhi to a quick eight-hour travel. Such journeys will not only add to passengers’ convenience, but also help take a substantial amount of air traffic. The high-speed Shatabdi Express, for instance, runs at half the speed of a bullet train, yet it has won back a lot of commuters from road and air.

RITES recently completed preliminary studies for the first corridor, a 650-km stretch between Pune and Ahmedabad. When implemented, the journey will be of two hours and 40 minutes instead of five hours. But the joy of travelling high-speed comes with a huge price tag.

RITES’ calculations suggest the cost of setting up infrastructure will be a high Rs 85 crore per km. Travelling by high-speed train will cost marginally less than air travel. A flight ticket booked cheap well in advance between Pune and Ahmedabad costs about Rs 6-7 a kilometre. On a high-speed train, RITES says, the cost of the lowest class will be between Rs 4.5 and Rs 7 per km. Premium class fares could cost 30 per cent more.

Railways plans to build the Pune-Ahmedabad stretch on private-public partnership model with a 70:30 debt-equity ratio. Government will fund 17 per cent of the total cost through budgetary support and 11 per cent through soft loans. As per estimates made in 2010, the project would cost Rs 49,000 crore for infrastructure alone. Another Rs 6,800 crore will be spent on trains. The financial rate of return has been calculated at 11.42 per cent before taxation. RITES officials say high-speed networks like Japan’s Tokyo-Osaka line can break even in about 10 years.

  Dedicated Freight Corridors will take 85 per cent of the traffic, and allow better performance of passenger trains, say World Bank projections  
On the environment front, high-speed trains are far ahead of road and air transport. To move 100 passengers over a kilometre, high-speed trains emit 4 kg of carbon, compared to 14 kg by cars and 17 kg by aircraft, says a RITES study. The railways is now studying ways to derive energy from renewable sources for high-speed rails and dedicated freight corridors to generate income from carbon credits. High-speed trains and DFCs are only a part of railways’ plan to modernise. Passenger safety, better brakes and signalling system are high on its priority. The biggest eyesore in a passenger train—the toilet—needs to change, and not just for hygiene’s sake. Toilets have become a potential safety issue as they corrode the tracks. The Kakodkar Committee report says railways urgently needs to pump in Rs 100,000 crore to make train travel safe. A complete facelift will require Rs 9,00,000 crore, says the Pitroda Committee report (see ‘Pitroda Committee recommends’).

Poor ticket show

Advent of low-cost airlines in the last decade came as a big challenge for the railways. One seat in an aircraft costs as much as an AC two-tier ticket. To improve its condition, apart from a fund-boost, railways needs to revise and make earnings from passenger fares. But given that railways will always have a socialist outlook, there is limited scope for increasing fares beyond a point. In 2009-10, railways spent nearly Rs 15,000 crore because of low fares, concessions on passenger tickets and low rates on transportation of commodities, says the Kakodkar Committee report. Railways cannot do away with this, but Rs 5,000 crore should be waived off from the dividend that it pays every year to the government, it adds.

A senior official at the Indian Railways Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering based in Jamalpur, Bihar, suggests railways could make profits by differential off-season and peak-season fares. Price elasticity of 2.86 is possible for superfast trains, says a study by IIT in 2008 titled ‘Revenue management in railway operations: A study of the Rajdhani Express’. At present, freight charges follow such a mechanism. During monsoons, discounts are offered for bulk commodities. Cancellation rates should be restructured. Non-refundable tickets issued at low prices should also generate revenue.

But will these impressive measures be implemented? It all depends on the support railways receives from the government. With the current congestion slowing down the behemoth dangerously, there should be no second opinion that the railways needs to be put on the superfast track For, it is not only the cheapest but the most environmentally benign mode of transport.

With inputs from Roomana Hukil

Kakodkar’s bail-out plan
Accidents due to lack of infrastructure are a “serious cause of concern”, says report of a high-level safety review committee chaired by Anil Kakodkar. The committee presented its report in February 2012.

In the past five years, the number has fallen from 195 major accidents to 143. Two big reasons for the accidents are derailment and unmanned crossings. The number of deaths has risen from 208 to 381 in the same period. Injuries have risen from 610 to 844 due to severe accidents.

When the Kalka-Howrah Mail derailed at Malwan station in Uttar Pradesh in July 2011, 71 people died and 87 were grievously injured. The Kakodkar Committee was formed in the aftermath of this tragedy. Casualties could have been averted if the train had modern coaches like those in Rajdhanis and Shatabdis. These coaches called LHB, or Linke Hofmann Bush, were designed in Germany by Alstom, which specialises in high-speed rail systems. But Kalka-Howrah Mail was running with a rake of coaches designed at the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in Chennai. They were designed way back in the 1970s when the top speed of trains was about 80 kmph. Now, top speed of most passenger trains has increased to 100-110 kmph.

Adding more coaches to a train is a major reason for derailment. The coaches were meant to be attached in shorter formations. But over the years, trains have become longer. At times, up to 24 coaches are hauled together. During derailment or collision, coaches climb on top of each or get disconnected from the rake and fall sideways. LHB coaches are safer because even in the event of a derailment or collision it will not break away from the rake. At present, there are about 43,000 such coaches in the country.

The Bhubaneswar-New Delhi Rajdhani, which derailed on March 22, 2010, had LHB coaches. There was not a single casualty in the incident although the derailment was triggered by a bomb.

Modelling studies show that even at a low speed of 40 kmph, ICF designed coaches suffer substantial damage, while LHB coaches can stand collisions at 80 kmph. At present, India produces only about 400 LHB every year at Railway Coach Factory, Kapurthala. Officials say the railways plans to double the capacity. The Kakodkar committee recommends that in the next five years, Rs 10,000 crore should be invested to replace all old coaches.

India still has 14,869 unmanned level crossings, which contribute to 65 per cent deaths and 38 per cent injuries of the total casualties due to consequential train accidents of all types, says the Kakodkar committee report. As much as Rs 50,000 crore should be invested to replace all level crossings by underpasses and overbridges. This could save the railways about Rs 7,000 crore a year.

While the committee wants modernisation of signalling, telecommunications, tracks and coaches, a key proposal is to set up a railway safety authority by amending the Rail Safety Improvement Act 1989 or by enacting new legislation. Most developed countries have separate laws to ensure safety of railways. Coincidentally, also called Rail Safety Improvement Acts, these help the Americans, the British and the Australians to run a safe railway system.

India has a chief commissioner of railway safety. But the post is attached to the Ministry of Civil Aviation. The Kakodkar Committee recommends this office should be brought under the Railway Safety Authority.


Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Related Story:

Highlights of the Railway Budget 2012-13

We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • In view of the recent

    In view of the recent developments I don't see any development work being undertaken in near future, a long wait is ahead.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • A well-rounded and

    A well-rounded and information-studded overview of what needs to be done. And there is so much that needs to be done if we are to catch up with the rest of the world. A stunning challenge ahead of us.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • I was doing research on

    I was doing research on Indian railway system and I find it funny that many people associate it only with the trains brimful of people. It'd be nice to wipe out this negative image of the system

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply