With 40,000 miles of tracks and 17,000 trains, India’s vast railway network stretches across the subcontinent, connecting remote villages to heaving metropolises. Set up under the Raj, the system provides a crucial lifeline for the 18 million people a day who use it and for the 1.4 million people it employs.
But perfect it is not. The trains are criticised as decrepit and overcrowded, unclean, unsafe and poorly managed. In recent years, ageing tracks, signals and wagons have contributed to an increasing number of passenger deaths. Despite train carriages often being crammed full, endemic corruption has led to revenue shortfalls.
India’s first railway university aims to put a stop to all this. The brainchild of the prime minister, Narendra Modi, it is being billed as an attempt to upgrade the railway system and put it on a par with that of rival economic power China.
Modi hopes the institution will turn India into a global centre for research and development in railway engineering and management. A delegation from China visited India to help develop a curriculum and identify areas of research. In initial plans for the university, the minister of railways, Suresh Prabhu, noted that railway staff would get yoga lessons and training on “how to make railway customers feel welcomed”.
Not everyone is convinced. An internal report from the railway ministry last year concluded that the institution would be a waste of money, and said the government should focus instead on improving core operations and creaking infrastructure.
Though the Modi government promised more efficient, professional and modern rail services, the prime minister has been criticised for frivolous spending. In his election campaign, Modi promised stronger links between four major cities – Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi and Kolkata.
But in December last year he announced a £9.6bn deal with Japan for India’s first bullet train to connect the financial metropolis of Mumbai to the western city of Ahmedabad, in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Ahmedabad had not been part of the initial plans, raising questions as to why the city was chosen for the first bullet train.
The university will offer MBA and MTech degrees to begin with, and later diplomas and BTechs in railway operations, Manoj Sinha, a junior railways minister, has said.
It will initially be based at Pratap Vilas palace at Lalbaug, in the west of India, which is currently home to a training centre for railway officers. Sinha is scouting out locations in Gujarat where a new campus will eventually be established.
Students will be able to work on various aspects of developing the rail network. As part of last year’s budget announcement, Prabhu said Indian Railways would work closely with top universities to develop areas of research. “Such a partnership between railways and academic institutions will not only help railways and Indian institutes of technology but will also be helpful to the nation,” he said.
Aside from the university, the railway upgrade scheme includes various other initiatives to modernise the network, including the introduction of electronic ticketing machines to eliminate corruption in ticket offices, and the elimination of the pantry car service, to be replaced with a modern catering service offering pizzas and burgers instead of the traditional dal and roti.