How’s this for thought? In the NDA’s maiden Railways budget presented in 2015, the word ‘technology’ was mentioned only once. There were another 13-14 references to Braille facilitated coaches, etc, but nothing more. In the light of this, the 2016 budget wasn’t predicted to be any different. Suresh Prabhu’s 2nd budget however more than made up for the absence of technological initiatives of last year’s with about 21 specific ‘technology’ mentions.
In his speech, Suresh Prabhu used terms such as analytics, drones and geospatial technology – terminology one doesn’t generally associate with the budget and so far certainly not with the Indian railways. So in that sense it was a pleasant surprise and many of these initiatives, if taken forward, will be vital to the larger plan of transforming an old-economy mammoth into a modern-day, fast, efficient, safe and consumer-friendly entity. Get ready for Indian Railways 2.0.
What was even closer to the heart was that the minister, in the course of his speech, also mentioned that his ministry plans to set up a “committed, cross-functional team” called the Special Unit for Transportation Research and Analytics (SUTRA) to oversee this task.
The clear highlight for the Railways in recent years has been monetization. The writing is on the wall – the Railways needs to gradually pay for itself and there is no reason why it shouldn’t. According to media and other reports the railways incurred a loss of over Rs. 26,000 crores in 2014. With no fare hikes and an increased wage bill starting from January this year, that loss will only increase. Boosting efficiencies and cross-leveraging assets, resources and opportunities is a solution. In light of this, the announcement of SUTRA makes a lot of sense. It’s about time that the railways made sense of their data and then looked at ways of monetizing this.
Just think about it. The data that the Railways generates is mind-boggling and here I’m not just speaking of data stored through online bookings. Add to this the enormous quantities of data generated through GPS, AEI readers, electronic data interchange, video inspections, handheld field tablets, and multiple other sources. The Indian Railways generates approximately 100 terabytes of data each year. This is set to increase even further with Google’s initiative of offering free WiFi across 100 railway stations (Mumbai Central was the first station to be offered this). At one glance the Indian Railways will know exactly what millions of Indians across socio-economic spectrum consume online, on a real-time and daily basis.