Suresh Prabhu had last year embarked on a crusade to revamp Indian Railways on a massive scale, and in the process has been removing whatever obstacles may come in the way, a virtual ‘Vighnaharta’.
Perhaps the first and the largest obstacle removed was the financial constraint which the Railways had been facing over the last two decades, and finding resources other than the annual budgetary support from the central exchequer was paramount.
Persuading LIC to provide a whopping R1.5 lakh crore of credit line was a major breakthrough, which required all of Prabhu’s persuasive skills. Giving the Railways enough time for its projects to start yielding returns, interest payments kick in only from the sixth year while repayment of capital in equal instalments commences from the 11th year, ending in the 30th year.
In order to ensure that all such projects financed by LIC loan are up and running quickly and start filling the Railways’ empty coffers, Prabhu is personally monitoring the progress on an almost weekly basis. As a result, the detailed project report, which used to take months, if not years, for most of the 77 capacity augmentation projects announced by him in the last Rail Budget, are already in.
Simultaneously, joint ventures with Coal India Ltd, which has a stake in the evacuation of coal, and the state governments would ensure speedy environmental and other clearances, remove any local impediments such as land acquisition and also help early execution of projects.
Tender documents are under preparation so that once all clearance comes in, there is no delay in floating them and finalising contracts. Awarding engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) contracts—a first for the Railways—for a complete corridor to a single party would ensure full accountability and timely completion.
Interestingly, quite a few of the new lines meant for evacuation of coal and iron-ore etc pass through backward areas and understandably some states are willing to finance more than the mandatory 50% of the project cost, a win-win situation for both.
Entrusting the projects to the Railways’ own in-house entities—Ircon International, Rail Vikas Nigam, Rail India Techno-Economic Services and Konkan Rail—would hopefully ensure quality and time-bound execution.
However, bringing about a major upgrade of station premises and trains under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and giving passengers a better travel environment could prove to be tricky, even though adopting a system like China’s—where the passenger volumes are close to India’s—may help.
Chinese Railway presumes a person visits a railway station primarily to board a train, thus access to the station premises—not just the platform—is restricted only to ticket holders. Food courts, waiting rooms, left luggage lockers, rest rooms and other conveniences are all built away from the platform, and since there are no vendors on the platforms, no garbage is generated and the track also remains clean.
Passengers bide their time in waiting rooms, being permitted to enter the platform only when the train they intend to board arrives and incoming passengers have detrained, giving them not much time to litter the platform or the track. Moreover, the incoming and outgoing streams being separate keeps confusion to a minimum. Enforcing such a radical departure in travel habits and restricted access to platforms will indeed be a Herculean task even for Prabhu.
Removing the vendors from the platform area would undoubtedly result in intervention by many politicians, though a clampdown on renewal of vendor licences and refusal to grant any new ones could perhaps gradually eliminate them over the years.
Prabhu has already made a beginning with an ambitious project estimated to cost R4,500 crore to fit biotoilets on all newly-built coaches, so that the fecal matter does not get dumped on the tracks. As is mentioned in his White Paper 2015, he would also like to separate parcels from passenger business, thereby giving passengers a clutter-free platform.
Parcels all over the world are now carried by dedicated parcel trains, and Prabhu proposes to use the released parcel-cum-luggage vans from passenger trains to form full rakes running between major cities, while additional passenger coaches in place of these vans would enhance capacity on such trains.
However, getting this business—highly lucrative for parcel handling agencies—to shift to parcel depots would need all of Prabhu’s persuasive skills. A beginning may perhaps be made by palletising the parcels on the lines of airlines and use fork lifts to load them, reducing the unseemly clutter on platforms, while setting up a regime for higher volumes whenever the business moves to parcel depots.
In addition, considering the fact that parcel traffic earns less than 5% of what 23 million passenger pay every day, it should be worth his effort to give the much-harried passenger a better deal, who might then perhaps be willing to shell out more.
The author is former member, Railway Board