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Railway modernisation, privatisation at the cost of common commuters, safety: Report

Counterview Desk 

The People's Commission on Public Sector and Public Services (PCPSPS), an advocacy group claiming to be consisting of “eminent academics, jurists, erstwhile administrators, trade unionists and social activists”, in a report has said that the recent multiple train accident near Balasore in Odisha, which resulted in a large number of fatalities and injuries, “is a reminder of the necessity of enhancing the safety of railways in preference to the introduction of high-speed passenger trains.”
Pointing out that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), parts of which have been published by the media, “does not cover the entire aspects of Railway safety and speed”, the report says, modernisation of Indian Railways (IR) by the introduction of more and more express trains and air-conditioned bogies, even as laying emphasis on Vande Bharat, it is being done “at the cost of the ordinary passengers, who often find themselves packed in over-crowded bogies with little of basic amenities.”
It underlines, the privatisation of Indian Railways, which is what the Government of India is pushing for, “would accentuate these problems further as private companies driven by the profit motive would increase the charges that ordinary passengers can ill afford.”

Text:

The recent multiple train accident near Balasore in Odisha, which resulted in a large number of fatalities and injuries, is a reminder of the necessity of enhancing the safety of railways in preference to the introduction of high-speed passenger trains. The Report of the Controller, parts of which is published by the media does not cover the entire aspects of Railway safety and speed.

Role of Railways:

In terms of offering short-distance travel to passengers at affordable rates, generating employment opportunities across the length and breadth of the country, especially to disadvantaged sections and developing backward and remote areas, Railways have historically been among the largest social security providers in the country. In addition, railways provide the lifeline for the economy in moving food grains, fertilizers, coal and other commodities that sustain the economy. In times of emergency, it is the railways that have risen to the occasion and provided logistic support for relief operations. The outstanding performance was seen in Oxygen supply during the pandemic. All this has been possible as a result of railway operations being predominantly in the Government sector.

Present status:

The route mileage of Indian railways has grown very little since 1873 - a century ago - when the present railway network was completed by the British. Since Independence, only another 5,000 km have been added to the 55,000 km that the British left behind. This works out at less than 200 km per year, not much to write about. This is despite the phenomenal increase in both passenger and freight traffic over the same period and the gradual increase in the average speed of train movement.
The average speed of goods trains in Indian Railways is only 25kmph, whereas the average speed of passenger trains is 50 kmph. Even the average speed of the much-trumpeted Vande Bharat trains has rarely exceeded 85 kmph. Recently flagged 5 trains have average speed of only 60 to 65kmph. There may be some sections where a speed of 130 kmph is allowed but it is not without consequences like side-lining of regular trains. The Golden Quadrilateral (Chennai-Mumbai-Delhi-Howrah-Chennai route) constitutes only 20% of the network, where 55% of the traffic moves, leading to congestion. Many sections of this have 130 to 150% occupation, which leaves little time for attending to normal maintenance work, resulting in accidents.

Inadequate amenities for the majority of passengers:

The seating capacity of the railways increased by 113% between 1931 and 2014, while the number of passengers had gone up by 173%. The plight of most passengers who depend on railways has further worsened since then due to the widening gap between the seating capacity and the volume of passenger traffic, especially short-distance passengers. Long-distance passengers constitute a much smaller fraction of the total traffic. About 55% of passengers travel short-distance, about 20km per passenger. The average trip of the remaining 45% of passengers is just over 80km. For improving the comfort of the majority of the passengers, the seating capacity should be increased in the case of short-distance passengers and better amenities need to be created for them at affordable rates.

What is urgently needed:

More than anything else. The ageing track facilities along the entire network of railways need to be upgraded. In addition, augmentation of track capacity in terms of dedicated freight corridors and dedicated express lines is necessary to facilitate accident-free, speedy movement of freight and passenger traffic. Since backward area development is an important responsibility of the railways, investments need to be made in extending railway facilities to such areas.
From the point of minimising specific oil consumption and the consequent levels of pollution in both freight and passenger traffic movement, railways are far more efficient compared to road movement. The balance of advantage therefore lies in re-orienting the national transport policy in favour of railways. From that point of view, it is necessary that adequate investments be made on railways. Investment of one rupee in railways generates 5 rupees in the economy.
In fact, the government in 2019 announced an investment of Rs 50 lakh crore in railways over the next 20 years. Unfortunately, the goalposts and the amount of investment underwent frequent changes suggesting a lack of clarity and vision.
The National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) aimed at an investment of Rs 13.69 lakh crore in four years up to 2023. As no private players came forward to invest in railways, the government proposed to invest 87% of 13.69 lakh crore. Not even 30% of it came through budgetary support. Even before the end of the NIP, the government proposed a National Rail Plan (NRP) for 30 years from 2021 to 2051 with an expected investment of Rs 38.5 lakh crores. There has been no objective appraisal of the plans mooted from time to time and the outcomes.
While such plans were being proposed with varying goalposts, the government suddenly announced a national policy of monetisation of assets, which included railway assets also.
The National Monetisation pipeline (NMP) was expected to mobilise Rs 1.52 lakh crore through the leasing of trains, stations, tracks dedicated for freight corridors, railway lands etc from private agencies to fund the NIP. Asset monetisation implied leasing brownfield assets to private agencies to raise resources for greenfield investments. The NMP failed to take off because of speed constraints arising from infrastructure limitations in respect of running of private trains and other reasons in respect of other assets.
Each year signalling gears and associated facilities in 200 stations need renewal, but  signal gear in only 100 stations is being renewed
From what appears in the Annual Budgets and the Economic Surveys, it is evident that there has been scant importance to augmenting the infrastructure of the railways. Considering the critical importance of railway movement for freight traffic that sustains economic development, the nation should invest adequately in railway infrastructure.

Safety:

The existing railway track systems are over stressed. Annually, about 4,500 km of track become overaged needing renewal. As of date, there are 10,000 km of track renewal arrears to be attended to, in addition to attending to 4500km of track renewal due for the current year. The backlog of track renewal will increase if there are annual shortfalls.
Every year, the signalling gears and associated facilities in 200 stations need renewal, whereas, the signal gear in only 100 stations is being renewed at present. As a result, there are large number of stations awaiting signal gear renewal.
One of the major links in railway safety is the ageing bridges constructed decades ago, which need strengthening.
A plan with an investment of Rs 1 lakh crore was proposed in the name of the National Rail Safety Fund (NSF) to invest Rs 20,000 crore every year from 2017 onwards for the track renewal, the upgradation of signal gear, bridges and other crucial items of infrastructure. In the absence of sufficient generation of surplus resources within railways and inadequate budgetary support, the NSF failed to take off as expected, leading to serious deficiencies in terms of safety.

Railways are over-stretched:

As railways have not been able to invest adequately in the augmentation of the capacity of infrastructure facilities and in view of the priority given to speed over safety and ignoring the needs of the majority of passengers who travel largely in passenger trains and in unreserved compartments of express trains. The local passenger trains are being replaced by express trains, super-fast trains such as Vande Bharats and more and more air-conditioned bogies for which the fares are far too high for ordinary passengers to be able to bear. Though the introduction of express trains and the introduction of air-conditioned bogies have improved amenities for some passengers, it has been at the cost of the ordinary passengers who often find themselves packed in over-crowded bogies with little of basic amenities.
Privatisation would accentuate these problems further as private companies driven by the profit motive would increase the charges that ordinary passengers can ill afford. This has been witnessed in a few Private trains which have been introduced and stopped.

Employment opportunities:

As already stated, the railways provide employment opportunities for lakhs of persons from disadvantaged sections. Reservations for the SCs/STs/OBCs in railways empower those sections immensely. However, the manner in which the government has evolved policies and operated the railways has progressively eroded the railways’ role in this respect.
The strength of railways which was 16.54 lakhs in 1990 has come down to 12.12 lakhs, implying a reduction of 4.42 lakhs. At present, there are 3.12 lakh vacancies in the sanctioned strength of the railways, according to information made available in the parliament, 3.12 lakh posts in the Railways are lying vacant as of June 2023 with more than 2.67 lakh of them in the safety category More importantly, the strength of the track maintaining staff has halved from 4 lakhs to 2 lakhs. There are at present 87000 vacancies in trackmen, 62,000 in operating staff, 9,000 driver vacancies, 34,000 vacancies in the electrical staff, 64000 mechanical staff and 14815 signal staff. All those vacancies have a direct bearing on safety, apart from doing injustice to the SCS/STs/OBCs. Outsourcing of work to private agencies has diluted accountability and affected the safety of railways.
What next?

Keeping the above in view, the Commission makes the following recommendations:

1. We record our appreciation to IR for raising to the occasion during Covid times by running freight trains uninterruptedly to supply essentials to every corner of the country. It is also necessary to appreciate running of oxygen expresses making all-out effort to meet the peoples’ needs during the need of the hour. It was not without consequences to the workers and officers who were engaged in the task when thousands lost their lives due to Covid and more than a lack of workers infected with Covid. This was possible only because IR is in the Government sector which emphasizes the need for continuance of IR in the Government sector.
  • The primary role of the railways should continue to be its role as a social security provider, which under no circumstances should be diluted. Instead of its slant in favour of improving amenities for the elite among passengers, the focus should shift towards increasing the number of trains, seating capacity, amenities and comfort for ordinary passengers, many travelling over short distances, who cannot afford to pay high railway fares.
  • Senior citizen concession should be restored.
  • Number of unreserved General second-class coaches should be increased.
2. Instead of shifting the goalposts of planning with empty mega announcements without matching real implementation the government should put in place a medium-term and a long-term plan for investments to be made to augment track capacity and critical infrastructure facilities required for ensuring decongestion and 100% safety. There should be no compromise on this. It should be ensured that Central Government invests 100% without telling that the private will invest, as no Private Service Provider has come for investment in the past in rail infrastructure. Besides one rupee invested in railways generates 5 rupee in the economy. Since the country cannot afford the recurrence of an accident like the one that took place recently in Odisha, no new express trains should be introduced before ensuring safety in all respects. It is of paramount importance to augment track capacity along congested sections on the Golden Quadrilateral and other segments before indiscriminately rushing into the introduction of express trains, especially Vande Bharats. The Commission in particular wishes utmost caution to be exercised by the government in introducing more than a hundred Vande Bharats as reported, as the country cannot afford to relegate safety to speed.
3. The average speed of freight-carrying rakes is abysmally low as pointed out above. Railways and the nation can derive maximum economic returns by augmenting infrastructure facilities to enhance the average speed of freight-carrying goods trains.
4. The anti-collision device Kavach should be installed in all engines and all routes
5. All 3.12 lakh vacancies and arising vacancies including in safety categories should be filled in a mission mode with a special drive instead of telling the parrot-like repetition of ‘filling up of vacancies is a continuing process.’ Outsourcing of activities should be rescinded, and as there are 7 lakh contract workers in IR, same number of regular posts should be created and filled with trained skilled staff in the interest of the safety of Railways which will provide for social justice through reservation of posts for SC/ST OBCs. These efforts will help in a way to reduce unemployment of youth in the country.

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