The British brought the railway to India in 1853 to ease long-distance transportation. Presently government-run, the Indian Railways (IR) network of 62,658 kms is the largest in Asia, and the fifth largest in the world. It is also, with 1.3 million employees, the largest public-sector employer of India and until 2015, India was the only country to have a separate budget for railways.
Yet, the performance of IR has been rather poor. The sixteen regional zones created for managing the network to transport people and goods efficiently have, nevertheless, been unable to prevent roads from taking over most of goods traffic, and air travel, from taking over passengers (number of air passengers has been growing in double digits in the last five years) because of the shoddy railway system. A CAG report released in 2018 slammed IR for its below par and deficient services. Deterioration in service quality is the result of inadequacies in administrative culture and governance of IR and has cost the public sector its monopoly on transport.
Different Union governments and Railway Ministers have commissioned multiple studies on what ails the IR and how to turn it around, and finally, it seems that they have found a way through! To provide quality services, the IR governance mechanism has been changing, directing its focus towards superior service deliveries. The changes adopted by IR is rooted in the principles of ‘Good Governance’, namely accountability, transparency, responsiveness, effectiveness and efficiency, equity and inclusivity, participation, consensus and rule of law.
To begin with, IR has actively taken responsibility of timely travel of passengers. The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation Limited (IRCTC) has started paying the compensation of Rs. 100 in case the train is delayed by more than one hour and Rs. 250 in case of delay of more than two hours to every passenger in Mumbai- Ahmedabad Tejas Express. Overall, the average of punctuality performance percentage of Mail/Express trains have improved to 74.21% in April-September 2019-20 in comparison from 67.05% in April-September 2018-19. To maintain transparency, especially in booking tickets, IR has not only facilitated online booking, but has also weeded out illegal software and arrested 60 agents who used these software to block Tatkal tickets. Parallelly, IR will now make more Tatkal tickets available.
The IR has improved customer services. It has introduced a single three-digit helpline number - 139 – to take care of a myriad of customer inquiries and grievances during travel such as general complaints, accidents and safety, coach cleanliness, vigilance, and catering services. This integrated helpline number will be based on IVRS (Interactive Voice Response System), take over all the existing helpline numbers (except 182), and provide service in twelve languages. IR is also creating legal frameworks to deal with contemporary and upcoming security challenges such as illegal online ticketing, social media issues and various cyber frauds. The Railway Police Force has already started operating a Cyber Cell in Pune since July 2019 and five more of such cells are planned across the rest of the country. Additionally, railways have launched a new service which will help passengers to register criminal complaints.
Also, as per the vision document of the IR, all state capitals in the North East will be connected by broad-gauge rail link by 2020.
IR has sanctioned two dedicated freight corridors (eastern and western) which will simultaneously address both the needs of freight and passenger traffic, by providing higher speed for the movement of freight traffic. With freight moving faster, the average speed of regular passenger trains may rise by 25 kmph from the existing 60-70 kmph due to lower freight traffic. Four more of such corridors (east-west, north-south, east coast and south-west) are planned in the future.
IR has been plagued by loss of human life due to accidents of trains and at manned level crossings due to inefficient services over the years. Systematic efforts by IR towards improving safety measures for passengers, reducing the number of consequential accidents from 72 to 59 in 2017-18. The IR has also eliminated 1,035 manned level crossings during April-December 2019, compared to 357 during the same period in 2018. Further, IR has approved zinc-coated rails for the renewed tracks. These are also used in London’s Tube and French railway networks as they resist corrosion, increase the speed of trains, and ensure passengers’ safety. IR has placed an order for 2000 tonne zinc-coated rails to the Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL).
Due to obligations of social service, railway fares saw very less hikes, and this adversely affected revenue for years. Now, a regulator has been created to recommend fare rises which will follow cost as a rational mechanism for pricing decisions. With adequate revenue earned from higher prices, railways aim to provide better services. To avail the improved services, people have to pay a higher charge. This kind of public participation would help in transforming Indian railways.
IR has hiked fares for ordinary non-AC, non-suburban fares by 1 paise per km of a journey. These changes are expected to generate revenue worth INR 2,300 crores for IR. In Union Budget 2020, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made an important announcement: private players would be welcomed in railways and would be provided with key routes to run trains.
Principles of ‘Good Governance’ are helpful in improving service delivery by IRs. Rail experts believe that rail transport systems are six times more energy-efficient than the road and four times more economical. Rail construction costs are approximately six times lower than the road for comparable levels of traffic. These efficiencies are undermined as the services provided to masses are unsatisfactory which ultimately affects the profitability of IRs. Therefore, to benefit the masses, trade and IRs itself, railways need to enhance the quality of the service through continuous efforts for inculcating and updating ‘Good Governance’ mechanisms.
Vaibhavi Pingale is an independent economics researcher based in Pune. She has pursued Masters in Economics from Symbiosis University and has varied interests such as labour and development economics and water.