Once again it’s budget season, and railway minister Suresh Prabhu will not only be taking stock of last year’s performance but also revealing the road ahead. Last year no new trains or multi-crore projects were announced while he prioritised the elimination of bottlenecks on some of the high-density corridors.
However, much remains to be done in the vital area of garnering new lines of the freight business, and though inviting the private sector to set up freight terminals has seen almost 400 applications some more tweaking of policy based on feedback from private players may be in order.
Almost `1 lakh-crore of parcels and high-value white goods could be weaned away from the roads sector if longer parcel vans with nearly 240 cubic metre, almost twice the existing volumetric capacity, and lower axle loads are made available. Recently modified tariff rules permit trains with 20 such parcel vans, providing economies of scale no shipper can ignore.
The vexatious problem of the freight business subsiding passenger services continues. Perhaps the proposed Railway Regulatory Authority could take an early decision to carry out the much overdue hike, very much justified now, given the large-scale inputs made last year for providing better passenger amenities: A vital step needed for the Railways to avoid an annual hike in freight tariff, and encourage shippers to switch from road to rail.
The recent derailment of four coaches of the Bengaluru-bound Island Express in Tamil Nadu has highlighted the need for a more proactive approach in the vital area of safety. Derailments, accounting for almost 45% of all accidents, continue to plague the 65,000-km-long network. Perhaps it is time for an external agency to carry out an in-depth audit of the existing practices.
A fleet of almost 250,000 wagons carry freight and their health, i.e. service reliability is the key to not only safety but also speed. A system of rakes moving in ‘closed circuits’ introduced almost a decade ago provides the template to achieve not only higher service reliability but also safety and greater productivity of this vital asset. The time is now ripe for it to be ramped up with more rakes to ensure timely deliveries.
The fact that 83% of passenger trains arrive at their destinations punctually is nothing to be proud of. While augmenting the capacity of high-density corridors may ameliorate the situation, an innovative approach by getting the intermediate stations to cut down the duration of the halt of trains would help to make up for lost time.
Not much progress has been made to reduce the number of unmanned level crossings, currently at around 11,000.
Hopefully this year, too, Suresh Prabhu will stick to his tried and tested pragmatic approach, which may not please his political colleagues, but ensure that the nation’s engine of economic growth, which he has been given charge of, stays on the path for an early financial recovery.
RC Acharya is a former member of the Railway Board
The views expressed are personal