In India's noisy Railways workshops, engineers are currently busy fitting an extra sleeper berth in every compartment — a tiny piece of a massive jigsaw. It is part of the stunning turnaround of the world’s second largest railway which is now dreaming an ever bigger dream: becoming a 10 billion-passenger network in eight years.
That will be like transporting the world’s current population more than one-and-a-half-times over every year. But some experts who laud the network’s revamp are also cautioning against compromising on passenger comfort, and urge radical management changes.
By year-end, officials expect to showcase the first results of a coach redesign. The Garib Rath (chariot of the poor) — cheaper, airconditioned trains aimed at millions of customers who could not travel comfortably earlier —will soon have three people sleeping on the side, where two did earlier.
After that, similar changes are planned in all trains. The Garib Rath is already packed: it carries 1,929 passengers compared with 1,228 in a standard air-conditioned train. “Why are the coaches being further cramped? How will the passengers sit comfortably? What will happen to the hygiene if the same number of already filthy toilets cater to a much larger number of passengers?” said B.M.S. Bisht, a former general manager in the railways. Indian Railways was slammed by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India this month in its first-ever cleanliness audit. But Railway officials say the move is aimed at better design, not shortchanging the poor.
“Why do you want to waste so much space? Right now we are not optimising the layout of our coaches. The layout changes are planned on all trains, not just the Garib Rath,” said Sudhir Kumar, Officer on Special Duty at the Railway Ministry, and the officer widely credited with the Railways turnaround. “Our stress is on faster, heavier, longer trains. The first two words are worth $2 billion; the last word is worth $1 billion,” he said.
If the network meets it targets, here is what it will look like in 2015: passenger trains will move at an average of 100 kilometres per hour from 55 kmph currently, slow-moving goods trains will ratchet up their speed from 24 kmph to 60 kmph; and passenger traffic will soar from 6 billion annually to 10 billion. But beyond the nuts and bolts, there are managerial issues at stake, experts say.
“While the current minister (Lalu Prasad Yadav) has achieved wonders in improving the balancesheet by taking advantage of things that should have been done years ago, he is not tackling the fundamental issues that need to be addressed,” international railways consultant David Burns told the Hindustan Times.
Those include “creating a true board of directors instead of bunch of vice presidents who are arguing for their individual departments,” Burns said. “He also needs to give the senior management tenure such that they do not retire after only being in the position for a few months and in some cases a few weeks.”
Former Railway Board members say the decision to allow overloading of freight trains could also lead to less smooth rides for passengers — since it can change the alignment of rails or disfigure their surface. This is because freight trains travel on the same tracks as passenger coaches.
Perhaps with that in mind, Target 2015, the Railways’ roadmap for its next phase, aims to construct freight corridors spanning 11,500 kilometres as part of a larger Rs 350,000 crore programme.
Of that, Rs 100,000 crore will be generated internally, according to ministry projections in eight years, as against Rs 28,300 crore now.
All that is getting praise, but the chorus of caution is growing. “If you look around the world, railways have only been restructured after they get into serious financial trouble,” Burns said.
“The fact that Indian Railways is currently making a profit will only postpone the significant restructuring that has to come.”