Author: Ashwani Lohani (Chairman Railway Board)
The preceding four years have indeed been an eventful period for the railways. A rapid move forward in consolidating existing operations and energizing various growth-oriented projects is being witnessed. The realization that railways needs to restructure, reform and revitalize has indeed dawned on the national carrier. The need to enhance infrastructure at a pace that blends with the rapidly growing national expectations in so far as passenger and freight traffic is concerned has also started getting addressed. With the tremendous emphasis being laid on safety, an effort that has already started giving results, the impetus is also being given to expediting the much-needed reforms – cultural, process and structural reforms becoming the order of the day. Perhaps for the first time ever in history, very major strides are being made in the process of bringing reforms in the railway system. Delivery is indeed the primary focus of the organization.
With 73 train accidents, the year 2017-18 has indeed been the best year in the history of the railways in so far as its safety record is concerned. It is also the first year ever to log double-digit figure of accidents and it is definitely not a freak achievement, but an achievement that the entire organization has worked for. Renewal of overaged unsafe rail-track has touched an all-time record of 4405 km, sharply up from 2597 kms in 2016-17. The last four years also witnessed an unprecedented high removal of 5469 unmanned level crossings, that are inimical to safety. The Government has also recently and wisely decided to fill up a huge backlog of almost one lakh safety related posts besides creating a fund (RRSK) with a corpus of one lakh crores to be spent on safety items.
The sharp focus of the Government towards capacity enhancement, primarily narrowing the huge backlog of infrastructure deficit has also started paying dividends. The average annual capital expenditure during the last four years at over 98,000 crores is more than double of the spending achieved in the previous five. Our achievements in commissioning 9528 kms of new broad gauge line in the last four years as against 7600 kms during the previous five is indicative of our commitment to enhance the pace of building of infrastructure. And electrification, easily the most widely recognized symbol of development has also witnessed a spike of 4300 kms during 2017-18, a pace that we indeed intend to accelerate further. Manufacture of coaches and locomotives at railway production units has also touched new highs in 2017-18 with ICF manufacturing 2397 coaches, CLW manufacturing 350 electric locomotives and DLW 321 locomotives.
The 14th of September 2017 will go down in the annals of history as a giant leap for the railways in our country, for it is on this day this year that the nation took a major step forward towards displaying its intent of moving away from the era of slow speed trains to real high speed ones. As a citizen of this nation and more so as a railwaymen, I indeed feel more proud than ever. The very thought that the journey from the heart of Ahmedabad in Gujarat to the heart of Mumbai in Maharashtra would be covered in a time frame much shorter than what air travel would entail, and that this is just the beginning, is indeed extremely exciting. Prime Ministers Modi and Shinzo Abe on this day laid the foundation stone of the Mumbai – Ahmedabad High Speed Rail (MAHSR) project, popularly known as the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train in Ahmedabad. And the next five years shall witness frentic activity in the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat to complete this project and position India and also its railway system in the illustrious list of nations that run high speed trains. This first route marks the beginning of a new journey for the railways as well as for the nation. This first route that shall be fully commissioned in 2023 will be the front runner of many more such routes. This project apart from triggering a paradigm shift in how people travel within India and therefore facilitate travel and tourism, would also have a significant impact on the nation’s economy as it scores high on the “Make in India” front. “Make in India” and “transfer of technology” rightly figure in the project agreement between India and Japan, thereby enabling India to make the bullet train a pivotal part of connecting our remotest corners to the epicentres of urbanisation. Called in Japan as ‘Shinkansen’ which means ‘new trunk line’, the bullet train is almost a wonder that will script the most memorable milestone in our journey towards a ‘New India’.
Construction of dedicated freight corridors has also picked up speed. With many administrative, managerial, contractual and legal hurdles having been resolved, this project is going to see the light of the day in March 2020, when both the eastern and western corridors would stand fully commissioned. This would also be a giant leap forward for the railways as from a mixed traffic configuration on our tracks, we would start moving to lines dedicated for freight with its attendant benefits.
Major strides have also been made in one of the most fundamental missions launched in recent times – mission cleanliness. While a lot yet needs to be done, considerable improvements have been achieved in cleanliness of stations and trains. Other passenger interface areas like catering, passenger information regarding delayed trains, e-ticketing and introduction of PoS machines are also being aggressively handled and taken forward. A variety of new designs of coaches and trains in the form of products like the Tejas, Antyodaya, Deendayalu, Humsafar, Anubhuti have also been launched to enhance passenger satisfaction levels. Our sensitivity towards the commuters experiencing dense loads in the suburban systems at Bangalore and Mumbai is also reflected in the sanction of projects for upgradation of Mumbai and Bangalore suburban systems at an overall cost of 51000 and 17000 crores respectively thereby benefitting millions of our passengers.
And our commitment and role in integrating the nation can never be underestimated. With 970 kms of gauge conversion done in the last four years, the North East is now fully integrated with the broad gauge network that covers the entire nation. Rail connectivity has now been established with the states of Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram and direct train connectivity has been made between Itanagar and Silchar to Delhi.
Indian Railways indeed provides the wheels on which the nation moves. It is also aptly called the economic lifeline of the nation and the primary and the most economical mode of transport for the masses. The onset of the new government in 2014 has indeed led to the beginning of the unleashing of this gigantic monolith and a lot of action has indeed begun in the right direction with reforms being at the core of them. Yet the fact remains that internal contradictions within the organization due to it being a business enterprise and also a ministry leads to inadequate exploitation of its true potential. A gigantic leap forward within the realm of possibility would entail a major structural reform at some point in time, the sooner the better.
Change is always painful, yet it is the only constant an organization must have, if it is to progress by leaps and bounds and for a long-term gain, paying a price in the short term is inevitable. While the progress made in the recent past is indeed noteworthy, the fact remains that we run short of the national expectations and would continue to do so with the gap increasing at a rapid pace, unless major structural reforms are undertaken to ultimately run the organization truly on professional lines. Yet the pace of improvement witnessed in recent times and the commitment to the reform process makes one confident that the railways would always be the key player in the economic development of the country in times to come.