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Bihar’s loss proves to be railways’ gain
- Track Star: Lalu Prasad shows how good a CEO he is with numbers

New Delhi, Feb. 23: Bihar may have lost its Lalu Prasad but the railways have found him ' some would say India is in a win-win situation.

“The railways have made a remarkable turnaround in the last two years under the leadership of my colleague Lalu Prasadji... they have improved their physical and financial performance through excellent operations management,” the economist Prime Minister said yesterday in Parliament.

If that doesn’t shut up all the reform zealots, the numbers will. The railways are expected to end with cash reserves of Rs 10,000 crore in 2005-06, up from Rs 6,950 crore in the previous year, and these people always called Lalu Prasad a populist minister who would destroy the system with his profligacy.

When he unveils the railway budget tomorrow, the politician-entertainer will be overshadowed by an able minister-manager.

On the eve of the budget, he would only say: “There is something for every section.”

Some way into his tenure as railway minister, the traditional portfolio for distributing favours to the home state, it was said Lalu Prasad spent more days in Patna than in Delhi.

True, weeks before his second rail budget, he was busy at Patna’s Moinul Haq Stadium, playing in a friendly between a Railway XI and a media team.

At Rail Bhavan here, the managers might not have minded his absence that much. “That’s why the railways have managed to do so well over these two years,” said an official who handles traffic management.

Lalu Prasad had spread terror among the top brass soon after walking in to take over at Rail Bhavan, ticking them off whenever they did not see his way.

During his subsequent pre-occupation with Assembly elections in Bihar, twice in 2005, the railways prospered, clocking a gross income of Rs 34,364 crore for the first eight months of this financial year compared with Rs 30,021 crore in the same period in 2004-05.

He might have been away to Patna a lot, but he was hardly out of touch. Rail Bhavan sources say Lalu Prasad has an espionage network that keeps him informed of the activities of his top officials. Besides, he has the ability to cut through bureaucratic niceties to do what he wants.

Always skilled at staging drama ' such as the Re 1 cut in rail fares ' he is now winning admiration from colleagues for out-of-the-box thinking. Murli Deora, newly installed as petroleum minister, said: “Lalu Prasad is doing some very good work. Railways ka kaya palat ho raha hai (the railways are being completely transformed). Some of his initiatives have never been thought of before. They are firsts.”

It must be mentioned that the condition he finds himself and his charge, the railways, in is also unprecedented. The railways are under threat from low-cost airlines.

Traditional answers to revenue raising, such as increasing fares, don’t work in situations of competition. Who would have thought Lalu Prasad would talk the language of the market!

He has promised there will be no fare increase this year. Instead, the railways would aggressively target low-fare, no-frills airlines by giving “all frills at low cost”.

Frequent traveller miles' just as airlines offer ' automatic upgrades to higher classes and faster and better trains at the same cost are part of his weaponry. To beat the airlines, he is juggling schedules and pushing trains to run faster.

So-called superfast trains currently run at an average speed of 55 km an hour while the prestigious Rajdhani Express and Shatabdi clock about 90 km. He wants these trains to move at between 90 and 120 km an hour, connect metros and important cities overnight with more comforts on board.

He will also try and wean away holiday tourists from the airlines by offering 15-day package tours beginning at Rs 6,000 per head, including meals.

He now wants the railways to agree to increase the number of coaches an express train hauls from an average 18 to 22, creating an additional capacity of 20 per cent.

Brilliant thinking' Not everyone is impressed. “The old track network needs to be overhauled. Money is being pumped into this but till you have a new track set-up, increasing speed, increasing the number of coaches should not be done on a 24x7 basis. You will soon have groaning tracks and more frequent breakdowns,” some officials caution.

The sector with the heaviest movement ' Delhi-Mughalsarai ' is now so busy that maintenance crews get only 40 minutes a day to do any repair work compared with several hours earlier.

Lalu Prasad, however, has pointed out that his Delhi-Agra-Bhopal Shatabdi, which early this month started plying at a top speed of 150 kmph, has been a success.

Officials cite a decision Rail Bhavan believes helped boost revenue and reduce turnaround time of wagons ' a sharp increase in demurrage rates users pay for delaying to unload their goods. The threat of heavy penalty for keeping wagons idling at yards has got customers emptying them out quicker than before.

Simultaneously, the minister invented a flexi-freight rate scheme, called “premium policy” under which users can get their freight to move faster by paying more.

Recently, despite opposition from bureaucrats, Lalu Prasad raised the load a wagon can carry to 60 tonnes maximum. Overnight, the railways’ carrying capacity swelled by 10 per cent. Fears were expressed that wagons could break down. The minister found out that rakes were overloaded anyway in connivance with corrupt rail officials.

Steps like these have led to the railways halting the march of road transport. Since the early 1950s, the railways have been steadily losing traffic to trucks. But this year, freight earnings increased by 17.4 per cent, more than double the rate at which the country’s economy grew.

Even Ram Vilas Pawan, now the steel minister but who has earlier overseen the railways and who made sure Lalu Prasad lost Bihar by refusing to ally with him, recently sang his enemy’s praise. At a meeting in Delhi, he thanked the railways for transporting raw material for the steel industry at a faster than normal pace.

If the railways can bring the two on the same tracks, maybe next time Lalu Prasad can win Bihar, too.

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