It's a great waste of potential & possibilities

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  • Published 27.02.07
Guest Column

Dinesh Trivedi

When I look at the Indian Railways, I cannot but help have a sense of awe at the sheer network of railway tracks and the huge masses it carries or its role in transporting goods. The Railways indeed has done and is doing a great service to the nation. It makes me all the more disappointed since the policy planners at the top lack the imagination and perhaps the will to make this wonderful mode of transportation a world-beater.

Much has been talked about the improved financial performance of the Railways in terms of the profit it is making. No one can deny that during the last few years, the Railways has shown an impressive performance in terms of operating ratio. It has been brought down from 98 per cent in 2001 to 73.7 per cent this year with a return on capital employed (ROCE) of 32 per cent. The profits are expected to be Rs 20,000 crore this year!

Impressed? Just scratch the surface and the truth comes out. It has been achieved by acceleration in growth of freight traffic through better leveraging of existing assets and not by capital investments in augmenting the carrying capacity. There is every indication that the performance may well have peaked and the wagon turnaround time has also become almost flat.

How does the Railways plan to keep pace with the phenomenal growth that the economy is witnessing? Massive capital needs to be infused to augment infrastructure. In the last 15 years, China has made $120-billion investment to expand its railway network compared with India’s meagre $20 billion.

The Railways has been the story of missed opportunities. Imagine a network of optical fibres along the railway tracks (Railtel) connecting even the remotest village of India and the densely populated cities and the kind of knowledge revolution it would have created.

Imagine a farmer sitting in a remote village getting information about weather, seeds, fertiliser, market prices and the latest technology for farming and the kind of value it could have unleashed for the agriculture sector. Imagine patients being treated in villages through telemedicine with patients not clogging the AIIMS and the Apollos of metropolitan India. Imagine the benefits to the education sector.

A Mckinsey study points out that the Railways could have earned Rs 700 crore per annum as right of way with private operators using the same network.

The Railways has a huge land bank. It is a sort of criminal offence to possess such huge tracts of land without putting it to productive use. Many economic activities can be undertaken on this unproductive land.

There is an urgent need to modernise the Railways and infuse technology to make it world-class.

Can you think of an unmanned railway crossing anywhere in the world? We need to invest huge sums to upgrade tracks and the signalling system so that high-speed trains can become a reality.

Modern facilities like video, music and Internet to special category of passengers can be provided, especially in view of the fierce competition from budget airlines.

What stops us from having a GSM-based system to track the movement of wagons? It is already there for tracking the movements of trucks. It would certainly improve the efficiency of operations and reduce the turnaround time of a wagon.

Safety and security of passengers from theft and terrorist attacks are of paramount importance. We need to have a special force to combat any such attempts threatening the lives of innocent passengers. The Railway Budget 2007-08 is surprisingly silent on this issue. The movement of automobiles through the Railways can provide immense revenue considering the strong demand it has. The possibility of extending the tracks to major factory outlets can be explored.

It is high time that the railway minister realises the huge opportunities knocking at the door of the Railways. Let’s make the most of it.