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Chaitanya Kalbag

The author is former Editor, Reuters Asia, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindustan Times, and Editor of Business Today

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Can the new Railway minister outrun the challenges?

Photo Credit : PTI


Piyush Goyal is a chartered accountant, lawyer, former investment banker, former Bharatiya Janata Party treasurer, and a go-getter. Goyal, who likes taking leadership courses (currently Harvard; and Yale and Oxford and Princeton earlier) likes stretch targets, just as his boss Narendra Modi favours BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goals, in management-speak).

Typically for him, Goyal held a series of crisis meetings with top railway officials and issued a blizzard of to-do points after the Elphinstone Road stampede on September 29.  Suresh Prabhu, whom he replaced in early September, was no slouch either: he had a long list of accomplishments in his 22 months in the post. Take unmanned level crossings: Prabhu eliminated about 3,900 of them. Goyal has vowed to get rid of the remaining 4,700 or so in one year.  

He will have to run very hard to transform this Brobdingnagian system, which carried 8.22 billion people in 2016-17 – far more than the total population of the world (7.5 billion). Or more than if India’s entire population rode in a train six times a year. This system claimed ten Railway ministers in eight years.
Goyal, who is a Mumbaikar, was in the city when the stampede occurred.  A day earlier he had announced the addition of 100 daily services (i.e. trains) to Mumbai’s suburban lines, which already carry 7.7 million people every day.

To put it bluntly, that number is too high for any city train system. Although a Mumbai Metro is taking shape, it is not going to suffice.  Current estimates put Greater Mumbai’s population at 22 million.  Our cities are choking. A 2010 McKinsey report estimated that India would need to build 350-400 km of new metro lines annually to cope with its rising urban population. That is nearly as much as all four phases of the Delhi Metro. Every year.

So let’s aspire to have a bullet train running 508 km from Mumbai to Ahmedabad by the time New India arrives in 2022. When we debate the need for more infrastructure, let’s look beyond Goyal’s target of a mandatory foot overbridge (FOB) at every Mumbai suburban station. A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report in July 2016 warned that more FOBs were needed urgently.

The CAG gave Mumbai suburban rail safety a big thumbs-down. PRS Legislative Research quoted the CAG report as saying between January 2010 and December 2014, of 33,445 deaths on suburban rail lines in Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Secunderabad, Mumbai alone accounted for 17,638, or 53 per cent.  19,868 suburban passengers died while ‘trespassing’ (crossing tracks) during the five years. In that period, 4002 Mumbai passengers died “due to falling from trains”.

The CAG found that while suburban services comprised 73 per cent of total passengers carried by seven zonal railways, their revenue constituted only 14 per cent of the total. It recommended ‘rationalisation’ (i.e. raising) suburban fares, and even setting up a separate entity to manage suburban services.

It is a Sisyphean task. Railways data show that in the past 64 years, while freight loads have grown 1344 per cent and passenger kilometres by 1642 per cent, route kilometres have grown only 23 per cent. Passenger trains, most of them slowed by ageing and overcrowded tracks, account for two-thirds of capacity but only one-third of revenue.

The bullet train project will cost Rs 1.1 trillion. Prabhu proposed spending Rs 1.27 trillion on safety over the next five years. This, too, needs to be done.