The Fight to Save Indian Railways – Next City
The Works

The Fight to Save Indian Railways

India’s new railways minister will attempt to squeeze some profit out of a system that operates “like a welfare organization.” (Photo by Satish Krishnamurthy via Flickr)

Like nearly everything in India, the railway system is defined by superlatives. The 12,617 trains running on 63,000 kilometers of tracks comprise the largest network in Asia. It’s the second-largest single-operator rail system in the world, carrying 23 million passengers a day and stopping at 7,172 stations, from the smallest villages to India’s major urban centers. As the new railways minister, Sadananda Gowda announced on July 8 during his inaugural budget speech, it’s like moving all of Australia every day.

The vastness, though, belies an on-the-ground reality for the 160-year-old system: a woefully inadequate and outdated network of other-era trains and tracks that fail to meet India’s commuter or commercial needs. “Though I am hardly a month old in the office, I am flooded with requests and suggestions for new trains, new railway lines and better services,” Gowda said in his speech. “I know that everybody feels that they have a solution for the challenges which Indian Railways face. I too thought so when I was an outsider to this system before I was exposed to the intricacies and complexities of this vast organization.”

Revamping this vital piece of infrastructure will be one of the most visible and measurable development initiatives for recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The trains, even in their clunky state, are the life blood of a country where just five percent of people own cars. One of the few operations that cuts across classes, the government-run Indian Railways supports commuters in growing urban centers, business meetings across geographies, visits to family in villages and a growing tourist industry — not to mention the steel, cement, salt and food it hauls to all corners of the country. In this sense, the new railway agenda sends a message much larger than itself.

“The railway budget in India is an important economic and planning tool for guiding development,” says Akhtar Chauhan, an architect, planner and director of the Rizvi College of Architecture in Mumbai. “But the real issue is, will the economic growth percolate down to the economically weaker sections and reach the poorest of the poor? This has been the biggest failure of Indian planning, including financial budgeting.”

The social aspect of the railway budget extends beyond a call for growth with equity. Train rides have become life-threatening. In Mumbai, 10 people reportedly die every day en route to and from their daily business. The 289 miles of tracks carry more than 7.5 million passengers every day. By contrast, the robust New York City subway system, which runs on 656 miles of track through five boroughs, carries a daily average of 4.8 million passengers — a mere 60 percent of Mumbai’s load. Even though India’s economic hub is home to the Bombay Stock Exchange, Bollywood studios and the country’s wealthiest family, 20,000 people have died commuting on the local trains in the last five years. Crowded compartments with no doors force overflow commuters to hang precariously out the side.

Mervin Perreira, who has taken the Mumbai local for 10 years, since he was 13 years old, waited to hear the minister’s announcement, hoping for improved service. His biggest complaint is that trains are way too crowded, but, he acknowledges, they are “the cheapest and fastest option,” despite the risks. He says this experience is not limited to local travel, having had similar over-crowding experiences on long-distance trains from Mumbai to Gujarat.

So while the announcement of the Ministry of Railway’s budget sounds less than scintillating, the potential for improvement ushers in perennial anticipation and hope. What’s more, as the first budget announcement of the new government, the country listened this year with particular attentiveness for a signal of what kind of administration they can expect.

Building off former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Golden Quadrilateral Road Network, Gowda’s most ambitious announcement was a Diamond Quadrilateral Network of High Speed Rail. The bullet trains — “the dream of every Indian,” declared Gowda — aim to connect India’s major metropolises and centers of growth in a way never before experienced in the country. The Rs. 100-crore ($16 million) project would launch on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route, branching out from there to Bangalore, Mysore, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad and other key destinations.

The government-run Indian Railways is one of the few entities in India that cuts across classes, making changes to the system politically difficult. (Photo by erin via Flickr)

But where the money for such a project would come from remains in question — with a broad range of demands in front of him, Gowda said one of the biggest obstacles was funding advancements in the system. The railways have been “expected to earn like a commercial enterprise but serve like a welfare organization.” “These two objectives are like two rails of the railway track, which though travel together but never meet,” he said in his speech. The contrasting goals have left the industry just about breaking even with few funds left over for improvements. Ninety-four percent of revenues are spent on operating costs, leaving only six percent for “safety, capacity expansion, infrastructure, improving passenger services and amenities.” It’s no wonder that Mervin Perreira says he’s seen essentially no improvements in the trains in his decade-long rail travels.

The dearth of funds has partly resulted from populist decision-making. Previous administrations steered clear of politically risky decisions such as fare hikes, which Modi instituted shortly after taking office. The increase signals tough measures likely to come in order to get the country back on track. The railways, he said, would “now be run as a business and not a political organ of the government.”

Though protests broke out around the country, blocking trains and disrupting service, the administration refused to roll back the fare increases and warned of more to come. Gowda proposed better station amenities and access, such as escalators, lifts, water supply, toilets and work stations aboard long-distance trains to serve business travelers. He also earmarked funds for 4,000 female railway police officers to improve safety for women.

“Funds to the tune of about Rs 5 lakh crore ($83.17 billion) i.e. around Rs 50,000 crore ($831.5 million) per year for next 10 years, are required for ongoing projects alone. This leaves a huge gap between what is available as surplus and what is needed,” announced Gowda. “I need to explore the alternate means of resource mobilization.”

And therein lies one of the most controversial proposals of the day: to open up the publicly run system to private and foreign investment as well as public-private partnerships. The new privatization push sends India down a path other countries, like England, are retreating from, according to a recent Guardian article. “Privatization isn’t working,” the article reads. “We were promised a shareholding democracy, competition, falling costs and better services. A generation on, most people’s experience has been the opposite… England’s privatized rail has been the ultimate dysfunctional selloff. Shoehorning private markets into a natural monopoly has delivered fragmentation, rock-bottom investment, annual costs of £1.2 billion ($2 billion), the most expensive train fares in Europe, and more than double the level of state subsidy than under British Rail.”

The irony is that India’s rail system was actually founded as a private enterprise by the British during the colonial era, but “because of inefficient performance” was handed over to the government in 1910. Since then, the rails have remained, for better or worse, in state hands. And, at least for now, still do.

One of the major gaps in the address was the lack of focus on urban transport for India’s ever-growing metropolises. In fact, Chauhan believes “the need for providing affordable metro and suburban railway systems as preferred modes of urban transportation should have been reflected in the railway budget in a big way. This is more crucial than the provision of some high-speed bullet trains on high-density routes.” Only Bangalore and Mumbai were even mentioned, and besides a commitment to 864 state-of-the-art trains in Mumbai, the language floated more possibilities than actual promises.

In fact, many critics felt the entire announcement was more a vision-building exercise than action-oriented strategy. A lot is riding on the follow-through of the ideas outlined in the speech. Just two days later, the administration announced its broader Union budget agenda, focusing on job growth and skill building — the foundation of which is proper infrastructure. Change is what India ordered when it evicted the Congress party from power after 18 years at the helm. The country is expecting efficient and effective development from the government that touted the so-called Gujarat model — the state of which Modi was chief minister for four terms — for replication across India. The railways are just a part of a broad range of economic and social needs, but given their physical and metaphorical touch on nearly every corner of the country, advancing the railways is a key political promise this administration cannot afford to miss.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Carlin Carr is an urban development professional interested in innovative ideas for social change.

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