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Reforming Indian Railways can impact the lives of 1.2 billion citizens

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By Amit Kapoor

The railways sector has seen some activity in the past few months. Not only there are operational changes being brought about but a long-term strategic view seems to be in sight. The operation changes in ‘tatkal’ remuneration in respect to cancellation as well as the choice to upgrade to a domestic airline in case of wait-listed seats are steps that are beneficial to customers.

The long-term view seems to come from the recently constituted seven-member committee under the chairmanship of economist Bibek Debroy on Mobilizing Resources for Projects and Restructuring of Indian Railways. The report proposes five fundamental points for the IR, specifically and the railways sector to look into:

First, what is the core role of the IR in India? This question is pertinent to understanding the core activities and the peripheral ones and separating the commercial from the social role of the IR. At present, there are a lot of activities that take up considerable time and effort on the part of IR. These include the medical service that IR runs with an infrastructure of 125 hospitals, 586 health units and 14,000 beds. Also, pertinent in this regard is the 1 degree college and 168 schools that IR runs. These along with the railway protection, catering, real estate development, housing and the like, according to the committee, are non-core activities that can be clearly outsourced.

Second the report calls for proper accounting procedures and commercial considerations in IR. A formally reformed accounting system will enable the Ministry of Railways that has administrative control over 6 established production units and 16 public sector undertakings (PSUs) to keep proper accounts. Similarly, it will also enable the understanding the level of subsidization in the 17 zones and 68 divisions into which the IR at present is bifurcated. A case in point that finds mention is the Kolkata Metro rail. Any future suburban systems according to the committee should be built on a JV route with state governments (on a 50:50 basis), and the cost should not be borne by IR.

Third, the report recommends streamlining the HR procedures and processes in IR. It is fundamental to carrying out the organizational transformation. It is primarily to be achieved by merging and consolidating the eight Group ‘A’ services into two services. These could be respectively called the Indian Railway Technical Service (IRTechS) comprising of the existing five technical services (IRSE, IRSSE, IRSEE, IRSME and IRSS) and the Indian Railway Logistics Service (IRLogS), comprising the three non-technical services (IRAS, IRPS and IRTS). Aligned with the streamlining of HR procedures is the decentralization of the authority and responsibility to at least the level of Divisional Railway Manager (DRM). The DRM is in charge of one of the 68 divisions of the IR. The financial authority, as well as the power in handling tenders connected with works, stores procurement, to DRM’s, ensures that departmentalism is reduced – and there is accountability within the IR.

Fourth, is the issue of ensuring competition and liberalization in the railways sector. The committee has for specific reasons refrained from calling the liberalization of the railways sector as privatization or deregulation. Essentially the committee recommends and encourages open access to private players who want to operate trains on tracks. It is in line with what is practiced at present in some parts of Europe and Australia. Liberalization and open access also call for an independent regulator for the sector and the committee report recommends setting up the same statutorily with an independent budget. The regulator – Railway Regulatory Authority of India (RRAI) – for economic regulation, including, wherever necessary, tariff regulation.

Fifth, the report proposes progressively phasing out of the rail budget and merging the same with the general budget. It reflects the need to define clearly the relationship between the government and the IR. The recommendations also call for ending the system of paying dividends and reduction in the gross budgetary support carried out between the government and IR.

The recommendations of the report are timely and present a systematic road map to restructure the IR behemoth in specific and the railways sector in general. However, as with the previous committee reports much will depend upon the acceptance of the report and ultimately its implementation on the ground. One will have to wait and watch as to how the strategic restructuring in this critical sector unfolds over the next decade. It truly has the capability to have a transformative impact on the lives of India’s 1.2 billion people.

(IANS)

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Indian Railways Will Promote Heritage Tourism By Preserving Its Metre-Gauge Tracks

The trains are allowed to run at a maximum speed of 30 km per hour, which reduces to 20 km per hour in accident-prone areas.

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Indian Railways
Indian Railways. Wikimedia Commons

Moving beyond the five hill networks that are major tourist attractions, Indian Railways is planning to also preserve its old five-metre gauge tracks built during its early days in the British era to promote heritage tourism.

“As part of the strategy to preserve the metre-gauge lines, Indian Railways is planning to preserve few metre-gauge lines, which have the potential to attract more tourists,” a senior Railway Ministry official told IANS, requesting anonymity.

Indian railways presented an integrated mobile application to cater to various passenger requirements, including ticket booking, inquiry, on-board cleaning and ordering meal on a single platform.
Indian Railways to promote tourism by preserving its meter gauge tracks.

“The decision to preserve the metre-gauge lines was taken at a meeting on February 3. Railway Board Chairman Ashwani Lohani, stressing on the need to preserve the metre-gauge lines to promote the heritage structures of Indian Railways, asked the officials to identify such railway tracks on which the tourism can be promoted,” the official said.

“Thus we have identified five lines for preservation — the 42.27 km Visavadar-Talala line in Gujarat, the 16 km Mhow-Patalpani-Kalakand line in Madhya Pradesh, the 162 km Mavli Junction-Marwar Junction line in Rajasthan, the 171 km Nanpur-Mailani line in Uttar Pradesh and the 47 km Mahur-Harangjao metre-gauge line in Assam,” he said.

Also Read: Facts about Indian Railways you can’t miss

“Four of the metre-gauge lines are in working condition, while the one line located in Assam is not operational right now,” he added. The official also said that the Railway Ministry has written to the zonal railways to check the operational feasibility of these tracks. “Once the response from zonal railways is received by the third week of April, the ministry will formally launch the project,” he said.

Giving details of some of the five lines, the official said: “The Visavadar-Talala metre-gauge line passes through the Gir forest in Gujarat and there is thus a speed restriction. Currently, only three trains pass through this section in the day.”

The Mhow-Patalpani-Kalakund line, the official said, passes through picturesque mountains, valleys, tunnels, ravines and crosses the Choral and Malendi rivers, which makes the journey very memorable, especially after the rains.

Facts about Indian Railways you shouldn't miss. Wikimedia Common
Indian Railways have many tracks and trains with historic importance. Wikimedia Common

According to the official, this line was laid by the British about 150 years ago and passes through of the Vindhyachal mountain range. The official said that the Nanpur-Mailani metre-gauge railway track in Uttar Pradesh crosses through the Dudhwa Tiger reserve. The Railways currently operates six trains on the section. The trains are allowed to run at a maximum speed of 30 km per hour, which reduces to 20 km per hour in accident-prone areas.

The British laid this track in the 19th century for transporting timber from Nepal’s forests and from the forests on the border. Currently, the five hill trains — Darjeeling Himalayan train, Nilgiri Mountain Railway, Kalka-Shimla Railway, Kangra Valley Railway and Matheran Hill Railway — are a major attraction for tourists in India. IANS