Can the Railways pull the economic growth engine?

We Indians are quite proud of our railway system which we feel is one of the best in the world. When it makes a profit (why should it not all these years?), it becomes a talk of the town in our country.

That our infrastructure growth is lagging behind the growth in our GDP is an oft-repeated story. However, we do not associate it with the railways. Indian Railways is our success story and we are proud that ours is one of the longest rail networks in the world.

However, a quick reference to the historical figures, a comparison with the present status and a inter-country comparison should shake us out of any such day-dreaming. As on March 2010, the route length of our railways stood at 64,015 km. In 1951, it was 53,596 km, which means an addition of only 10,419 km in about 60 years or 174 km per year. Thus, we have not added much to the railways network we inherited from the British Raj.

Let us look at a more recent figure. During the year 1990 the Indian Railways route length was 62,367 km. This means, during the last twenty years we have added only 1,648 km. This works out to 82 km per year.

One may argue that we have converted many lower gauge networks into broad gauge. But, it does not cut much ice when faced with these growth(?) figures. Indian Railways’ figures such as passenger-kilometres and ton-kilometres may look impressive and healthy on the face of it along with the profits that have come about. But what has happened is that the Indian Railways are carrying lot more passengers and freight over the same old network which is bursting at its seams. This should, in fact, be a cause for much worry as regards accidents, mishaps and delays.

Now, let us take a look at the international figures. We are not the longest in route length. USA is, with a route length of 2,26,427 km, over three times us Next is Russia with 87,157 km (2006) and third is China with 77,834 km in the year 2008 and estimated to have 1,00,000 km by the end of 2010. India is only the fourth longest, if length was the only attribute to be proud of. It may be noted that China had only 27,000 km of rail route length in 1949.

The growth performance of the railways should be judged also by the average speed of its trains, convenience and enhanced international competitiveness of modern high-speed tracks between centres of production and distribution, passenger comfort and goods handling efficiency, safety improvements, reach of the railways to places of strategic importance and the linking of future economic growth centres.

Abysmal figures

How does Indian Railways fare on some of these aspects? In absolute terms, we have only 28 per cent of our railway track electrified; which indeed needs urgent attention. While China has added several bullet trains, has 7,055 km of high-speed tracks, i.e., tracks for handling average speeds of greater than 200 km per hour and plans to double that length in the next two years, we have none.

 Our fastest train is the Bhopal Shatabdi Express with an average speed of 93 km per hour. Our superfast expresses average at a little over 55 km per hour. Chinese engineers are now in the final stages of developing a superfast train that can travel at 500 km per hour.

The average speed of our goods train is an abysmal 25 km per hour approximately; on several track-lengths, the average is as low as 17 km per hour. Chinese rail network moves 3.3 billion tons of freight per annum while Indian Railways carry only a quarter of that i.e. about 800 million tons per annum.

The average speed on Chinese railways is 70 km per hour. Since the rapidity of economic growth depends, amongst other factors, upon the vital factor of the ease and speed of movement of factors of production – agricultural and industrial raw materials and produce, and manpower – one wonders as to how long over the future can our economic growth sustain.

Safety is another aspect where Indian railways need radical changes. Our signalling equipment is antiquated and needs urgent modernisation. In 2003, Indian Railways had approved a Corporate Safety Plan with a proposed outlay of Rs 31,385 crore. Obviously, this has not progressed to any length. Now railway accidents are a regular feature and the authorities seem to have lost sensitivity.

However, Indian Railways has been making some improvements. Like gauge conversion, doubling of tracks, upgrading locomotives, building overbridges/underpasses, increasing the number of coaches per train and weight capacity per wagon, improving the material of construction of coaches to stainless steel, and passenger reservation and ticketing through computerisation.

But, these are essentially incremental changes. Even some of the proposals of dedicated freight corridors and Laluji’s promise of building 7,500 new stations remain unfulfilled.
We Indians speak of sustained rapid economic growth. But where are the tracks to carry the growth engine along?

(The writer is a former professor at IIM, Bangalore)

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