Railways needs clarity on target passenger segment

Railways needs clarity on target passenger segment

The Indian Railways (IR) has initiated umpteen plans to develop high-speed rail (HSR), semi HSR and increasing the speed of trains on the existing tracks, all aimed at faster train travel. Among these, some plans are getting concretised and may see results in the next five to 10 years.

Out of these, the HSR between Ahmedabad and Mumbai is about to start its construction under the aegis of National High-Speed Rail Corporation Limited and is expected to be completed by 2023. The other initiative which is taking shape is Mission Raftaar, by which the average speed of non-suburban passenger trains would increase by about 25 kmph from the current 46 kmph.

Also, the average speed of freight trains would increase by about 25 km from 24 kmph in five years. As a part of Mission Raftaar, the IR, to begin with, identified two overloaded and high-volume corridors of Delhi–Mumbai and Delhi–Howrah for speed upgradation.

Although these two routes belong to Group A, where the maximum permissible speed is 130/160 kmph, Mumbai Rajdhani Express, the fastest train on the Delhi-Mumbai route, runs at an average speed of about 88 kmph and Howrah Rajdhani, one of the fastest trains on the Delhi-Howrah route, runs at an average speed of about 86 kmph.

Express/Mail trains in these routes run at an average speed of 55 kmph to 65 kmph. To increase the maximum speed of these corridors to 160/200 kmph, IR devised a plan for Rs 18,000 crore on these routes that includes elimination of all level crossings (manned and unmanned), upgradation of signalling system, installation of Train Protection Warning System etc.

The Niti Aayog gave its nod for IR’s proposal and the Cabinet is expected to give its approval soon. Once these routes are upgraded, travel time between Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Howrah and other significant origin-destination pairs on these routes would reduce by 20% to 35%, enabling IR to run plenty of dusk to dawn trains on these routes, allowing people to travel during non-working hours.

Given the mega nature of this project, this project may take three to four years and these routes must be ready for dusk to dawn trains by 2021. However, the issue of increasing the speed of conventional trains is not just technical or just pertaining to safety norms.

The press release titled “Mission Raftaar of Indian Railways Starts To Yield Results” issued by IR, mentioned that maximum speed of passenger trains has increased up to 130 kmph/160 kmph. However, the average speed is hovering around 45 kmph (which includes all types of passenger trains) and the maximum speed of freight trains has increased up to 75 kmph/100 kmph. Here, the average speed is merely around 24 kmph.

So, IR’s inability to increase the average speed of trains is certainly beyond the speed limitations posed by track and signalling infrastructure and rolling stock. What really stopped IR trains to attain its speed potential and what should be done by IR to overcome the same? For that we need to understand the segments of non-suburban passengers and their growth.

Although non-suburban passengers of IR may be classified into umpteen categories for various purposes, it should be looked as two distinct commuter segments to attain the goal of Mission Raftaar. This would also give conceptual clarity to IR on which segment it should focus on.

The fist distinct category of non-suburban passengers belongs to those who travel between 350 km and 900 km by train (may be christened as medium to long distance travel). The second category belongs to passengers who want to travel about 120 km on average (may be christened as short distance travel). The first category belongs to passengers of non-ordinary trains, which includes high-end trains like Rajdhani and Mail/Express trains. 

Interestingly, this category of passengers constitutes about 74% of the total non-suburban rail passenger transport (in terms of Passenger KM or PKM) at present. There are about 2,800 non-ordinary trains operated in IR now. Among the non-ordinary trains, high-end trains run at an average speed of 70 kmph to 90 kmph and Mail/Express trains run at an average speed of about 55 kmph.

The second category belongs to travellers of ordinary trains, who travel on average about 120 km. This constitutes about 26% of the total non-suburban rail passenger transport (in terms PKM) at present. There are about 2,500 non-ordinary trains operated in IR now with an average speed of about 35 kmph.

Dwindling patronage

Apart from dwindling patronage for these trains, ordinary trains have stops at every few kilometres and given this, ordinary trains will never be able to utilise the increased speed potential.

Till now, the IR has been trying to cater to passengers of both the categories and failed in both and in that process overloaded its network, sabotaged its own freight traffic. This left little scope for IR to improve the throughput of its network and hence the throughput remains almost stagnant for the last few years. 

However, there is good news for IR. The second category of passengers has been dwindling. The share of second category transport in terms of PKM decreased from 37.5% in 2005-06 to 26.2% in 2015-16 in the total non-suburban rail passenger transport. In a `business as usual’ scenario, it may take a decade or two for the IR to witness the share of second category of passengers to become negligible. 

So, IR cannot wait for the second category of passengers to disappear on its own and should think of discontinuing the ordinary train services in phases, at least before Mission Raftaar plan gets implemented. The major bottleneck for IR is its lack of conceptual clarity on who looks for its services and whom IR should serve in the organisation’s larger interest.
With no conceptual clarity on its passenger services, the huge investment IR makes as a part of Mission Raftaar may not yield the desired results.

(The writer, a Doctorate from IIM-A, teaches at TAPMI, Manipal)

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