After Vikas Shivir, Railways in a freeze

It is more than a year since the Railways organised the Rail Vikas Shivir at Surajkund with much fanfare, with the aim of generating innovative, yet practical, ideas in the most crucial areas of rail operations and to chart out a roadmap for Railways. Supervised by the then railway minister Suresh Prabhu, the three-day session was eventful, as 55 far-reaching strategic initiatives, including some out-of-the-box ideas, were firmed up to transform Indian Railways.

But with the change of guard at Rail Bhawan, perceptions about Rail Vikas Shivir have also changed, though the basic aim remains the same -improving the functioning of Railways. Incidentally, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal has also emphasised  on out-of-the-box ideas to enable game-changing reforms. Strangely though, the Transformation Cell, a separate cell created by Prabhu to implement innovative ideas, did not find much favour  with the new minister and has been told to merge with another group, the Mobility Cell.

More than one lakh new crowdsourced ideas - a first for Railways -for improving the State-run transporter were generated and examined by various teams during the previous regime and selected ones were taken into the actionable agenda. It's not that the present dispensation is completely averse to the many strategic initiatives started by Prabhu, but it seems to be moving at its own pace. As a result, many crucial reforms have not moved towards implementation.

While Prabhu had launched 55 actionable points to improve safety, increase earnings, decentralise decision-making, enhance passenger amenities and expand infrastructure, Goyal, also keen on reform, has recently laid out 10 principles to improve rail functioning.  These are: (1) Partnership with all stakeholders, (2) Decisive leadership, (3) Outcome-oriented action, (4) Root cause analysis), (5) Rule of law and transparency, (6) Prioritisation of issues, (7) Time-bound execution and fast dispute resolution, (8) Innovative financing, (9) Technology focus, and (10) Accountability and close monitoring. A close analysis will reveal, however, that these 10 points are all embedded within the previous 55 actionable points agenda, too.

However, despite the same aim and purpose, the proposed, and much-awaited, onboard condition monitoring system (OBCMS), online monitoring of rolling stock, provision of a device called 'Trinetra' on locomotives as aid to drivers to work in foggy weather and the 'End of Train Telemetry' (EOTT) system in freight trains to remove the brake van and do away with guard service, and implementation of access control systems at all major stations were some crucial initiatives decided on earlier, but have not moved forward at all. In fact, OBCMS and Trinetra, a radar-based system to alert the  locomotive pilots about signals during poor visibility in the winter season, were even showcased to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as examples of the use of the latest technologies to improve safety and prevent mishaps.

The OBCMS, Trinetra and EOTT, along with many others promised earlier, are stuck in the Railways files and are yet to see the light of day. In the meantime, Railways has witnessed a series of derailments and disruption of train services due to fog in many parts of north India. All north-bound trains are running late by several hours due to the prevailing poor visibility condition this winter.

Actionable steps

Developing a much-needed real-time intelligent system to tabulate the potential delay of each late-running train so that passengers could be informed in advance, redesigning service contracts, development of a policy framework to jointly develop technological solutions for priority areas with private players are some of the other actionable steps that Railways hasn't moved on at all.

Cash-starved Indian Railways is heavily dependent on fares and budgetary support from the government. It aims to perk up earnings through non-fare sources. For this, there were plans to set up two lakh screens across 2,175 stations and to vinyl-wrap trains to turn them into advertising platforms to shore up non-fare revenues. Both the initiatives have been stuck for long at the pre-tendering level.

Many other plans were made, too, at the Rail Vikas Shivir, that remain plans: upgradation of goods sheds with end-to-end logistic solutions through PPP, rolling out a time-table for freight services, developing an integrated dashboard for receiving and processing complaints online, and trials of dwarf containers for domestic cargo. The freight pricing model was to be redefined to incorporate route utilisation and transit time assurances, an inflation-indexed pricing model was to be developed for passenger services, and a vendor interface management system was to come up. At best all these plans are moving on a very slow track.

Most crucially, the train protection warning system, mooted almost five years ago, is still undergoing pilot trials on a limited section, and no one knows when such a critical project for preventing rail accidents will take off on major trunk routes. Meanwhile, rail mishaps continue.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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