Feb 16, 2013

Saving the Railways, for the aam aadmi



The government must stop tinkering with this public service provider in the name of coalition dharma. There should be a freeze on adding passenger trains and the focus must shift to improving existing services.

A Railway Minister is sacked midway through the budget session of Parliament, a rather bizarre first even for the 160-year-old rail network. An information website,http://railradar.trainenquiry.com shows that at any given moment, not more than 60 per cent of the trains are running on time. These two seemingly related, yet unconnected, scenarios have one common factor: the aam aadmi. In the first case, the Minister’s well intentioned move to raise lower class passenger fares was seen by the powers that be as blatantly anti-aam aadmi. The second is the ultimate manifestation of a policy of relentless proliferation of train services each year in the name of helping the aam aadmi, without adequate line and terminal capacity and supporting infrastructure, leading to an over strained system. During the last decade, the number of new train services announced during each budget varied from 46 to 105 under four different Railway Ministers. This excludes frequencies of trains which were increased, and extensions of existing services.


More than most other sectors, many initiatives and decisions taken (or not taken) by the Railways are supposedly for the benefit of the aam aadmi, the proverbial common man. This focus is unavoidable as the Railways remain the cheapest, yet fastest, mode of travel for the country’s millions. However some of these measures have exactly the opposite effect in the long run. In the case of the burgeoning additional train services, even a minor incident has a cascading effect on the punctuality of a large number of trains, inconveniencing tens of thousands of passengers. Punctuality at intermediate stations is almost non-existent. The Railways’ own statistics of punctuality put the figure usually above 90 per cent. This is because the Railways reckon punctuality based on the right time of arrival at the destination, irrespective of how late a train is in between, whereas the website shows the actual “instantaneous” position. To achieve destination punctuality, the running schedule is often padded up with extra time towards the end of the journey. This in effect eats into line capacity.

 

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