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Jul 1, 2014
NEW DELHI: The railways are set for a major overhaul after the Budget session as the Narendra Modi government plans to revive the cash-strapped national transporter.
Sources said the dominant view in the new government is that "business-as-usual" would not help to revamp the state-run transporter as an engine of economic growth and there is need to inject critical reforms.
"A revival plan would be worked out after the Budget," said a top government official, adding that revamp of railways is critical to accelerating the country's economic growth.
An official said a major bureaucratic reshuffle is also on the cards to bring efficient and honest officials on board in finalizing the revival plan. He pointed out that officials, appointed to key positions during the end of UPA's tenure, are under close scrutiny of the new dispensation.
Several panels in the past had suggested restructuring of the railways to get the mammoth organization in tune with changing reality, but successive governments failed to muster courage to push reforms, seen as politically unpopular.
The Kakodkar committee on railway safety, whose report new railway minister Sadananda Gowda has asked to re-examine, had found that the present organizational set-up on departmental lines is very conservative and lacks dynamism needed in an like the Indian Railways. "Such a set-up also gives rise to inter-departmental rivalry losing sight of the overall organizational goals including safety," it said.
The high-level panel, whose recommendations were brushed under the carpet by the previous UPA regime, argued that the present form of railway organization is more centralized, top-heavy and hierarchical along departmental lines, much to the detriment of a functional and objective-oriented organization.
There is realization in the new government that the railways need some "out-of-box" thinking to get back on track. "The Railways is in ICU. It needs a major surgery," a top functionary told TOI.
He said the government may appoint some experts and technocrats to suggest ways and implement reforms in the national transporter, which at present is being run like any other government department.
In his first top level meeting with the railway board members, general managers (GMs) and divisional railway managers (DRMs), Gowda had said, "Our government's mantra is perform or perish."
The minister went to ask junior officials to communicate directly to him bypassing seniors. "You are at liberty to communicate directly on any issue which would bring good name to the railways and I will keep it confidential," Gowda had said.
Source - TOI
Story originally posted on November 17th, 2013
The Hoosier State rolled up to the boarding platform at the Big Four Depot in downtown Lafayette./On a rainy, gray Wednesday in November, roughly a dozen people boarded the 7:33 a.m. train that runs four days a week between Indianapolis and Chicago, with stops in Lafayette and three other cities./One passenger was Wanda Rose of West Lafayette./The train has become a lifeline, Rose said, explaining that she has relied on the service several times a month since July to follow up on chemotherapy treatments that began one year ago when she lived in Chicago.
"It's peaceful for me," Rose said. "It calms me, and gives me time to think and prepare for where I need to go."/But Rose's lifeline almost disappeared this year after Congress cut funding for Amtrak lines shorter than 750 miles, effective Oct. 1. Indiana initially balked at the prospect of picking up the federal government's expense of subsidizing the 196-mile route, which doesn't come close to paying for itself.
Operating and equipment expenses were estimated at $3.8 million for the line that carries about 37,000 passengers per year, according to the Indiana Department of Transportation. Riders pay $22 for a one-way trip and $44 for a round trip.
The state said it would have to pay $80.08 on top of that to underwrite the cost of carrying each passenger.
That was "not a business model Indiana would invest in ... without local stakeholders," said Troy Woodruff, INDOT chief of staff.
After a strong lobbying effort and, ultimately, a cost-sharing commitment from the affected communities, INDOT negotiated a contract with Amtrak. Local governments and the state will share the $223,249 monthly expense of keeping the line operating for 12 months, with an option to add four months.
That should buy community leaders, Amtrak and the state enough time to figure out if and how the Hoosier State can move closer to being a self-sustaining service.
Rail transportation is important to attracting employers and young professionals, say local government and business leaders served by the line.
For now, Hoosier State passengers such as Rose and Lenwood Cross of Lafayette are just grateful the train continues to run.
Both said they would take a bus if they had to. But both prefer the train over Greyhound, even though the bus service runs more frequently, at more convenient times, and takes one hour less than Amtrak to reach Chicago from Lafayette.
"I feel more comfortable on the train," Cross said as he cradled his infant son, Jabez. "It's cleaner. It's nicer. It's safer. And it's more affordable."
Traveling in comfort
The Hoosier State's upholstered reclining seats are comfortable. The cars and bathrooms are clean. Electrical outlets are available at every seat. The ride is quiet, and smooth. There are no jolting movements or clickety-clack of wheels on the track.
"We're running on welded rail, which is all one piece, welded together in long strips," explained J.R. Richardson, the conductor. "It runs much smoother."
On this recent Wednesday in November, Richardson and Pam Fogarty, assistant conductor, greeted each passenger and learned where they were headed. The Lafayette riders settled into their seats after passing by dozing passengers who had boarded in Indianapolis at 6 a.m. Some early boarders stretched out across both seats in some rows, but there was plenty of room to spare.
The train consisted of a locomotive, two passenger cars and a "buffer car" that can pull rolling stock to Amtrak's maintenance facility in Beech Grove.
Each passenger car can seat 68. On this particular morning, the train carried about 26 people per car, by the Journal & Courier's count.
Some aboard the Hoosier State passed the time reading newspapers, books or e-readers. Others worked on computers or played with cellphones.
The Hoosier State does not offer a lounge car with food service, wider seats or sleeper cars — amenities on some of Amtrak's long-distance trains, such as the Cardinal. The New York-to-Chicago Cardinal provides service from Indianapolis to Chicago on the three days the Hoosier State doesn't run.
Under the recently signed contract, INDOT has the option of adding food service to the Hoosier State. But on this trip, the lack of food did not seem to bother passengers, some of whom brought water and food with them.
Lack of access to the Internet appeared to be a higher priority. "They do ask about WiFi a lot," Richardson said.
More often, passengers or potential passengers cite lack of trains and choices of times for the Lafayette-to-Chicago service.
According to the Hoosier State schedule, the northbound train leaves Indianapolis at 6 a.m. EST and arrives in Chicago at 10:05 a.m. CST. The southbound line leaves Chicago at 5:45 p.m. CST and arrives in Indianapolis at 11:50 p.m. EST.
Valentina Pirro said she chose the train because it was cheaper than a shuttle and arrived near the downtown Chicago hotel where she planned to attend a three-day professional conference. But Pirro, a researcher at Purdue University, said she had to leave a day ahead of the meeting.
"Tomorrow morning would be too late," Pirro said. "Leaving in the afternoon or evening would be more convenient."
From the start, Amtrak has acknowledged there is room for improvement on the line, which was created to shuttle cars to and from the Beech Grove maintenance shops, where 550 employees are paid a total of $49 million a year.
Passenger cars were added as an afterthought, according to Ray Lang, Amtrak chief of state government relations.
Despite the poor service, ridership on the Hoosier State has grown 92 percent in the past 10 years. That's still not enough to cover operating costs.
To attract even more riders, the Indiana partners and Amtrak will focus on scheduling trains at convenient times, improving on-time performance, increasing track speeds and adding WiFi and food service. Ticket prices also will be reviewed.
Late to arrive
Reliability is a significant obstacle for the Hoosier State, which reaches its final destination on time just 66 percent of the time, according to CDM Smith, a consultant hired by INDOT to study the route.
One extreme example occurred on Nov. 10, when passengers were delayed 21/2 hours on the Chicago-to-Indianapolis run because of track construction just outside Chicago and a freight train-vehicle collision that blocked Amtrak's route.
"It's a great way to travel if you're not on a deadline," observed Fogarty. The assistant conductor said she keeps passengers informed, and sometimes hands out snacks when lengthy delays happen.
More commonly, delays occur because Amtrak rents space on tracks owned by freight railroad companies. That means passengers often yield to freight, not the other way around. The potential for delays intensifies near Chicago, where freight, Amtrak and local commuter trains compete for track space.
To get to the heart of the issue, Indiana is requiring Amtrak to document its on-time performance and delays due to host railroads, Amtrak or equipment. The two entities are scheduled to begin talks on the topic within 60 days of the execution of the contract.
Amtrak has been looking for ways to address the problem, said Charlie Monte Verde, government relations manager in Chicago.
The train normally runs on CSX tracks from Indianapolis to Dyer, then switches to Union Pacific, Belt Railway Chicago and Metra tracks between Dyer and Chicago Union Station.
To avoid that logjam, Amtrak temporarily ran the northernmost leg on tracks owned by the Canadian National Railway Co.
"We're looking at a more permanent solution that looks at rerouting the Cardinal and the Hoosier State to try and improve the efficiency, the reliability of the service," Monte Verde said.
Finding a solution is a priority, but there is no definite timeline for working out an agreement with a new host railroad, he said. In the meantime, conductor Dave Leppla has been assigned to learn the Canadian National route — the signals, switches, radio frequencies and other operating features.
"There's some discussion that could become a permanent route for us, so they want us to get qualified so we know what we're doing, and then we can help train the rest of the crews if that ever comes to pass, that we formally take that route as a regular route," Leppla said.
The Hoosier State was running ahead of schedule during the Wednesday trip but ended up arriving two minutes late because it had to slow down.
"We had to travel at 25 miles per hour due to construction on the CN," said Richardson, the conductor. "Normally, the speed is 60 miles per hour."
If Amtrak negotiates a contract to use that route, and the Canadian National switchers grow accustomed to handling the Hoosier State, Richardson expected travel times could be reduced, or at minimum become more consistent.
Can't drive 55
Slow track speeds are another impediment. The train trip between Indianapolis and Chicago takes five hours compared to 31/2 hours by car or bus, depending on traffic.
The train averages 48 miles per hour between Indianapolis and Dyer, based on INDOT's information. To go faster would require new track sidings and other safety equipment at an added cost of $5 million to $10 million per year, according to CDM Smith, which analyzed several different scenarios to see if any of them would come close to breaking even.
Creating seven-day-a-week service with an 8 a.m. departure from Indianapolis, and either a 3:30 p.m. or 5:30 p.m. departure from Chicago, could boost ridership to at least 86,000 people a year, and revenue to at least $2.2 million.
Adding a second daily round trip route could increase ridership to 163,270, and revenue to more than $4million a year.
But those changes added significantly to costs. In the end, none of the service improvements significantly closed the gap between operating costs and revenues, according to CDM Smith.
"The decision, therefore, to fund the continuation of the Hoosier State is not an economic one but rather a policy decision," the study concluded.
To determine the policy benefits of the rail service, the consultant recommended the state and the communities take several steps, including:
Create a railroad governance board with strategic oversight to negotiate for track improvements;
Institute seven-days-a-week service with more convenient times to find out if ridership and performance improve as expected;
Define which infrastructure improvements are most beneficial; and
Engage Indiana transit agencies to provide seamless transfers from the train to local transit.
Example to follow
Indiana legislators will be keeping a close watch in 2014 on efforts to improve the service, and the bottom line.
A joint study committee recommended in October that the state require Amtrak to submit a plan to deliver better service and operate the line more efficiently before Indiana moves forward with long-term funding.
It can be accomplished, according to Tim Hoeffner, Michigan's office of rail chief.
The public cost of running passenger trains decreased in Michigan after the state invested in rail infrastructure to reduce travel times, added trains and cut some expenses, Hoeffner said during an August rail summit hosted by Greater Lafayette Commerce.
Hoeffner encouraged Indiana to take an incremental approach to investing in passenger rail.
"You're talking about $80 a passenger (subsidy) right now on this line," Hoeffner said of the state's investment. "In Michigan, we are probably in the $25 to $30 range now. We were at higher numbers years ago, but by growing the business, we've been able to reduce those numbers."
Philip Chang lives in West Lafayette and rides the Hoosier State two or three times a month to attend business meetings in Chicago. Chang said he would be interested in taking a train to other destinations if the service existed.
"If people commute from Lafayette to Indy or Lafayette to other places, and it ran more frequently, that is something I would definitely consider," Chang said.
"It could work for more people if it ran more often, and if they did a better job of promoting it."
Local leaders — and the Amtrak conductors — are eager to see what can be accomplished in the coming months.
The fate of the Hoosier State hinges on their success. If the operation does not improve, state and local leaders have said the contract will not be renewed after Sept. 30, 2014.
"We need to give this an opportunity to be successful," Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski said. "We need to have benchmarks and metrics to evaluate it and make sure it is performing and doing what we need."
"I'm hoping," Leppla said, "... we can really prove to them that we can run the railroad the right way, and adapt some of the changes they're looking for, and make this a very viable service."
"We're looking at a more permanent solution that looks at rerouting the Cardinal and the Hoosier State to try and improve the efficiency, the reliability of the service."
Labels: Rail News - Public service
How much can you do in a minute? You can probably read a whole page, if you’re a fast reader, or run a kilometre, if you’re Usain Bolt. But, you might still not be fast enough to get tickets on a Central Railway (CR) train.
Central Railway officials claim that around 800 seats got booked from various booking counters and the online portal by 8.01 am. File pic
CR records show that on June 28 i.e. Saturday, tickets for the Mumbai-Madgaon Konkan Kanya Express were snapped up within a minute. That’s 800 tickets in 60 seconds.
Clocking an amazing 13 tickets per second, all berths on the August 28 train were booked within a minute. The mad rush is for the Ganesh festival, which begins on the same day. However, rail authorities also suspect that illegal agents may have made mass bookings.
Railway authorities have not ruled out illegal bookings on the Mumbai-Madgaon Konkan Kanya Express and will set up a probe committee into the incident soon. File pic
Minute to win it
According to official CR figures, most of the berths for the train in all compartments of this 18-coach train got booked in a minute. This includes first AC, two-tier AC, three-tier AC and sleeper seats. The train has around 1,400 berths, including the general compartment.
CR officials claim that almost 800 seats got booked from various booking counters and the online portal by 8.01 am. “These reservations were done from various passenger reservation centres (PRCs) across the country and through online booking,” said Narendra Patil, chief PRO, Central Railway (CR).
There are 3,200 PRCs across India, each of them with at least two or more windows. Apart from this, many people also use the IRCTC website infamous for its slow speed. However, this day seems to have been an aberration, when people were able to buy tickets very quickly there as well. With millions of hits every day, IRCTC is one of the busiest online portals in the country.
Officials claim it is quite possible that with so many windows where the system works faster and with multiple online portal centres, seats can be exhausted within a minute. But, even all the Reservation Against Cancellation (RAC) tickets and many waitlisted ones were sold by 8.05 am, earning the railways a handsome Rs 8 lakh.
While terming it a regular feature during festive season, officials are not ruling out illegal agents behind the flash booking. “There may have been mass bookings by illegal agents,” claimed a senior official. According to railway authorities, nearly 50 per cent of train bookings happened via IRCTC.
Asked about the sudden surge, an official from Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS), said, “We only handle the back-end database and hardware that stores all the data for IRCTC.
The front-end software and servers meant for bookings have been created by someone else. We have no control over them. If there are issues, the Railways needs to bring it to our notice first.” The incident has created a furore in political circles. Leader of Opposition in the Maharashtra Legislative Council, Vinod Tawade, claims people have complained to him about unauthorised bookings.
“There are bookings done at 7.54 am and 7.56 am with confirmed tickets, which is well before 8 am, when reservations open. I will meet Railway Minister Sadanand Gowda and ask for an inquiry,” he said. Sources said the the Railway Board is likely to appoint a committee to investigate the matter.
Where they went
First AC (6 seats): Booked by 8.01 am, all of them through the website
Two-tier AC (18 seats): Reservation was full by 8.01 am and was done at Lokmanya Tilak Terminus, Navsari, Bhilad, Tirupati, Kudal, Byculla. RAC and waitlist started soon after
Third AC: Reservation was full by 8.01 am and was done at Vapi, Bhakti Nagar, IRCTC, CST, Mumbai Central, Sasaram, Bhayander, Aurangabad, Byculla, Dahod, Mahim, Talegaon, Borivli, Nashik. RAC was full by 8.05 am and the waitlist had started
Sleeper: Reservation was full by 8.01am and was done at Nashik, IRCTC, CST, Boisar, Mumbai Central, Navy Nagar, Mal-ad, Kandivli, Lonavla, Deo-lali, Bhayander. RAC was full by 8.05 am and the waitlist started soon after
Labels: Rail News - Public service
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