Often, people do not notice what the Union Budget says about Indian railways (IR). Points that may register are the following. (a) There is a National Rail Plan (NRP) for 2030. (2) Western dedicated freight corridor (DFC) and Eastern DFC will be commissioned by June 2022. Parts of DFC will be in PPP mode. (3) There will be an East Coast corridor (Kharagpur to Vijaywada), East-West corridor (Bhusaval to Kharagpur/Dankuni) and North-South corridor (Itarsi to Vijayawada). (4) All broad-gauge routes will be electrified by December 2023. (5) There will be safety and passenger amenity measures. One hundred years before 2030, in 1930, Mumbai-Pune Deccan Queen was started. This is the only train with an official birthday, on June 1, 1930. IR has come a long way since 1930, and down the years, several committees have probed IR’s erosion in competitiveness and suggested solutions. However, in the historical evolution of railways in India, the emphasis was on passengers, not freight. Geographical parts of the country, important from a freight perspective, were bypassed. Therefore, even towards the end of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, railways didn’t contribute as much to growth as it did in other countries.
“When the idea of constructing railways in India was first started, it was considered that there would be little passenger traffic on account of the poverty of the people and that the chief business would be derived from goods”. That is not what happened. This quote isn’t from NRP. It is from an essay written in 1905 by NG Priestley, the first secretary of Railway Board, counterpart of today’s CRB. NRP was finalised in December 2020 and was sporadically reported in newspapers, in draft and final form. After the Union Budget, some may have downloaded and read it, in the 49-page PPT style version. The more intrepid will read the 124-page executive summary. Only the most courageous will read the complete 1178-page document.
Among other things, NRP is meant to increase the share of railways in freight, rectifying pre-Independence and post-Independence bias, and develop a capacity that will cater to demand in 2050. Most earlier committee reports concentrated on policies—financials, human resources, fares and cross-subsidies, competition, regulator, investments. I am not aware of one that has mapped the existing IR network on a GIS platform and identified gaps. Perhaps, technology has made it easier. In any event, that, and not mere length, is NRP’s defining characteristic, making it a worthwhile exercise.
Change is not independent of those other policies, such as pricing and cross-subsidies. For instance, we talk of IR’s operating ratio (OR). In 2018-19, as per NRP, India’s OR was 0.59 for freight and 1.92 for passenger traffic. The problem is low passenger fares and artificially high freight rates required to cross-subsidise those. Actually, it is worse, since normally, freight and passenger trains share common sections of track and passenger trains are given preference over goods trains in getting a path (route from point A to point B). Therefore, the average speed of a freight train is 24 km/hour. Average speed is a surrogate indicator. A superior indicator is transit time, time taken for a consignment to reach from one point to another. That also raises multi-modal issues. During the lockdown, there were fewer passenger trains (or none), and average speed of goods trains increased to 40 km/hour. But DFCs are meant to do that, aren’t they, be dedicated? In the process, they free up capacity elsewhere.
Most people know IR has a system of HDN and HUN identification for the present network. HDNs are high-density routes. There are 11 HDN routes that connect metros, with a single haul corridor. HUNs are highly-used networks, with multiple origins and destinations and no clear single haul corridor. HDNs and HUNs carry 80% of IR’s traffic, and there are sections where capacity utilisation is more than 100%. With traffic increasing, capacity utilisation will worsen. HUNs are primarily for passengers. Hence, gauge conversion and electrification. For freight, HDNs are important, if the intention is to increase rail share in total freight carried to 44%, average speed must increase (to say 50 km/hour), and costs must decline (say by 30%). With Western and Eastern DFCs, both should happen. However, the comparison is relative, since roads will also improve, courtesy technology and Bharatmala. There is nothing automatic about IR gaining a competitive edge. Other than reiterating policy issues and listing operational procedures and constraints (wagon policy, haulage charges, terminal charges) within IR (which can be improved by breaking down silos), the primary value addition of NRP is an analysis of the existing network, with expected additions (such as National Infrastructure Pipeline) also built-in. Even after doing this, gaps remain, as supplements to DFCs, HDNs and HUNs, not to forget terminals and sidings. These are places where one needs new tracks and investments. Historically, such decisions were often driven by political considerations and were ad hoc. NRP bases those decisions on objective criteria.
I should have mentioned analysis of the existing network is disaggregated, commodity-wise. “Further to the adoption of above-mentioned speed differential, reduction of 30% in tariff has not been applied to commodities like Coal. Iron Ore, Raw material for Steel and Fertilisers. These commodities are traditional bulk commodities for railways and reduction in cost will not have much impact in increasing the share on railways. But for other commodities, reduction in cost will attract the commodities to use railways as preferred mode”. Not quite an a priori expectation.