indian railways: Big ticket announcements, infra

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NEW DELHI: The railway minister made some big ticket announcements like merger of cadres, corporatisation of PSUs and “privately” run trains in 2019, which also saw a huge infra push, fare hike and digital drive as minister Piyush Goyal took on contentious issues to break age-old norms despite opposition from within the transport behemoth.

In 2020, the challenge will be to ensure that these best laid plans get implemented.

Soon after taking charge in his second term, Goyal brought in an ambitious 100-day plan, which was a blueprint not only to revive railways’ dipping finances but also to streamline the working of the national transporter.

One of the plans was to invite private operators to run two of its trains and also some routes which have low congestion and connect important tourist spots.

While this raised a political storm and was opposed vehemently by railway unions who alleged that it was a way to privatise railways, the ministry not only announced the running of the Delhi-Lucknow Tejas earlier in the year gone by, but also launched the Ahmedabad to Mumbai Tejas, which will run commercially beginning January 19.

Both these trains are being run by railway subsidiary IRCTC. The Railways has also announced that 150 new trains will be given to private operators soon.

Another 100 day-plan which is being opposed tooth and nail is hiving off railways’ rolling stock and locomotive production units and associated workshops into a new government-owned entity called “Indian Railway Rolling Stock Company”.

According to the document prepared by the Railway Board, Indian Railways will conduct a detailed study of seven of its production units — Chittaranjan Locomotive Works (CLW) in West Bengal, Integral Coach Factory (ICF) in Chennai, Rail Coach Factory (RCF) in Kapurthala, Diesel Modernization Works (DMW) in Patiala, Diesel Locomotive Works (DLW) in Varanasi, Wheel & Axle Plant in Bangalore, and Modern Coach Factory (MCF) in Rae Bareli.

While Railways has maintained that the plan was only to increase efficiency in the units, railway unions opposed it and even Congress President Sonia Gandhi raised the issue in Parliament.

Goyal, however, has stood his ground, saying that railways has no plans to privatise the national transporter.

Even as these issues were still to be ironed out, railways announced the merger of its services leading to discontent among officers who feared loss in seniority and career progression.

Rushing to clarify, the ministry said that an alternative mechanism will be established by a group of ministers to ensure that no one is “disadvantaged” by the merger, which was introduced to end “departmentalism” in railways.

In fact, the ministry had to deal with such inter-cadre turf wars since ages, but it assumed serious proportions when the electrical and mechanical services officers sparred over India’s first indigenous train — Vande Bharat — leading to tenders being cancelled and the process started from scratch.

As if these issues were not enough to deal with, the ministry also announced a “marginal” fare hike for all passengers trains except the suburban sector. While the fare hike ranged from one paise per kilometre to 4 paise per kilometre, at a time when the economy is facing a slowdown, the announcement came as a dampener for the general public.

Controversies aside, railways also managed its best safety record in its history — zero accidents. It also managed to bring the production of Vande Bharat rakes under control with railways announcing that it will procure 44 rakes from ICF.

Not just that, other PSUs too like the Diesel Locomotive Works, Varanasi exported seven diesel locomotives to Sri Lankan Railways and Indian Railways will also provide broad gauge and meter gauge diesel locomotives to Bangladesh Railways for a period of two years to help them in improving train operations, thus managing to showcase its production capabilities to other asian countries as well.

The Railways also launched its first Railway Commando Battalion ‘CORAS’ to tackle the menace of terrorism and Naxalism in its premises.

Infrastructure also received a huge boost during this period with new line, doubling and gauge conversion increasing by 41 per cent, elimination of manned level crossings, construction of foot over bridges (FOB) increased by 37 per cent.

Railways has also received approval to raise speed to 160 kmph by 2022-23 on Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi Howrah routes and increase average speed of passenger trains by 60 per cent.

In 2019, railways went big with digital India, offering WiFi at 5400 stations, introduced Real Time Train Information System (RTIS) in collaboration with ISRO for automatic chart preparation and passenger train information.

The year also saw railways improving its punctuality performance for Mail/Express trains to 75.53 per cent as compared to 68.08 per cent in the same period of 2018 reflecting an improvement of 7.45 per cent.

During this period, 143 trains were upgraded to Utkrisht standard, 72 new train services introduced and 87 pairs of ICF trains were converted to faster and safer LHB utilizing 116 LHB rakes.

It also successfully completed one of the world’s largest recruitment exercises where an unprecedented 47.45 lakh candidates applied for over 64,000 posts of Assistant Loco Pilots and technicians. About 1.17 crore candidates appeared for over 63,000 posts in Level I (erstwhile Group D) posts and around 24.75 lakh candidates appeared for over 13,500 posts for Junior Engineer (JE).

While railways recorded its worst operating ratio of 98.44 per cent in 2017-18 which is the worst in the previous 10 years, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) said in a report tabled in Parliament in December, an RTI revealed that its earnings suffered a dip of Rs 155 crore and Rs 3,901 crore in passenger and freight fares respectively in the second quarter of the current fiscal, compared to the previous one.

Railways has maintained that the burden of the seventh pay commission, along with the salary of 12 lakh employees and pension liability of 13 lakh pensioners have added to railways’ financial woes.

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