The need for speed

Minister for railways Pawan Kumar Bansal has made a strong case for increasing the passenger fares, which have remained stagnant for almost a decade. What he promises with this possible fare hike is better services. That is a welcome remark given the multitude of challenges being faced by the Indian Railways.

The safety and security of passengers, improved cleanliness and greening of the trains and stations, and most importantly, improving the punctuality of railway operations are some of the key issues that the minister mentioned on taking charge.

Given that the Railways is financially starved and losing about R21,000 crore annually on the passenger business, it has not been able to make much improvement in its infrastructure or passenger services. A key parameter of service quality for any transport provider still remains, getting from point A to B, fast. This is an area where the Indian Railways has lagged for a long time.

In an era when train services around the world are running at speeds of over 300 kmph, and breaking the world commercial rail speed record over and over again, most 'superfast' trains of the Indian Railways still run at commercial speeds of around 55 kmph. Even the Duronto, Shatabdi and Rajdhani Expresses, which have maximum speeds in excess of 130 kmph, have appalling commercial speeds of around 70 kmph.

The Rajdhani Express provides an interesting case study. Introduced in 1969, the first Rajdhani Express, with a maximum speed of 120 kmph, was flagged off to run between Howrah and New Delhi. At the start of its operations it covered a distance of 1,441 km in 17 hours and 20 minutes. With just three technical halts, this worked out to a commercial operational speed of about 83.15 kmph. Today, the same train covers almost the same distance in 17 hours. Even with more powerful locomotives-maximum speed in excess of 130 kmph-and lighter coaches, the train could shave off only 20 minutes in 43 years. Its average commercial operational speed has risen by only 2 kmph.

The situation is similar for almost all the superfast train services. There always appears to be a large difference between the high speeds reached by the trains and their average commercial speeds of operations. Although the fastest of our superfast trains reach speeds of up to 150 kmph, the overall average commercial speeds are about 68 kmph for the Shatabdi Expresses (38 trains), 72 kmph for the Rajdhani Expresses (47 trains), and 71 kmph for the Durontos (60 trains). Even though large sections of its tracks and trains are capable of running at 150 kmph, the Railways is not able to increase its average commercial speeds to 100 kmph.

The plans for upgrading speeds, such as reflected in the 12th Five-Year Plan Working Group report of the Railways and the Vision 2020 of the Railways, seem long term. They suggest that the high speeds on the corridors between Delhi-Howrah and Delhi-Mumbai would be upgraded to 160kmph, and further to 200kmph. However, if the large number of operational challenges that are now holding back overall network speeds are not looked into, none of the technical upgrades of tracks, locomotives and coaches would yield significant results.

The Railways needs to identify low hanging fruits such as optimised time tabling and punctuality of its services. Better monitoring and effective use of the existing assets could help cut maintenance time losses. Integration of the rail network with customised IT-enabled infrastructure would also help in better asset utilisation. These would be much quicker and cost effective solutions than building large-scale physical infrastructure in the hope of improving efficiencies.

Increasing the overall speed of travel has a host of positive externalities. It increases rail network capacity and reduce congestion. If unchecked now, the problems would only aggravate. The continually growing economy generates a continuous demand for greater passenger mobility. If the Railways wants to retain and grow its share in that demand, it has to improve its services. It has to move more people, more comfortably, more efficiently and quickly without compromising on safety.

Tags: Indian Railways, passenger fares, C P Joshi, Ministry of Railways