ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Railways : Beyond Tinkering

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It is indeed an unsatisfactory set of circumstances which do    not permit rejoicing over the fact that the 13.6 million passengers who travel on the Indian Railways every day have not been made to pay higher fares. Even the fact that the outlay on passenger amenities has been increased by Rs 200 crore in the railway budget for 2000-2001 over the current year is not a sufficient reason for celebration. In the main passenger comfort and the continued affordability of travel can only be grounded on the firm foundation of the expansion, modernisation and development of the railways. And this, with even the modest modernisation schemes – gauge conversion, new lines, electrification, etc – projected to cost over Rs 34,000 crore, is unlikely to be fully realised. Admittedly, Mamata Banerjee, pursuing her objective of ushering in a golden tomorrow, has persuaded the union cabinet to increase budgetary support to the railways. But that is hardly the answer to her problems. All this means is an additional Rs 1,000 crore over the Rs 2,400 crore of 1999-2000. With the decision not to increase market borrowings above Rs 3,000 crore, the railways will be hard put to it to find the requisite funds.

In the circumstances, the railway minister was expected to generate revenue in the usual way – increasing passenger fares and tariff on goods. Railway passenger fares average 2.5 times lower than bus fares, while goods tariffs are relatively high and have been successively raised. Not surprisingly, while almost 90 per cent of freight in the country was carried by the railways in the 1950s, the proportion had come down to 70 per cent in the 1970s and is now only 30 per cent. While part of the explanation is the development of road transport, the railways' inefficiency and unreliability are a well-documented cause of its failure to retain a larger share of the movement of goods. It is commendable that the minister has projected a target of increasing the railways' share of goods traffic to 50 per cent by the end of the decade. However, the plan does not envisage any new outlook on freight handling. There is a proposal for high speed goods trains to follow the super-fast passenger trains to enable fast transit of high value goods as has been tried out on the Delhi-Mumbai route. Volume discounts, warehousing facilities and an expansion of the roll-on-roll-off system tried out successfully on the Konkan railways are also on the cards. However, the most significant aspect of freight transport is reliability and security, on which the railways' record has been poor and it is a moot question whether these schemes alone will make the critical difference. The task here is to evolve an integrated plan for the movement of traffic, which would significantly enhance interaction and coordination between the railways and private road transport operators while fostering the modernisation and regulation of the latter as well. There is clearly a need to view freight and passenger transport as complementary and subsidising passenger transport by freight is clearly not the way, as has been pointed out time and again. The answer perhaps lies in a more flexible approach to tariff-fixing taking into consideration such inputs as regions of high traffic density, seasonality, etc, and encouraging alternative means of transport in sectors found to be uneconomic by the railways, as done in other countries.

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