13 March 2017 09:04:42 IST

With better services, Indian Railways on the right track

Pic credit: Nagara Gopal

While the Railways is surely improving, certain fundamental problems still remain

My last trip by train, in the first week of March, was a pleasant one. I reached Chennai Central and it was much cleaner than I had ever seen. The free Wi-Fi was seamless and in no time, I was able to download animation videos for my daughter.

While the train departed five minutes after its scheduled time, I was taken aback by an SMS I received about 15 minutes into the journey. The message included the ‘train captain’ wishing me a happy journey and his contact number and seat details, in case I needed to get in touch with him during the trip.

The toilets were clean, at least for the initial part of the trip. The beddings were in decent shape. The blankets didn’t smell and the bed sheets were crisp, and largely free of any stains.

Next day, after the journey, I got a call from Indian Railways, asking me to rate the quality of air conditioning inside the train, and on the cleanliness of the linen.

As it turns out, the survey is one of Indian Railways’ many recent initiatives to improve services. A report said plans include getting feedback from travellers at more than 400 stations and passengers of Jan Shatabdi, Sampark Kranti and inter-city trains.

The Railways Ministry has displayed imagination on other fronts too. Take, for instance, the launch of ‘Roll-on Roll-off’ service from Gurugram to carry trucks on wagons and decongest the NCR is a novel one. It reduces traffic in the Capital (more than 20,000 trucks transit via the region everyday) and gives truck owners a time and cost-saving option.

There is little doubt that under Suresh Prabhu, Indian Railways has shown intent to improve things, and it has backed it up with some degree of execution. Improving services will help the Railways get better patronage and I’m sure travellers wouldn’t mind a hike in ticket rates if they are assured a pleasant travel.

Fundamental issues

At the same time, problems, some fundamental, remain. In late February, my train from Kerala to Chennai was late by over two hours. On-time performance, a concept oft-used by airlines, is yet to be embraced by the Railways.

A BusinessLine story exposed the need for an urgent overhaul of the rail network, including its tracks and coaches. The last one year has seen a disturbingly high number of derailments, that have claimed nearly 200 lives.

Perhaps none knows the urgency of the situation more than Prabhu, who had done a commendable job as the Minister for Power in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. It was evident in the 2017-2018 plan that he unveiled in early March. It included projects to introduce international freight service and private freight terminals. Analysts had welcomed it, saying the roadmap is in the right direction with a focus on increasing revenues and improving amenities.

It is a difficult task, however, given the size of an organisation that employs 1.3 million people (as on March 2016) and is divided into 17 zones. The organisational maze can delay decisions and the ability to respond to market conditions.

Prabhu had talked about revamping the Board to improve governance in the 2016 Railway Budget, which was incidentally, the last one. Since then, there has been no news emanating from the Rail Bhavan on the restructuring effort. Hopefully, it is a work in progress.

A leaner organisation will make all the difference.