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The lost tracks of the railways

The lost tracks of the railways

It is often difficult to impose discipline in ministries with populist agendas. So, there is a sense of resignation that matters will proceed along fiscally irresponsible lines. But even by those relaxed standards, the state of the railways leaves much to be desired.

The ministry is unlikely to meet its 2010-11 target of gross traffic receipts of Rs94,765 crore. This is partially due to a shortfall in its freight-loading target of 944 million tonnes by 13.8 million tonnes (due to ore loading for export in Orissa and Karnataka). Its inability to meet these targets has been attributed to this factor. Other factors such as agitations, regulation of traffic in areas hit by ultra-Left violence and a rise in fuel costs has hit the railways hard.

Beyond these immediate factors, however, the one big reason for the sorry state of affairs is the absence of vision in the ministry. In spite of impressive sounding documents such as “Vision 2020", there is little realism when it comes to commissioning projects or mobilizing resources to manage and complete these projects. Some of these goals are clearly unattainable, unless there is a miracle. For example, the 2020 document says the railways would strive to add 25,000km of new lines by 2020. So far, since the British left India, the country has only managed to add 10,000km of track. The total cost for the projects (new lines, gauge conversion and doublings) that the railways has in mind will require a mind-boggling Rs42,156 crore. Clearly, the ministry cannot mobilize this on its own.

One part of the problem is economic. Road transport now accounts for the bulk of freight hauled across India. The switch from railways to roads occurred sometime between 1986-87 and 2000, roughly the period during which the country’s economy liberalized. Today, most manufacturers look for “last-mile connectivity" for stuff that is meant for individual or even industrial use. At the same time, eight bulk commodities account for much of the freight traffic of the railways. As a result, a shift to transportation of high-value goods is likely to prove difficult for the railways. In spite of these realities, outlandish estimates for the potential growth in freight business continue to be bandied about.

The other issue is clearly the runaway subsidization of passenger traffic by the freight business. This is proving ruinous for the railways and unless stopped, India can say goodbye to expanding its rail network.

Are passenger subsidies eating away the vitals of the railways? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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