New Delhi: The Indian Railways is going through transformational changes, which can only be made possible when there is synergy between the political and bureaucratic dispensation, Railway Board Chairman Vinod Kumar Yadav has said.
In a wide-ranging interview to ThePrint, Yadav spoke about the reasons behind the Narendra Modi government’s move to unify eight railway officer services, the restructuring of the Railway Board, focus on research and development, and the vision to enhance capacity building in railways.
Yadav also talked about the introduction of private train operators, instituting a Rail Development Authority, corporatisation of production units, and commissioning of more dedicated freight corridors as a means to increase railways income.
As railways takes a coordinated approach towards capacity building and efficiency enhancement, changes such as those underway are impossible without structural modifications, Yadav said.
“This government is not one for status quo… The easier path of business as usual could have been chosen, but we are treading on a tougher, more challenging path,” Yadav said in the interview conducted Saturday. “[Railway Minister] Piyush Goyal ji’s commitment to this is phenomenal.”
‘No need to worry about merger of 8 services’
The Narendra Modi government last year decided to unify eight officer services of the railways into one ‘Indian Railways Managerial Service (IRMS)’.
“From now on, all those recruited in the IRMS will be given training in all facets of railways — managerial, engineering, technical — so anyone can be posted anywhere,” Vinod Kumar Yadav said.
“Once the training changes radically, every officer will be able to take full ownership of any project in its entirety… It will not be like it is now — signal officers responsible for signaling, electrical only bothered about electrical aspects.”
Dispelling the idea that the decision was taken without any consultation, Yadav said, “Piyush Goyal ji has been consulting on this issue for the last three years.”
The reason the decision was implemented now was because it tied in perfectly with the government’s new vision for the railways, he added.
“Of course, there are issues… Civil service officers feel that while engineering officers will be able to work on general posts, they will not be able to work on engineering posts,” he said. “They also think that they will suffer because they join the service late and the only advantage they get is in the beginning of their service by virtue of being civil servants.”
However, these issues will be sorted out gradually, which is why the cadre restructuring will happen over a year, he added. “I want to assure all the officers, none of their careers will be hurt… They will only benefit from this exercise.”
While the tensions between the civil and engineering officers were “hidden”, Yadav said, the more obvious friction between officers from the electrical and mechanical services will also be ironed out.
Yadav, an Indian Railway Service of Electrical Engineers officer from the 1980 batch, pointed out that officers from the mechanical service stood to lose domain work on account of the government’s bid to completely electrify the railway network.
“By 2023-24, we plan to electrify 100 per cent of the network. Already, 59 per cent has been electrified,” Yadav said. “Certainly, the diesel locos and Diesel Electric Multiple Units (DEMUs) will be phased out and be replaced by electric locos, Electrical Multiple Units (EMUs) and train sets… As a result, the mechanical officers wanted to retain these with them to protect their service interests,” he added.
“But nowhere in the world can planning take place keeping in view the maintenance of a cadre.”
“We have a very clear vision — the entire managerial service will look after the functioning of railways in its entirety, the Group B officers, who are all engineers and graduates themselves, will look after the day-to-day functioning on technical aspects and a team of experts and researchers who don’t belong to the railways service at RDSO (Research Development and Standards Organisation) will be concerned with only the research part,” he said.
“This will ensure railways grows in a holistic fashion.”
Capacity building — focus more on existing lines
The capital expenditure of Indian Railways has increased by 33 per cent over the last five years — from Rs 1.21 lakh crore in 2016-17 to Rs 1.61 lakh crore in 2020-21 [outlay]. However, it has not resulted in proportionate or adequate capacity building so far, Vinod Kumar Yadav conceded.
“This was happening until now that there was focus on building new lines, etc. without building capacity for the existing ones. This is being changed radically now — what we are trying to do is that wherever our congestion is more, we increase capacity there.”
According to Yadav, 96 per cent of the railway traffic is being run on a network of 34,000 km — half of India’s total network of 68,000 km.
“The idea is to ease out this congested route by separating the freight corridor and upgrading their lines to 160 kmph,” he said.
According to Yadav, 58 super-critical projects and 68 critical projects have already been identified, and they will be completed in the next two to seven years. These are projects that had been sanctioned a long time ago, he said.
“There will be no new lines here — only multi-tracking,” he said. “Where there are single tracks, we will double the tracks, where there are double tracks, we will triple the tracks,” he added.
Yadav said the dedicated Delhi-Mumbai freight corridor will be commissioned by 21 December. In addition, he claimed, the existing Delhi-Mumbai network will be modernised to handle trains running at 160 kmph as opposed to the current 130 kmph. A similar timeline will be followed for the Delhi-Kolkata freight network, he added.
The government has also identified four more dedicated freight corridors covering a network of 4,000 km, for which a Detailed Project Report has already been sanctioned.
Railway Board restructuring — more powers to the CEO
The restructuring of the Railway Board, which was also announced by the Union Cabinet last year, signals a change in the nature of the board’s work, Vinod Kumar Yadav said. The restructuring will be complete by next month, he added.
“Right now, the board gets involved in a lot of day-to-day functioning,” he said.
“But now we have devolved a lot of powers to the general managers in each zone such that each zone acts like an independent business unit… This will allow the board to be involved in only policy decisions and strategic and prospective planning.”
With the position of the Chairman Railway Board (CRB) restructured as chief executive, the incumbent will cease to be first among equals, Yadav said. All decisions, he added, will be taken by the chief executive, and not at the level of individual members.
“Board members are ex-officio secretaries to the Government of India, and CRB is the ex-officio principal secretary to the Government of India,” Yadav said.
“So there used to be some confusion — members would work like independent entities, and the role of the CRB was getting limited to only ensuring coordination between different departments. To avoid this ambiguity, the government decided that CRB will work as CEO, and all members will assist him,” he said.
Bids for 150 private trains invited
As the Indian Railways bolsters its capacity, Yadav said it will likely lead to a demand for more trains.
To meet this demand, he added, the government has come up with the idea of private train operators. “Even the idea of privatisation ties into our larger vision… No reform is being carried out in isolation.”
“It is to meet this demand, we have already invited bids for 150 trains. If you see, it is not a very large number — we run 13,000 passenger trains, out of that 150 is a very small number.”
Depending on the success of private train operators, the number can be expanded. However, he clarified that the existing trains will continue to be with the railways, with operations staying with the transporter too.
“Private players will not get operations — driver, guard, safety certification, infrastructure will remain with railways,” he said. “Private players will only get on-board services — entertainment, food, cleanliness, passenger amenities, fare collection.”
While the Modi government has said 150 private trains will be operationalised by the end of the year, Yadav claimed it will take up to two years for this to work out.
Rail Development Authority will be instituted in a year
The Union Cabinet approved the formation of a Rail Development Authority (RDA) — an independent body to decide rail fares to ensure pricing is commensurate with expenses — in 2018, but it has not yet been instituted.
“Now, the RDA that we will bring in will have to factor in private train operators so that they can regulate the fare play between private operators and railway operators,” Yadav said. “That is why we did not bring it earlier… But now, within a year, we will bring it.”
An independent body for the railways — like the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India for the telecom sector — has been recommended by several committees over the years to ensure that fares are decided by a non-political body not impacted by the repercussions of price hikes etc.
On New Year’s Eve, the Modi government announced a fare hike, which is estimated to result in an additional annual income of Rs 2,300 crore, Yadav said. Asked if there is a possibility of a further hike, he said, “We will rationalise fares.”
Elaborating on long-term measures to increase railways’ income, Yadav said, “The income can only increase through freight traffic.”
“As of now, our modal share has really gone down — it is 25 per cent… It needs to be increased to 45 per cent for the railways to look after its finances in a rationalised manner… That is the reason we are working on these dedicated freight corridors,” he added.
“We want to commission the existing dedicated freight corridors as early as possible — 21 December being the target… And we want to come up with the future dedicated freight corridors of 5,000 km very soon.”
Corporatisation of production units
While the operationalisation of the 150 private trains will take up to two years, the railways will add its own trains in the meantime. For this, it is important that technology and efficiency are improved. For this, the government has taken an in-principle decision to corporatise its production units.
“An in-principle decision to go in for corporatisation of production units has been taken,” he said. “There also we want to improve efficiency, and ensure that the latest technology is inducted for the manufacturing of coaches, locos, train sets.”
To this end, the railways has commissioned a study by the Rail India Technical and Economic Services Ltd (RITES), a railways PSU, with April as the deadline for submission.
“The most important aspect of this study is how to deal with the existing staff so that no staff is in a disadvantageous situation,” he said. “Once the report is finalised sometime by April, we will start the process after taking trade unions on board and incorporating their suggestions.”