India: The Changing Face of Railways under Modi

The first half of last five years saw the railways struggling with burgeoning staff and pension costs.

The Indian Railways has witnessed tremendous growth in the first innings of the Modi government, registering the best ever performance in the areas of rail safety and modernisation.

Three new superfast trains, a bullet train and a more customer-friendly railways; Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a revamp of the Indian Railways before coming to power, and he has delivered. The Railways managed to go from a state-run operation, ignorant to the needs of the passengers and obstinate to change, to sleek, comfortable and consumer-friendly.

The NDA government spent the last five years on long-term infrastructure building in railways. Laying of second, third, and fourth lines on busy routes to enhance network capacity, and bringing in Northeast connectivity through broad-gauge conversion have been top on the government’s to-do list.

The first half of last five years saw the railways struggling with burgeoning staff and pension costs, after implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission, in the back-drop of stagnating earnings. In 2014, then-Railways Minister Sadananda Gowda, in his Budget speech, pitched to lift the existing ban on FDI in the railways sector, and emphasised on the need for foreign direct investments as well as public-private partnerships to fix the resource crunch.

Gowda also promised bullet trains, dedicated freight corridors, a diamond quadrilateral high-speed rail network, enhanced passenger amenities and augmented cargo-carrying capacity in his budget for the year ended March 2015. However, Gowda’s plans lacked detail, and he was replaced within six months by Suresh Prabhu.

Prabhu was brought in to turn around the railways. He focused on getting the railways out of the cycle of under-investment and creating future network capacity through long-gestation works. Announcing hefty spending increases for building more capacity and track electrification, Prabhu also unveiled plans to introduce faster trains on existing lines.
In his maiden Budget, Prabhu chose to focus on getting the finances of the country’s biggest transporter back on track. He kept fares unchanged, and avoided populist promises of new trains and stations, instead choosing to improve existing amenities.

He laid out a Rs 8.5 lakh crore investment plan over the next five years, marking a 52% increase from Gowda’s 2014-15 figures of Rs 65,445 crore to Rs 1,00,011 crore in 2015-16.

2016-17 saw the announcement of three new superfast trains: ‘Humsafar’, a fully air-conditioned 3AC service with the option of meals; ‘Tejas’ which could reach speeds up to 130 km per hour and offer on-board services such as entertainment, local cuisine and Wi-Fi; and ‘Uday’, Utkrishit Double-decker Air-conditioned Yatri, train, an overnight double-decker train on busy routes.

Perhaps one of the biggest moves of the NDA government came in 2017, when the Modi government decided to merge the Railways Budget and the Union Budget, thus ending a 92-year old practice.
In the first combined speech, then-Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced a rail safety fund, namely ‘Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh’, with a corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore over a period of five years for critical safety related works in the railways.

In Budget 2018-19, Jaitley proposed doubling 18,000 km of lines and said gauge conversion was underway to eliminate capacity constraints. He also laid out a plan of 36,000 km of rail track renewal and also announced that 4,267 unmanned railway crossings on broad gauge routes were to be eliminated in the next two years.

This year’s Interim Budget saw the railways get the highest-ever allocation of Rs 1,58,658 crore for the year 2019-20, surpassing last year’s allocation of Rs 1,48,528 crore. Furthermore, the operating ratio, a measure of Indian Railways financial health, improved and further improvement is being eyed. Goyal also announced trains like Train 18, now Vande Bharat Express that will offer world-class travel experience to passengers in the coming years.

Source-Economic Times online

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