India’s civil aviation sector has been stalled by mindless government policies. That provides an opportunity for the railways to make some money. It cannot extract more money from the cattle class, but by providing high end services to what would otherwise be air passengers, it can do something to balance its budget. This idea seems to have struck Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal’s team, which is why value-additions have been proposed. This could lead to an improved service culture in the Railways that could also benefit the general class of traveller.
It is not that the Railways have not improved their performance. One of the major breakthroughs has been the check on corruption, and the rush at the ticket windows, by introducing online ticket bookings for individuals and ticket agents. Along with the Tatkal facility, it has made it possible to avoid the tension and inconvenience often involved in reserving seats on trains. The system, however, is in the habit of becoming overburdened with traffic and annoying slowdowns. Bansal has made upgradation of this facility a priority, which will go a long way towards making things easy for passengers.
The decision to introduce escalators at key railway stations, which needs to be expanded as soon as possible to cover all stations, is yet another critical and intelligent decision. There is a very large section of elderly persons that finds train travel inconvenient for the simple reason that they cannot climb the stairs. This will remedy the problem. The introduction of luxury coaches with all the bells and whistles will bring back the high spending class to the railways, providing some extra income.
It is totally pointless to try and match the infrastructure expansion of a country like China with its high-speed trains. What India can do is to improve the quality of infrastructure in a matching way. Safety is another important feature that could be emphasised, even if it means putting off increasing the speed of the trains. The security of passengers, particularly women, also needs to be enhanced in a hugely proactive way. The Indian Railways cannot look, behave and smell like the nineteenth century any more. There is much that exists in India to improve the train-travel experience, particularly for tourists, which can also be imaginatively leveraged.
Bansal has promised a five-star experience on the trains. The intent is certainly good because it cannot be done without overall improvement and a trickle-down effect. The question is how much of it he can deliver. The Congress might want improvements – therefore short-cuts – within the next year, but the general public would like long term improvement that eventually delivers the goods. Acknowledgement of present day needs such as Wi-Fi connectivity, good quality food, etc., indicates they are looking in the right direction.
At the same time, there are the larger issues involved. Overall, there is capacity crunch that needs to be met. While the return of high-end passengers might be a good thing from the point of revenue generation, it means that supply will fall further short. Civil aviation was expected to meet the needs of the upper middle class, but has failed to expand to the point of making air travel affordable.
Capacity has also to be added in freight transportation. The plans made, so far, have been held up everywhere thanks to opposition with regard to land acquisition, and the usual vested interests represented by one or the other NGO. This is one of the primary reasons for keeping India from becoming a 21st century economy.
Uttarakhand is reported to have got clearance for the Tanakpur-Bageshwar rail link, and some other sops. West Bengal and Bihar have had reason to complain. Obviously, Bansal has not refrained from playing the kind of politics Railway Ministers have before him.