Rail Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal’s nephew’s alleged involvement in a job scam is perhaps an apt representation of what ails the nation’s largest employer. Like any other behemoth, the Indian Railways has struggled to move forward at the pace that is mandated by the growth of the rest of the country. Resultantly, industries have resorted to using the more expensive alternative, roads. Last year, the Railways made a whopping Rs 24,600 crore in losses. While making a move in the right direction—towards rationalising passenger fares—the minister announced in February that he would need Rs 1.5 lakh crore to fix this problem, by building new lines, gauge conversion from meter to broad gauge, doubling and trebling of railway tracks and electrification. He also paid customary lip service to the need for private participation. Well, what would stop the Railways from getting it? The Railways have lagged the most in private participation, and minister after minister has passed on the buck after making the right noises.
However, the sad part is that the minister has missed the point. While the manufacturing and mining industries that depend on the Railways for transportation have been clamouring for efficiency in transactions and wagon use, the Railways claim the technology is there—but has not been implemented well. Everything seems to hinge on the Dedicated Freight Corridors, where private participation is expected in building infrastructure, and will offer the light of the proverbial tunnel in that they will offer seamless, technologically superior, predictable transport, leading to better productivity.
The Centre for Railway Information Systems (CRIS), the autonomous organisation under the Ministry of Railways, has systems ready to go in wagon management and vendor management, but the implementation has been partial and shoddy. While some commendable development has taken place on the passenger side—such as facilitating online reservations and lately, mobile alerts on train delays—the commercial side still suffers from the political agenda and hence, a step-motherly treatment.
CRIS’s problem in implementing simple technology is fraught with surrounding issues. While wagon tracking is partly enabled through RFID, making the entire system automated has not seen the light of day. Inordinate delays (literally—since freight trains run on track availability and do not follow a fixed schedule) frustrate both the pace and the degree of predictability of business. For commerce, this is simply not acceptable. Indeed, standardisation is the key to running the railway network, and despite sporadic attempts to implement new technology, not a single one has been standardised across the network in recent times. The most glaring example is the anti-collision device, which was piloted on the Konkan Railway. It was never implemented on any other sectors since there were “glitches”, until recently, when the North East Frontier Railway decided to pilot it again. The trick is to improve upon a technology that has problems, since abandoning a good technology means—in this case—loss of safety.
Indeed, while modernisation has caught the Railways’ fancy in its efforts to acquire a few sleek rakes with superior workmanship, it has not worked that hard on safety issues. The need of the hour is to implement efficiency and safety related technologies.
Yet, the last mile will remain elusive, for now.