Ashwani Lohani, who was Air India Chairman and Managing Director for two years, has recently taken over as Chairman of the Railway Board. He speaks about his plans to turn around the Indian Railways by adopting some practices followed by the airline industry. Edited excerpts:
When you were in Air India, you rolled out schemes to challenge the market of Indian Railways. Now when you are the Railway Board Chairman, what kind of schemes are you planning to give competition to the aviation market?
There is no comparison between the aviation and the railway markets. The aviation market is 300,000-350,000 thousand passengers a day whereas the railway market is about 22 million passengers a day. “Passengers carried by domestic airlines during January-December 2016 were 998.88 lakh as against 810.91 lakh during the corresponding period of the previous year, thereby registering a growth of 23.18%.
So as far as the Railway is concerned, aviation is no competition. But when I was the CMD of Air India, I was looking to tap into a great number of people who travel on premium trains. So this strategy was part of that effort.
So now what strategies would you adopt to woo back passengers to the Railways?
I am not looking at wooing passengers because the numbers just don’t compare. We are far big compared to the aviation market.
What will be your target market in that sense?
The advantage of travelling by train is that if you leave in the evening from Delhi, you will reach Mumbai the next morning. But if you take a flight in the evening, you have to pay for the hotel room there and if you leave in the morning, you are so tired that you are not able to do business as usual. So there is a segment in the leisure market which prefers to travel by train. Businessmen would prefer spending the night in a train than taking a hotel room. We want to improve our services so that more people travel by us.
Do you think the flexi-fare system has hurt the Indian Railways, especially the premium trains that it operates?
We are looking at the system in totality. We will see how it can be improved because we need a flexible or dynamic pricing system, just like airlines. But various parameters have to be in tune with the market. Basically, flexible or dynamic pricing should increase the number of passengers as well as revenue. It has to serve both purposes. So we are looking at it.
Do you think the ticket pricing system followed by airlines can be adopted by the Indian Railways as well?
Why not but that’s a very small system that caters to a small market. Here we serve a large population so we still have to look at it.
What steps are you planning to improve catering services?
We have to look at e-catering and ready-to-eat meals like we serve on the flights. We have to increase its usage because we serve 12 lakh meals on the trains. And if there is even one complaint of bad food quality then it tarnishes our image. Catering has to be simple so we will focus on e-catering and ready-to-eat meals. It should not be dal, chawal, roti, sabzi, papad and raita. Instead mini meals could be a better option.
Another common complaint is the cleanliness of bed linen. So what is the plan for improving laundry services?
The laundry services have improved considerably over a couple of years with the setting up of mechanised laundries within the Railways and the BOOT [build, own, operate, transfer] model. We have to look at those pockets where mechanised laundries are not there.
Is there a plan to increase the frequency of cleaning the blankets?
We have to look at that. We have to perhaps see if we can do away with blankets. That is a call we still have to take.
When you were in Air India, you were known to take a stand for your employees. What measures will you adopt to improve working conditions of the locopilots and other workers?
We have ordered that all the running rooms of locopilots across the country will be air-conditioned within a year. We will be speaking to them at a number of places. We are in talks with them to address other concerns. We are totally concerned about the human resource issues of the employees.
What has been your assessment of the train accidents that took place recently?
Two to three things are important. One is that track has to be maintained. We can’t keep on delaying maintenance. If the tracks are bad, they have to be repaired. We can’t let the trains pass and do the repairs after that. This practice has stopped completely. If the track is bad, it will be repaired immediately – whether the train gets delayed or cancelled. But that’s a temporary phenomenon as ultimately we have to run trains as per the demand. At present, we are focussing on attention to infrastructure, mainly tracks.
What will you do differently for track inspection since rail is still inspected manually by gangmen?
That’s a fine practice. We are spreading the message that gangmen are the icon of the Indian Railways and a lot of them are in direct touch with me now. The only thing is that since you are not able to give the required blocks, you are not able to maintain them. We have empowered the field level staff. If he feels that the track is bad, he should be able to stop the traffic and get the track maintained. That sort of backing was earlier missing.
What steps can be taken to improve public-private partnership in the Railways?
Station development is a big opportunity for the private sector. There is an opportunity for trains that carry automobiles.
What about private sector participation in passenger train operations?
There is no such plan as yet.