Passenger Safety, Modernisation of Railways top priorities: Piyush Goyal

Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal told in an interview that passenger safety will be his first priority. The railways is also focusing on non-fare revenue options to boost earnings and improve its operating ratio. The high-speed corridor between Ahmedabad and Mumbai will transform the economy of the entire region, the minister said, adding that private operators may be roped in. He declined to comment on reports about exiting the diesel locomotive factory project being set up in a joint venture with General Electric in Bihar but said that he’s very keen on electrifying the entire rail network to save costs significantly. Edited excerpts:

What are your first impressions after taking over as Railway Minister?

Piyush Goyal: I’ve been in office just for 17-18 days. I’m studying the rail sector and the framework of our functioning. I haven’t yet finalised all my plans for the railways. I would like to see our rail network becoming modern and safer as soon as possible. I’m fortunate that my first official programme as rail minister was the launch of the high-speed train network with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad. We’ll do everything to implement his vision for the railways

What are the benefits of high-speed train network?

Piyush Goyal: With the high-speed train corridor, we’re planning to bring in a completely transformative Japanese Shinkansen technology. Ideally, this technology should have come to India 50 years ago. It operates trains at speeds of over 320 km per hour. The Japanese high-speed system has the best safety record. Japan is funding this project. The corridor between Ahmedabad and Mumbai would transform the economy of the entire region.

Will the corridor be extended to other cities?

Piyush Goyal: We’re looking at various other sectors and options to introduce high-speed trains. As we work out the viability and financing of other such projects, the government is looking at rapidly scaling up the high-speed train network in the country. Also, we want to bring in competition in the sector and engage with more countries.

Does that mean that you’ll also have private operators to run high-speed trains in India?

Piyush Goyal: Yes, it’s an exciting proposition. Through this we can generate competition and provide the best value to customers. Having a public-private partnership in this area would be beneficial. Right now we’re studying the railway framework and its working and how we can expand the existing capacity and realise more rail lines.

What’s being done to ensure safety of passengers?

Piyush Goyal: We have an aspirational goal of having an accident-free network, which was set by my predecessor Suresh Prabhu. All rail employees are working towards it. In my second or third day in office, I took a review of train safety and it was decided that we’re going to eliminate all unmanned level crossings. Currently, 35% accidents happen because of unmanned level crossings. I’ve told officials that in 12 months we’ll eliminate all level crossings. So that by Ganesh Chaturthi next year, we shouldn’t have a single unmanned crossing in the country.

We’ve decided to have safer LHB (Linke Hofmann Busch) coaches. I’ve told the officials to use all available tracks and stock for track renewal—there’s a huge backlog. Where tracks are needed for safety, we’ll first complete that work and only when the requirements of safety related works are fulfilled, we’ll go place more orders.

Has any budget been earmarked for safety-related work?

Piyush Goyal: We’re still studying it. But I can assure you that we’ll invest as much as possible so that any dearth of funds doesn’t come in the way of safety works.

What’s being done on station upgrade and private Investment?

Piyush Goyal: On September 20, I held discussions with at least 150 stakeholders, including real estate companies, who were constrained by the process that was being followed.

To start with, we’re doing away with the cumbersome bidding process. I want to do away with the Swiss challenge method and have a single bidding process.

Then, to make investment in station redevelopment projects more viable, I’ve decided to extend the lease period for concessionaires to 99 years from the current 45 years. Also, we’ll have some revenue-sharing agreement with them.

Is there any plan to give infrastructure status to station redevelopment?

Piyush Goyal: I’m yet to discuss it with the finance minister but I’m hopeful that it could happen.

How many stations are you targeting for redevelopment?

Piyush Goyal: Currently, we’re doing 23 stations—that’s the priority-—but I would love to do 300 stations.

Is Railways exiting diesel locomotive factory being set up with General Electric in Marhowra in Bihar?

Piyush Goyal: I don’t want to comment on media reports. But I am very keen that we should electrify the entire rail network. We have sufficient electricity in India. Currently, we’re importing diesel worth Rs 16,000 crore. By having a 100% electrified network, I’ll be able to save Rs 8,000-10,000 crore every year.

What plans do you have to increase rail revenue?

Piyush Goyal: We’ll be focusing on the non-fare revenue. There are options such as getting more revenue through advertising, how we can utilise our assets such as coaches and platforms to get revenue.

Revenue has taken a hit because of decline in loading of coal. Currently, 45% of total freight revenue comes from coal transportation. You’re also the coal minister. What is being done to contain the revenue loss?

Piyush Goyal: Revenue generation through a department of the government is not the purpose. Through rationalising coal linkages, we’ve saved thousands of crores for consumers.

We’ve reduced the cost for discoms. We’ll do whatever is in the national interest. We’re working on various ways to improve our freight loading.

The operating ratio of Railways has been hovering at 95%, which signals that the national transporter is stressed. How do you intend to lower this?

Piyush Goyal: Non-fare revenue will help us improve our operating ratio as we’ll get additional earnings. We’ll improve the efficiency by improving the utilisation of same assets. We can also do it by bringing down the journey time of trains, especially freight trains. We plan to bring down our fuel bill. We are also studying how we can make our existing assets sweat more. We are looking at all these options to have a healthy operating ratio.