Railway Board chairman Ashwani Lohani said safety is top priority for Indian Railways and to achieve it field units are being empowered financially and administratively. In an interview with Media, the former head of Air India and ITDC said that though the number of train accidents in India is down by 45% this year, the transporter’s image has taken a hit because of a few derailments in quick succession. Edited Excerpts:
Q: What’s being done to make railways safer?
Lohani: Safety is of paramount concern for any mass transit system. So, for Indian Railways as well, safety is the topmost priority and we’ve communicated this thought down the line among our 13 lakh employees. In the recent months, we’ve had a few unfortunate incidents that has changed the image perception. The problem today Indian Railways has is of image perception because of a few derailments that took place in quick succession sometime back.
Q: Hasn’t the number of train accidents, including derailments, increased in the last one year?
Lohani: In reality, accidents are down by 45% this year as compared to last year. That shows that we’re steadily improving things, but then our focus remains to minimise the number as much as possible. The ongoing priority is routine maintenance. That doesn’t involve too much cost, but it requires a lot of effort, given that we have such a dense network. Because of this high traffic, earlier we weren’t able to give maintenance blocks to our teams. Now wherever the requirement is, blocks are being given for maintenance. Overriding priority is being given to rail renewal. Wherever the rails are required are being provided for renewal works. The field units, General Managers and Divisional Railway Managers have been empowered to take quick decisions. There was an urgent need to motivate the staff. Indian Railways is an employee driven organisation. Even if one field employee doesn’t have his heart in the job, it could be alarming for us.
Several measures are being taken to motivate employees. The human resources department plays a huge role in making the system efficient and accident-free. We have to instill renewed sense of confidence in rail passengers. So, I hope in the short term, the results of all these measures would be visible. All our employees on the ground are on guard to ensure highest level of safety in train operations. Then we’ve long-term plans as well that include changing our work culture as well.
Q: There was also a plan to have a dedicated railway fund for safety related works. Has that been done?
Lohani: Yes. As per the arrangements, we’re getting Rs 15,000 crore from the finance ministry and we have to chip in another Rs 5,000 crore from our side. So, the annual fund is in place and is operational as well.
Q: High operating ratio has been another serious concern for railways. Is there a fund crunch for modernisation works?
Lohani: Well, as of now we have enough money available, given that we got a good budgetary support from the finance ministry and also we have an off-budgetary mechanism. If you see, the railway capacity expansion programme, what we call the annual plan outlay, in the last three years has increased a lot. That means we’re making substantial investment in railway works. As far as operating ratio is concerned, I think we’re targeting around 97% this year. Given that we have a high ratio, it’s undoubtedly a concern for us. You must understand that we have a pension burden of Rs.45,000 crore per year and also several other subsidies as well. All of that goes from our revenue only. Otherwise, we’re a healthy organisation.
Q: What are the off-budget options you’re looking at to arrange funds for modernisation of railways?
Lohani: We’ve tied up with Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC). They have promised us assured funding at good rates. I can’t tell you now how much we’ll be getting this year, but it would be substantial. We’ll be investing that money in high-traction projects. Then through our internal generation, we can do a lot. Non-fare revenue, such as advertising, is another area that we’re exploring. The focus will be to move reliance from the passengers and freight segment and explore other options of getting revenue through our existing assets. Railways has a huge asset base. We’re trying to utilise it.
Q: What’s being done to boost railway’s revenues? As far as passenger and freight revenue targets for current fiscal are concerned, are you on track?
Lohani: Both the passenger and freight earnings till now are as per estimates. The loading of various commodities is going on as per our targets. I see no reason why we wouldn’t meet our revenue targets. But I would reiterate that right now we’re entirely focusing on fixing the systems and the processes so that the projects that are under completion, or to be undertaken, are completed on time. So, once we have all systems and processes in the right place, all of it will lead to revenue only.
Q: Will we see a rapid expansion of high-speed rail network across the country in the coming years?
Lohani: The high-speed train network, what is also popularly called bullet train network, marks a paradigm shift in the functioning of railways in terms of technology as well. I can’t talk about the rapid expansion of the technology, but what I can tell you right now is that we’re also stressing to reduce the travel time of our trains on all major rail routes. Last week, we launched a Delhi-Mumbai Rajdhani train that has reduced the travel time between two cities by almost two hours. We could have more such trains once our dedicated freight corridors are ready.