What stops Private Trains from running on Indian Railway tracks?

Private Trains can put Railways on the right track! 

NEW DELHI: There are apprehensions about private trains in some quarters. The main one is that private players will fix the fare so high that the common man cannot travel anymore by rail. Before the opening of the skies for private players, the monopolised prices of Air India never allowed the proliferation of air travel even among the upper middle class, let alone the middle class. The entry of low-cost private airlines changed that.

The Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC), a public sector undertaking under the Ministry of Railways but still an entity in its own right, will run two passenger trains, to begin with. Before Independence, the Indian rail network and operations was managed by various private entities. The freight trains have already been operated by private players in competition with the Railways. So, strictly speaking, introducing private passenger trains is not a revolutionary step per se. However, given the fact that the Railways has been operated since Independence as a department, not even as a PSU of the Government of India with no scope for private players to pitch in, this is a much-needed positive change.

Since the Railways enjoyed the monopoly of running the rail mode, it cared little for the introduction of state-of-the-art technologies in infrastructure, integrated system and rolling stock on a par with the countries which are advanced in rail transport. When private bus operators copy rail transport in terms of the smooth ride by introducing the multi-axle Volvo and Scania buses, introduced sleeper coaches in buses and even provided chemical toilets, the Railways remained predominantly stagnant in terms of quality of service offered to the passengers on board, except in premium trains such as Rajdhani and Shatabdi.

The state road transport corporations introduced multi-axle Volvo and Scania buses in their fleet to counter omni bus operators monopolising premium- segment passengers. The arrival of private players in air travel in the 2000s increased the competition, reduced the ticket price and thereby increased the volume of domestic passenger traffic. Had the roads and skies not been opened for private players, our road and air services would have remained lackadaisical even today.

There are many apprehensions about private trains in some quarters and let us explore how far they are correct. The first one is that the private players will fix the fare so high that the common people cannot travel anymore by rail. Before the opening of the skies for private players, the monopolised prices of Air India never allowed the proliferation of air travel even among the upper middle class, let alone the middle class.

Only after the entry of low-cost private airlines did the metamorphosis take place.  As a result, domestic air passengers went up from 1.4 crore in 2000 to 13.90 crore in 2018, which is a ten-fold increase. It is left to private train operators to strategise how they will achieve profitability even in the presence of price war and attract passengers by giving value for money.

The next apprehension is over the safety and security of passengers while travelling by private trains. Like the Railways, the private players may also lease trains from

the Indian Railway Finance Corporation (IRFC). Else, they can bring their state-of-the-art trains which consume less energy and provide a smooth ride even at higher speeds with minimal noise and vibrations.

However, they can operate their trains only after the RDSO (Research Designs and Standards Organisation) certification. The private players may hire drivers from anywhere but only after certification from the Railways for their fitness to be loco pilots, should they be allowed to steer the trains. The high standards of the Railways and RDSO with respect to safety issues is well known and the Railways or organisations under its aegis never compromised on safety standards.

The next apprehension is that the existing railway employees will lose their jobs if private trains are introduced. The Railways does not have excess running staff and hence the question of railwaymen losing their jobs with the introduction of private trains has no basis.

On the contrary, the loco pilots and guards who opted either for voluntary retirement or superannuated have no bar in becoming loco pilots in private trains, if they are fit enough to do the job. This can be a starter for implementing the suggestion by the Chief Economic Advisor in the recent Economic Survey to increase the age of retirement. Moreover, with better services provided on board and expansion of many value-added services by the private trains, these trains would generate employment opportunities for the youngsters.

Transport is essentially a service, where the operators should continue to innovate to introduce new value-added services to make the travel a pleasant experience rather than a chore for the passengers. This is next to impossible, when there is monopoly in running rail passenger trains.

The Travelling Ticket Examiner (TTE) of the Railways is not answerable for any of the inconvenience passengers face during rail travel today. If passengers fall ill during a journey or there is some serious setback in passengers’ health, there is not even a nurse to administer first aid, let alone getting full medical care. The private players can be very imaginative and offer services which have never been thought through by the Railways such as assured pick-up and drop services to the stations, facilitating senior and super senior citizens in boarding and deboarding trains, spick and span on-board environment and emergency medical aid that clearly distinguish their services from that of others and that ultimately improves the travelling experience for the train passengers.

Despite commonalities such as vagaries in climate, congestion in runway and flying as per ATC instructions, the punctuality of private airlines is about 80 per cent, whereas it is about 60 per cent for Air India. IRCTC already announced that if the train is delayed by an hour or two, the passengers would be given back Rs 100 and Rs 250, respectively. Have we ever got such an assurance on punctuality from the Railways ever?

After the announcement of private trains by the IRCTC, the initial public offerings (IPO) announced by the IRCTC received tremendous response from qualified institutional buyers (QIB), high net worth individuals (HNI), retail investors and employees as well. The booking of tickets in

these private trains has also been very good. What more proof is required to showcase the reception for private trains by the people of India?

When Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, he posed a question during a meeting: “When private buses can run on Indian roads, when private airlines can fly in the Indian skies, what stops private trains from running on our railway tracks?”

The Railways took an enormously long time to realise what Modi had envisaged. However, the Railways has come of age and it is better late than never.