Despite its poor financial health, Indian Railways aims to match global standards of rail journey in the next 25 years
Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Katra Vande Bharat Express passing from
Ludhiana, Oct. 2019; (Photo: Getty Images)
At the time of Independence and the subsequent partition of the country, the Indian Railways (IR) underwent a major surgery. Apart from the division of assets, tracks, rolling stocks and transfers of the workforce, the working of five zones—Eastern Punjab, East Indian, Oudh &Tirhut, Indian portion of Bengal Assam Railways—was severely impacted due to the country’s division.
Soldiers before a steam locomotive taking passengers to Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral, Jan. 1948; (Photo: Getty Images)
Between 1950 and 1954, IR managed to reorganise itself—new divisions were carved out and new tie-ups were made for manufacturing—and started to upgrade its infrastructure.
Today, India has the world’s fourth-largest rail network—only after the US, China and Europe. In the past few years, the country has made efforts to modernise the railways, but at the core, the problem lies in fare and tariff charges. As per IR, the cost of passenger fares and services comes to around Rs 1.16 per km, but the Railways charges only 48 paise per km. This makes the fares the cheapest in the world and also impacts the financial health of the public transporter and its capacity to upgrade the facilities. It seeks private investments in operations, whereas players are constantly demanding a regulator and a level playing field.
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Still, there is light at the end of the tunnel. India is gradually moving towards semi-high speed trains—from coal-fired steam engines to diesel engines and now electric ones. But the railways’ core issues lie in seeking reforms to pull itself out of the socialist era and make investments possible.
The agenda for the next 25 years is clear—a level playing field for private players and matching global standards of rail journey.