Transforming Indian Railways – From Chugging To Shinkansen –

India is amongst the fastest growing nations in the world today. However, the nation’s potential is not unleashed to the fullest given several challenges of education, job creation, and weak infrastructure amongst others. Our Hon’ble Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi has launched several initiatives such as Make in India, Skill India, Digital India and Ease of Doing Business to address decades old challenges that India faces. Success of many of these initiatives lies in strengthening the country’s infrastructure, of which Indian Railways is an important sub-sector.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of addressing the audience and interacting with senior stakeholders from India’s Railway sector at the Innorail India Exhibition. Held at the R&D facility of the Indian Railways, the exhibition was a platform for Indian and international players to showcase innovations and share technology advancements in the sector. In this essay, I am sharing my perspective on how this key infrastructure sector is transforming under the leadership of the visionary Minister, Mr Suresh Prabhu.

Indian Railways is amongst the largest as well as the oldest railways network in the world. Cutting across the length and breadth of the country, it covers more than 65,806 route kms. Carrying about 23 million passengers and 3 million tons of freights everyday, it forms the backbone of the nation’s freight and passenger transportation system.

Over decades, Indian Railways has remained an important enabler of inclusive growth by dispensing economic growth and progress to the remotest corners of the country.  It also forms an essential element of the ecosystem for creating upstream and downstream jobs by fueling manufacturing growth, research and development, technology absorption and IT enabled services.

However, the system is today highly stressed, with capacity utilization in some places being over 150%. More than a hundred years old, the stressed infrastructure is leading to increased frequency of railway accidents. With a slow transition to technology driven, real time flaw detection networks, India still depends on gangmen to detect cracks in the rails. Derailments thus account for close to 50% of Indian Railways accidents.

A highly congested network, with goods trains chugging along at 25 kmph, greatly reduces the efficiency of the Railways.   Additionally, rapid urbanization and expanding cities have increased India’s traffic management and mobility challenges manifold. This has increased the need of hundreds of kilometers of a safe transportation system and an urban mass transportation network including the metro rail and suburban rail.

In such a scenario, how can the losses to the Railways be reduced? How can various stakeholders come together to support the Government’s endeavor to modernize Indian Railways? While being the oldest railways network in the world, can Indian Railways begin to count amongst the most advanced as well?

Given the importance of this sector to the nation’s economic growth and its current decrepit state, the Government has identified the Railways amongst the 25 priority sectors under its Make in India initiative. Lead by Mr Suresh Prabhu, Indian Railways has begun the transformation process in step with the nation’s transformation. Within two years, he has taken a lead in converting the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s “Mission Mode Programs” into action by detailing a clear roadmap and launching actionable projects. India’s Smart Cities Mission also envisions improving urban mobility on the back of a safe, strong and modernized railway network.

From sanctioning funds for new arms of Dedicated Railway Freight Corridors (DFC) to decongesting the existing ones and modernizing the Indian Railways, these mission mode programs form an integral part of the deployment plan.

With a clear reforms agenda to upscale and strengthen the Railways, the Ministry has earmarked a development budget of USD133.5 billion to be invested by 2019.  It is also noteworthy that the Ministry has based its growth and investment agenda on the following four pillars:

  • Measure customer experience by leveraging social media. This is a mega shift in the existing paradigm, one that has never measured customer satisfaction.
  • Make railways a safer, sustainable and affordable means of mobility both, in terms of connecting the remotest corners of the country as also the daily commute of the urban working population.
  • Expand capacity substantially and modernize the infrastructure. Railways are also a key component of the smart cities infrastructure being an essential economic activity enabler for goods and services.
  • Make “Bhartiya Rail” financially sustainable to attract both domestic and international investments.

The transformation and modernization roadmap of the Railways will also help deliver on India’s climate change commitments at COP21. The sector consumes about 18 billion units of electricity and about 2.4 billion liters of fuel annually – more than 2% of the country’s energy consumption. The Railways’ de-carbonization project is thus a welcome step in that direction. The establishment of Waste to Energy plants near major railway stations will enable environment friendly disposal of waste.

Japan’s support to India’s pursuit of building a vibrant, sustainable ecosystem through the modernization of Indian Railways, was very visible at InnoRail, where Japan was the partner country. While there, my interactions with His Excellency Mr. Hiroshi Tabata, Vice Minister for Transport, Tourism and International Affairs, Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, Government of Japan, Mr. Tadaharu Ohashi, Vice Chairman, Council for Global Promotion of Railways, Mr. Kenji Hiramatsu, Japan’s Ambassador to India, and several leaders from Japan’s industry gave me an insight into their high level of engagement and commitment to Indian Railways’ quest for modernization.

India is taking its first leap into High Speed Railways with the Shinkansen, Japan’s symbol of technological advancement, as well as safety and punctuality. During his visit to Japan in November this year, the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India said that the Shinkansen project will not only revolutionize Indian railways, it will also speed up India’s journey into the future. Accompanied by his Japanese counterpart, the Prime Minister took a ride on the Shinkansen to the Hyogo Prefecture. While at the Kawasaki Hyogo plant, he sat in the simulator to experience the technology that Japan is going to share with India.

Japan is also partnering the Indian Railways in upgrading 400 railways stations and is working with the policy makers on developing a legal and regulatory framework for High Speed Trains.  Japan is not only transferring the technology to India but will also train the Railways personnel to drive the new age high speed trains. We have already been able to create replicable models of development with Japan’s support. Delhi Metro, for instance, has set in place a new model that is being replicated by metro rail projects across the country.  Recently many more countries have come forward to partner India in building urban mobility systems, such as the metro rail networks, specially for the smart cities.

These are exciting times for India’s Railway sector. A comprehensive development plan, focus on innovation and partnership with industry as well as employees are at the center of the Government’s modernization efforts. For the first time, the Government organized a “Shivir” with all employees to generate innovative ideas on improving the critical areas of railway operations. The shivir raised more than 1 lac suggestions.  In another first, the Government has also constituted an innovation board with industry involvement.

I believe that the Government’s efforts will surely hasten the transformation of Indian Railways.  But, how can these actions be implemented to quickly improve the efficiency of Indian Railways? How can these initiatives help to reduce losses in the short term as well? What can be done to ensure that the Government’s new initiatives strengthen passenger safety systems before the modernization is completed?

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this Essay are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization or chamber that the author represents.

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