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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Railway Budget 2013

Being an avid train buff, Railway Budgets hold special interest to me. So I came back from office at 12:00 Noon, and listened to the entire speech. There were many things nice about it, but many things which weren't. For almost an hour, the opposition listened to the speech fairly calmly with only a few interruptions, but the last few minutes, he found it difficult to read the speech.

But coming to trains, increase in freight and only an indirect increase in passenger fares was a disappointment. Increase in freight is a tax on all consumers of goods which are routinely transported by rail. Making excessive profits there implies a tax which is paid by all consumers, including the poorest of poor. So we have a very strange situation where we tax the poor to subsidize the middle class. But there is a more serious problem with this strategy. Railways is becoming less competitive to road when it comes to transporting goods. They are investing a huge amount of money into creating two dedicated freight corridors (DFCs). This is being done on the premise that there is a large amount of growth in freight which is just waiting to be tapped. But at the same time, Railways could neither reach their target of freight loading, nor could it generate the expected revenue. Are we going to be saddled with a large debt which we cannot pay in the future. Are we going to just start more passenger trains and the new lines become passenger lines, causing even more loss to the Railway finances. The future does not look very bright. But the Economic Survey suggests creating five more dedicated freight corridors in the country. All these corridors have the potential to boost Indian economy, but only if we are able to run a few freight trains on them.

But then I must also admit a sense of joy when the Railway Minister announced that the first construction contract in the DFC has been awarded for the Kanpur-Khurja section. So Kanpur is the place where DFC construction starts. We love taking lead in important mission projects of the country after all. At that time I did not think whether there will be freight trains on these new tracks, or whether the poor tax payer will have to pay even more tax to pay the bills of the middle class.

The discomfort of the Railway Minister was so obvious while he was reading either the names of the stations or talking about the technologies. He referred to IR using 60 KG per meter tracks, and using long welded tracks of 260 meters length. Well, IR has been using 60KG tracks for many years now. And my mind just went back to the convention of the Indian Railways Fan Club a couple of weeks ago, in which we had gone to this workshop in MughalSarai where Indian Railways welds 10 meters and 20 meters tracks to make single 260 meter tracks.

When he was referring to the projects, one wonders why do they have to announce things which they have no intentions of even starting, not to mention finishing. Take the example of Delhi-Ahmedabad route. They announced the plans to electrify it. The total cost is about Rs. 1121 crores, and guess how much money has been allocated in the financial year 2013-14. It is Rupees ONE THOUSAND ONLY. (Thanks to Neerav on Indian Railway Fan Club Forums for pointing this out.) At this rate the project will take more than 1 crore years to finish. But I guess they are counting on the fact that people are not rail fans, and they don't comb though the detailed budget papers to find such details. And by the time, someone understands the budget, and realizes that nothing is really happening on the ground, the elections in Rajasthan would be over. The survey of Mandhana-Panki was announced last year, and again this year. He announced that e-ticketing will now be extended from 00:30 to 23:30. But isn't this has been the time for a few years now. He talked about creating Bijwasan as another directional terminal for Delhi. But long time ago, another Minister had already announced this, and in fact other terminals in Delhi, including Shakurbasti. It was indeed laughable when he talked about sharing the costs of foot over bridges at the stations with state governments. I am sure he meant ROBs and not FOBs.

I think the most exciting announcement was about IRCTC. This really needs enhancement. He has given us hope that the capacity of IRCTC servers will go up by 3-4 times before December. Though it is unclear why it should take 10 months (assuming the unlikely scenario of no delays), but if it does happen by December, it will be a boon.

We need more executive lounges on the line of one at New Delhi station. But what was surprising to me was that the list was neither a set of stations from where several trains with AC-1 and AC-2T coaches start (because that would be the clientele for these lounges), nor were these a set of stations which have a lot of foreign and rich Indian tourists (except a couple). Was this list based on political considerations or more mundane considerations like availability of space on those stations.

I am also very excited about the revamp of the National Rail Museum at Chanakyapuri in Delhi. I do hope that they will involve some heritage experts and some rail fans in designing that revamp. NRM is too important to be left alone to Railway officers who have just finished their open line posting. There are some great conservationists amongst the railway fraternity themselves, and I hope they will be involved.

The Minister seemed very excited about the operating ratio coming below 90%. It is expected that in 2012-13, it will be 88.8%. While the ratio is better than previous years thanks to some hike that happened last year (in upper classes), a hike in freight, and then hike in passenger fares in January, it clearly shows that the situation is not comfortable yet for the Railways. With some hike again, he promises to bring it down to 87.8 percent in 2013-14, but that is neither here nor there. Clearly, with these operating ratios, the electrification of Delhi - Ahmedabad line will indeed take one crore years, as discussed above. The Fuel price linked adjustment that he has announced for freight should have been announced for passenger traffic also. The last I checked, passenger trains also need deisel or electricity to run. But, of course, he did mention that the proposal for setting up a Tariff Authority is on someone's table right now. Hopefully that will be done soon, and fares will not be decided on political basis (though looking at how tuition for engineering colleges is decided by "independent" committees, I really have no hope that Tariff Authority will do much better, but something is better than nothing).

He did raise superfast supplementary charges, reservation charges, cancellation charges, and tatkal charges. I had wished that the Superfast charges could be train and section specific and really linked to how much time do they save a passenger compared to a non-SF train in that section. That would allow a substantially higher raise in these charges then what has been announced and yet not pinch the passengers. On the other hand, raising the reservation charges substantially higher for AC classes has no rationale. I would have preferred a direct increase of AC fares, but would prefer to keep reservation charges of all classes closer to each other.

I look forward to the first AC-EMU to be introduced on the Mumbai suburban. Of course, I am also hoping that they will find serious bidders for the project to construct tracks on the Western Railways in Mumbai which will be raised. I look forward to travel by Anubhuti coach, which one hears may be attached to the Lucknow Shatabdi by the end of this year. But they should have taken care of waiting lounge too for the passengers of Anubhuti coach.

More trains at IIT gate. Electrification up to Kalyanpur. A train to Delhi on this track, I hope it is faster than Kalindi Express. A train which takes me from Kalyanpur to Anand Vihar Terminal in 8-9 hours and is overnight would be ideal. But what is the point of once a week train.

Free WiFi. Thanks for that. And really the focus seems to be to provide more and more passenger amenities. How will that happen without an increase in fares is the magic that we are waiting to watch.

Monday, February 11, 2013

My Train Journey Through Allahabad on Mauni Amavasya

This article is not about higher education, but my rail journey back from the 8th annual convention of the Indian Railway Fan Club. Train journeys are always interesting, and this particular one became even more interesting because I was passing through Allahabad on the day of Mauni Amavasya, when about 30 million people were supposed to be taking the holy dip in the river Ganges.

No, I did not take the holy dip. Apparently you have to keep quiet for the whole day for its good effects to accrue to you in full measure, and for me to keep quiet for the whole day was a bit too much sacrifice. And I had already had a dip in Sangam a week earlier, so half measures had been taken care of.

At Mughalsarai Jn, platforms 3 and 4 were full of people wanting to reach Allahabad. It was difficult to move around. Trains would come, with the doors of most of the coaches bolted from inside. A few doors would open since someone inside would insist that he had to get down at this station, and the entire crowd would try to force their entry in those coaches. Of course, we Indians have this stupid habit of expecting Government to do every small thing, including an expectation that when there are thousands of people on a single platform, there would be some RPF personnel trying to make sure that there are no stampedes (of the kind that actually happened at Allahabad yesterday). I am sure in their records, they will show the names of people who were on duty on that platform at that time, but they were conspicuous only by their absence.

For my train, there was no information about which coach will come where, and I was afraid how I will move between that huge crowd to reach my coach if it is too far from where I was standing. But I was lucky (may be it was the effect of my earlier visit to Kumbh and the holy dip). The AC-2T coach stopped right in front of me. But it did not mean that one could peacefully enter the coach. A few hundred devotees were keen to enter the coach and all warnings by the TTE (yes, a brave man to even attempt this) that he will fine each of them Rs. 2,000 went unheeded. Eventually, I was able to enter the coach along with a lot of crowd, and the train started moving.

A few people who could not access their berths pulled the emergency chain, but it had no effect on the train. The Gods were clearly inviting everyone to Allahabad. I was again lucky to have the upper berth (my belief in the holy dip was getting stronger). The TTE, the coach attendant, and a few other persons started pushing unauthorized passengers out of the AC area and insist that they should stand in the space near the doors. A few of these appeared to be ill, and they were allowed to sit inside. The coach attendance did not have access to his store because of the crowd and there was no way he could distribute the bedsheets, pillows and blankets. But that was fine. After all, Maha Kumbh happens only once in 144 years.

The journey to Allahabad should have taken less than 2 hours on a normal day. But this day was anything but normal. With some devotees hanging from the door, the compassionate driver was running the train at a speed that if someone falls off, it would not be a fatal accident. In about 5 hours, we reached Naini, just a station before Allahabad Jn. There were announcements being made that devotees could get down there and go to the Kumbh area from there, but our confidence in official announcements being what it is, not a single passenger disembarked from the train.

And finally, we reached Allahabad Jn. at 2:15 AM, and the crowd at the station was to be seen to be believed. I was reminded of Nehru's words, "At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom." India was fully awake at that hour. The Mumbaikars who talk about crowds at CSTM during the peak hours should have been there. They will start enjoying their local journeys much more.

There could be no VIP there, no rich or poor, no caste bias, no language bias, no regional bias. Everyone was equal in their suffering, but more importantly everyone was equal in their devotion. I thought of getting down and join the millions to the Ghats. My belief in God was getting stronger by the minute. And this event would not recur in my life time. But I was to conduct the JAM exam just a few hours later in Kanpur, and the empty coach meant that I will have sound sleep for two hours. I needed at least that much rest if I were to work the whole day.