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Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her Budget speech announced that the PM Gati Shakti National Master Plan, a transformative approach for economic growth and sustainable development, will be driven by seven engines—roads, railways, airports, ports, mass transport, waterways and logistics infrastructure. She said the four focus areas in making the plan a success will be planning, financing, including through innovative ways, use of technology and speedier implementation. Here’s a look at how the railways, particularly Southern Railways whose headquarters are in Chennai, can transform itself and achieve greater objectives.

Millions of people all over the world are train enthusiasts, including yours truly. Many people are regular, dedicated, faithful, loyal users of trains—even when train services are infrequent, expensive and more time-consuming than road transport—because of the comfort and charm associated with train travel. But the railways which was the lifeline of the country at one point, is losing its significance at a time when road infrastructure is expanding by leaps and bounds. There are of course many ways to remedy this.

  1. Productivity like buses and trucks

Take productivity for example. Like the buses and lorries, trains should follow the maxim ‘Start Earlier and Run Longer’. To improve efficiency, trains must avoid crowded inner cities, which should instead be served by slow-moving, decentralized, frequently-halting local services.

Also, since the railways have converted all meter gauge sections into broad gauge, the authorities should seriously consider skipping main city terminals on long-distance routes, and set them apart for local commuter traffic mainly.

Like the buses and lorries, trains should follow the maxim ‘Start Earlier and Run Longer’. To improve efficiency, trains must avoid crowded inner cities, which should instead be served by slow-moving, decentralized, frequently-halting local services.

  1. Use the concept of highway bypasses

For example, what is the benefit of terminating most of the trains at Chennai Central or Egmore stations. Let at least a few of the Egmore trains ply up north up to either Vijayawada, Guntur, or Nellore; or west to Avadi, Thirunindravur, Arakonam or even Katpadi. Likewise, a few trains via Arakonam can proceed up to Perambur as usual and go either north to Vijayawada, Guntur or Nellore, or south to Egmore, Tambaram or Chengelpet via Beach station.

Let Chennai Central Terminus be like Bombay Churchgate, catering to city commuters.

The railways should take advantage of the loop lines it has completed and bypass inner cities. For example, trains from the south going west via Bangalore can skip the city and proceed via Krishna Raja Puram instead. Likewise, trains passing through Mumbai can skip the main city terminus and run through Kalyan and Vapi towards Gujarat, Rajasthan, New Delhi and vice versa. People from the west and the north can get down at Vapi and board the western railway MEMUs or proceed up to Kalyan and hop on to the central railway trains.

The benefits are obvious: More space for local trains and less crowd at inner city railway stations.

Imagine the freedom to operate numerous MEMU trains on the stressed Mumbai railway line.

  1. Get the advertising industry on board

In the newspaper industry, the newspaper buyers are providing only 20-40 % of cash flow, the rest   comes from advertisers. The railways should make a full-fledged effort to explore the possibilities of getting advertisement revenue. There have been some half-hearted efforts in the past but it needs to be much more aggressive on this front.

Not only the travelling public, their friends and relatives, associates, subordinates and others who receive or send off people spend a lot of leisurely time waiting in railway stations. This is a huge, economically active captive market for advertisers. And new ways of advertising to them can be adopted using technology.

There are also simple means that can be explored, such as prefixing the names of trains and railway stations with the name of a sponsor company. Like IPL 2021 was known as Vivo IPL 2021 after the mobile phone company that was the main sponsor, Tamil Nadu Express can be renamed as say XYZ Tamil Nadu Express on getting sponsorship from XYZ.

Brand names can also be prefixed on station names. Here, the railway top brass must take initiative and collaborate with the advertising bigwigs to work out the plans.

  1. Tap the ‘adjusting’ mentality of the middle class

In reserved coaches, a father and child or mother and child of below 12 years can be allowed to occupy a single birth. A small change in the railways’ child fare rule could ensure the availability of 20 million additional confirmed berths or seats in a year for other passengers, without the state-run transporter spending a single penny, while adding over Rs 525 crore annually to its coffers. This can be done by charging full fare for children aged 5-12 if a separate seat or berth is sought. Till now, children in this age group were entitled to a separate seat or berth at just half the fare.

Railway development, capacity enhancement, productivity improvement and so on can happen only if the railways accepts, permits, facilitates, supports and encourages investments and initiatives of every nature, including private films, public companies, cooperatives, charities, trusts and also MLA and MP constituency development funds, apart from joint ventures, both local and foreign.

If the railways introduce reservation facilities on long-distance passenger trains such as Bangalore-Karaikal, Erode-Tirunelveli, Coimbatore-Nagarcoil, Palakad-Tiruchy routes, a lot of people travelling in groups would benefit. If two or more people reserve seats for their journey in a single reservation application, they can be given the option of sharing their seats/berths. It will reduce the loss from unauthorized travelers using reserved compartments, reduce the waiting list and of course increase revenue for the railways.

  1. Link pricing to demand

Although pricing has been linked to demand in the cases of certain trains, this should be more widely adopted. Railway tickets sold during weekends, holidays, festivals can be priced higher and lean period journeys can be less expensive.

  1. Welcome all types of investment

Railway development, capacity enhancement, productivity improvement and so on can happen only if the railways accepts, permits, facilitates, supports and encourages investments and initiatives of every nature, including private films, public companies, cooperatives, charities, trusts and also MLA and MP constituency development funds, apart from joint ventures, both local and foreign. The rapid and enormous developments in the education, telecom, electronic media and roads sectors stand testimony to this.

Even with the notorious scams and bad loans, unfinished projects, costly toll rates and so on, the developments in these sectors have propelled our GDP, increased employment and economic opportunities and reduced the chronic shortage in services and facilities. The supremacy of railway transportation should therefore be a national objective and obsession, instead of the present focus on road-based initiatives.

  1. A better option for the environment

Economically and environmentally speaking, road transportation should only supplement and complement—not substitute, dominate over or compete with—the railways and waterways systems.

A minimum required number of passenger and goods trains and ships/boats should offer roll-on, roll-off facility for lorries, buses and cars. Even two-wheelers and bicycles may be permitted in select passenger trains. This will reduce our total fuel consumption and will make a significant dent in the number of accidents happening on our highways.

(The views expressed by the author are personal.)


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