The state-owned monopoly Railways provide an efficient long-distance transport and freight services at an affordable cost, thus ushering in economic progress throughout the country. Apart from this primary function, the second largest rail network in the world facilitates people-to-people contact for business purposes, tourism and the meeting of relatives separated by distance.
Having been the single biggest integrating force since Independence, Railways has become the veritable lifeline for the Indian industry and agriculture. From a humble beginning in 1853, when the first train steamed off from Mumbai to Thane, a distance of 34 kilometres, Indian Railways (IR) have grown into a vast network consisting of 1,15,000 km of track over a route of 65,436 km and 7,172 stations.
In 2014-15 alone, IR carried 8.397 billion passengers or more than 23 million passengers a day --- roughly half of whom were suburban passengers – thus extending a reliable and safe transport service for most of the Indians.
On the commodities side, the IR carried roughly 1,050 million tonnes of freight in 2014-15 acting as a catalyst for industrial growth in remote corners of the country.
In 2014-15, the IR generated revenues of Rs 1,634.50 billion comprising Rs 1069.27 billion from freight services and Rs 402.80 billion from the sale of passenger tickets.
The gargantuan state-owned undertaking employs over 1.30 million people, the seventh largest commercial or utility employer in the world.
On the rolling stock front, the IR has over 2.39 lakh freight wagons, 62,924 passenger coaches and 9,013 locomotives – 43 steams, 5,345 diesel and 4,568 electric locomotives.
The Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) in Lucknow does all the research, designs and standardisation tasks for the Indian Railways.
It may be noted that the IR entered into a partnership with IIT-Madras in August 2013 to develop technology for solar-based lighting and air-conditioning in the coaches.
Recently, the IR has developed and tested the Improved Automated Fire Alarm System in Rajdhani Express trains and is intended for AC coaches of all regular trains.
Dwindling finances is the major curse for the Indian Railways for a long time. The cash-strapped Indian Railways has reported a loss of Rs 30,000 crore in the passenger segment for year ended March 2014.
Railways carry a social obligation of over Rs 20,000 crore. The loss per passenger-km increased to 23 paise by the end of March 2014. Indian Railways is left with a surplus cash of just Rs 690 crore by the end of March 2014.
It is estimated that over Rs 5 lakh crore is required to complete the ongoing projects alone. The railway is consistently losing market share to other modes of transport both in freight and passengers. With competition on the rise from other modes of transport, the IR has to find ways to manage its resources efficiently and operates its services to earn profit in every segment, be it passengers or freight.
During the budget, new railways lines and projects are announced without allocating sufficient funds for them leading to delays and administrative bottlenecks.
Need to lay additional rail networks connecting remote corners of the country, raising the height of platforms and upgrading the railway stations are major challenges. Moreover, the public is most affected if there is small rise in the ticket prices and monthly passes as this would adversely impact their daily life.
Train collisions, derailment and mishaps at unmanned level gates have been on the rise in recent years. Further, natural calamities like landslides and monsoon fury compound the problems of the rail infrastructure.
While human error (85%) is said to be the chief cause of accidents, the Railway Board is now keen on modernising the antiquated signalling and communication systems which are critical for the safe running of trains.
The automation of signalling facilities to prevent crashes have to be taken up on a priority basis by the IR as large number of accidents had taken place due to manual system of signals between stations.
But a huge investment is needed to upgrade the signalling and communicated devices which will assume more importance with the gradual increase in the speed of trains.