Five steps that can save India’s trains

India has the world’s fourth largest railway network.

Set up in 1853, the 162-year-old Indian Railways is also the country’s largest employer—providing jobs to as many as 1.4 million people.

Yet, years of mismanagement and government apathy have deprived the organisation of its glory. Today, it is bleeding money, expanding at a snail’s pace and completely out of sync with technological advancements.

Now, a committee set up by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi has suggested that it can completely overhaul the railways in a span of seven years.

“My vision is to make railways the backbone of India’s progress and economic development,” Modi said last year.

Here are the panel’s five major recommendations.

Entry of private operators

Right now, the railways is state-owned. The committee has suggested that there should be more competition in the rail network. It recommends giving permission to private rail operators to run passenger and freight trains.

“The…revenue impact is likely to be small, though the image impact may be quite high,” the committee noted in a report.

Private train operators will be allowed to fix their ticket fares, but the committee has ruled out the railways’ complete privatisation.

Revamping the railway board

A seven-member railway board—set up by the government—is the implementing authority for all policy decisions.

However, the railway board should have more autonomy, the committee said. “Ultimately, the railway board should become like a corporate board for Indian Railways,” the report said.

The committee has also suggested that the railway board’s chairman should function like a CEO.

Independent regulator

Suresh Prabhu, India’s railway minister, had emphasised the need to set up a railway regulator in his budget speech in February.

The committee, too, reiterated the need for such a body. “Set up a Railway Regulatory Authority of India statutorily, with an independent budget, so that it is truly independent of the ministry of railways,” the report said.

The authority will have powers to fix tariff, safety norms and technical benchmarks.

Prudent hiring

The committee has suggested that the Indian Railways should bring down its number of employees.

“Immediate corrective steps should be taken to rationalise expenditure on salaries and wages of existing employees by rightsizing Indian Railways through rationalisation of manpower,” the report said.

Better service

A hike in passenger fare should be accompanied with improved quality of services, according to the committee.

In February, the government had unveiled plans to improve amenities. These included new toilets, better seats, and easier ticketing options. It had even decided to tie up with Domino’s Pizza to deliver food at 12 stations across the country to passengers.

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