The railway ministry has saddled commuters with a crippling fare hike aimed at reviving its poor finances, but serving and former railway officials admit that only a major clean-up of the system will improve services.
One serving official even warns that the extra revenue that comes in from the fare hike would be nullified within a couple of years if other measures were not taken. The officials focused on services piling up losses, heavy medical bills and uncompetitive manufacturing facilities.
A senior railway official pointed out that the railways incurs huge costs like salaries on routes that do not give any returns.
"There is a 140km line between Amravati and Narkhed in Maharashtra with 13 stations. Two or three trains run on the line daily and this is managed by a full complement of staff, including station masters, gate men, technical and housekeeping staff on all three shifts," the official explained.
The result is an operating ratio of nearly 500 per cent. This means that for every Rs500 spent the railways earns Rs100 only. Most of the expenditure is on salaries and as it is a diesel line the fuel bills are heavy too, he said.
It's a similar case on the Yavatmal-Murtuzapur narrow gauge line where the railways earns Rs100 on every Rs1,500 spent. "Look at the money spent by the Central Railway on the Matheran Light Railway. Why can't it be run in partnership with private operators, preferably tourism operators," the official asked.
Hospitals spread sickness
The railways have the biggest hospital network in the country, employing a big force of doctors and other medical staff. But shortage of funds, overall inefficiency in purchase of medicines and the lack of upgradation of technology has led employees to choose private hospitals and bill the employer.
In Mumbai, this is common with heart patients, many of whom are referred to Jaslok hospital. The railways has done little apart from buying some equipment for a cardiology unit.
"The hospitals and dispensaries the railways have nationwide are suitable for public private partnerships. The private sector can manage the institutions with the services of railway doctors and the money can be shared while patients pay for treatment, railway employees could get treatment free of cost," said a senior railway official. He has studied the finances of Western Railway's Jagjivan Ram Hospital at Mumbai Central and the Central Railway's Dr Ambedkar Hospital at Byculla.
The production units of the railways were meant to be factories that would make locomotives, coaches, accessories, as well as upgrade technology for export.
"Just about everything remotely modern, whether it is your local or the long-distance trains are imported. As far as exporting equipment is concerned, Chinese firms have beaten the Indian Railways hollow. Ironically, Mumbai Metro trains have also been made in China. Only the metro coaches in Kolkata have been made in India," said a top-level mechanical engineer.
He proposed following the Chinese model where some state-run units partner with private firms to manufacture state-of-the-art trains for export. An example is the Korean major Hyundai Rotem that made trains for the Delhi Metro (and will be making them for the Hyderabad Metro) at the BEML facility in Bangalore. "The railway can set up such partnerships in a much bigger way," the official said.