Indian Railways & its Unique Solutions to COVID-19

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, Indian Railway has come up with its unique solutions to fight the pandemic. Indian Railway has again and again proved its worth and its commitment to serve the nation. Whether it is a war or an emergency, it has always proved to be an asset for the country. Though the prime job of providing safe transport to passengers is shunted, Railways has not stopped. On one hand, Railway is using its penetrating network to transport essentials including medicines throughout the nation and on the other, railway workshops and production units have developed so many innovations to tackle and control the corona pandemic. From masks to low cost ventilators ‘Jeevan’ to isolation wards, Indian railways has come with so many innovations standing as one of the pillar in fighting COVID-19. Railway men of all ranks from staff to officers are contributing in this hour of crisis. Some of the innovations and initiatives are a must to know about.

Jeevan, the low cost ventilator is developed by the Rail Coach Factory (RCF), Kapurthala. The body of the ventilator has been made by the material available in the factory, which will cost only a fraction of what the regular ventilator costs. Currently, it is awaiting ICMR clearance to go into production. As told by the officials, this will cost only ₹ 10,000 without the compressor. After the clearance, RCF claims that it can produce 100 such ventilators a day. India may need somewhere 1,10,000-2,20,000 ventilators by May 15 in the worst case scenario. Somewhere 57000 ventilators are only available across as of now with a cost of ₹ 5 – 15 Lakh. Officials claim that the device can be further optimized to more compact size. The device provides control on breathing rate, expiratory ratio and he tidal volume – all key parameters of any ventilator.

Isolation Coaches, are being developed out of existing coaches with some modifications. The idea behind converting these was to ensure that in rural areas, and in regions where medical facilities are not available, care for COVID-19 patients could be provided.

A lot has been worked on technical side to make it a success. Bamboo sheets are used in side walls to reduce heat input to the cabin. Setups has been provided in a way that ventilators can also be used as when where is requirement. One toilet has been also converted to bathroom with shower. This will prove to be a boon to our country as it will supplement the beds in the hospitals where the beds are scarse. 5000 coaches are converted to 80000 isolation beds.

Railway is also considering if trains like lifeline express can be produced which would be a hospital on wheels just like accident relief trains with treatments and equipment specific to treat COVID-19.

Railway has used its production units and workshops to produce masks and PPEs to be supplied to all parts of the country. Chittaranjan Loco Works (CLW) manufactured in-house hospital beds and side drawers for COVID-19 isolation wards. In its workshops, Indian railways has produced over 2.8 lakh masks and 25,000 liters of sanitizers. Food is regularly being prepared across all the base kitchens of IRCTC which is further being distributed to the needy with the help of state administration. In addition to that, 13 lakh railway employees have contributed their one day salary to PM CARES fund. Not only the Railway men, their family members have also come forward. Wives of staff are working on individual level to prepare masks. Indian Railways is an organization who has always offered a helping hand in times of need and will continue to be so. 


Rail Privatisation: A Solution or not?

Indian Railways has decided to embark on the road to privatisation by flagging off the Tejas Express between Lucknow and Delhi with a further roadmap in the pipeline to hand over operations of as many as 150 trains and a total of 50 railway stations to private operators. This is an ambitious target considering that globally the result of privatising railways has been mixed. We need to give more serious thought about our decision, as even world’s biggest economies like Russia and China have refrained from privatising railways. We have to move towards privatisation very cautiously keeping in mind the needs of the Indian Economy as well as its impact on our growing population. Is India ready for privatisation?

What Railways mean to Indian Economy?

Indian Railways (IR) transport 2.24 crore people on a daily basis which is nearly equal to the population of Australia. A majority of this huge figure comprises of lower income passengers who travel by sleeper and general class. IR plays a vital role in the growth of Indian Economy providing cheap transport to a majority of the population.

Indian Railways is more of a socio-economic organisation as opposed to being merely a profit-making entity. It operates trains even in loss making routes.  The vision statement of Indian Railways reads “Indian railways shall provide safe, efficient, affordable, customer – focused and environmentally sustainable integrated transport solutions. It shall be a modern vehicle of inclusive growth, connecting regions, communities, ports and centres of industry, commerce, tourism and pilgrimage across the country.” The vision statement talks about inclusive growth and connectivity which implies catering to not only the needs of the poorest but also operating trains on non-profitable and harsh terrain routes. Though privatisation promises better facilities and amenities to passengers, the nature of the beast is such that profit will take precedence over social responsibilities, thereby puncturing this very vision. It will cause a negative impact on connectivity and further increase the urban-rural divide.

The case of British Railways

The foray of British Railways into privatisation is a reminder of how improper decision-making can result in undesirable outcomes. During the 1990s, under John Major, BR was fragmented into more than 100 separate companies which has led to a complex contractual web of operational transactions between different industry players. This in turn led to a heavy emphasis on maximum profits being extracted at every stage which caused the fares to shoot up many folds. The benefits of privatisation, as expected, never materialised. Fares sky rocketed, infrastructure failures and train delays increased, the train franchising system failed. For instance, the infrastructure company that owned the rail tracks, stations and signals crashed within 5 years of flotation after the fatal Hatfield rail crash where an express train derailed. It was found in the enquiry that the prime cause behind the disaster was Railtrack’s neglect of maintaining the rail infrastructure.  Subsequently,Britain is looking into ways to renationalise railways and bring back the railways to state owned firms. Railtrack was taken over by Network rail, a state-owned company of the Department of Transport. According to the McNulty report in 2011, commissioned by the then transport secretary, the privatised rail industry has a high cost base and the cost per passenger-km would have to be reduced by 40% to match the railways in France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.

One of the reasons behind the failure of BR privatisation was that the BR was divided on the basis of functionality and not on a geographical basis, which meant track and infrastructure was given to one company and rolling stock to another. Trains were run on the franchise model with the highest bidder winning the right to operate train services on that route.  This led to a haphazard way of sharing responsibilities and an inefficient operating structure.

The case of Japan Railways

On the other hand, Japan has been indisputably successful in privatising Japanese National Railways (JNR). JNR was privatised in 1987 where it was divided into six regional companies and one freight company. Five out of these seven companies were in the black last year. The privatisation of JNR was a success in densely populated areas. Rail operators were also allowed to expand into commercial and real estate business which helped them shoulder the cost of upkeep. These added revenue sources also enabled them to improve rail services on unpopular routes. Finally, the fact that the rail companies were split up by geographical area and not functionality (tracks, trains, etc.) helped improve their efficiency thereby keeping them competitive.

We should learn from both the cases. In India, conditions and issues are different. Trains are still running full with a lot of people being wait-listed in every train. The number of trains not being sufficient enough to cater to the transport needs of the country is one of the major reasons behind the railways losing their share of traffic to road and air transport. Safety in rail transport is also an issue. Existing infrastructure does not support high speed trains. Privatisation is not a magic wand which will solve all these problems. Presently, the time is not ripe for IR being handed over to the private sector. We need to upgrade our in technology and infrastructure capabilities heavily in order to provide a level playing field for private players to participate. There is a need to upgrade infrastructure in order to increase the average speed of trains. Also capacity needs to be increased in the coming future, keeping in mind the demands of our high population growth. Social importance of IR will grow due to climate change concerns, thereby leading to a greater use of public transport. So, instead of shifting our focus towards privatisation and expecting private firms to do what should have already been done, IR should work towards modernising its infrastructure, improving its operating efficiency, increasing resource utilisation and capacity enhancement, and reducing bureaucratic deadlocks. But at the same time, railways should work upon ways to increase revenue generation. It should lease out its vast unused land resources to private firms by taking a leaf out of the book of Japan Railways who earn nearly one third of their revenue from non-transport business. IR should work on privatising sectors like catering, cleaning, linen washing & management etc. and direct its focus towards  crucial ones like technological improvements, infrastructure up-gradation. It should work on a fast track mode to upgrade itself as it already lags behind other railways in the world in terms of technology and efficiency. Accountability of employees from the lowermost Group D staff to senior most officers is also an area to be focussed upon. Studies shows that the dedication and performance of employees are not up to the mark and there is a lot of scope for improvement. Instead of looking for a single solution to all its problems and shortcomings, IR should adopt a holistic and inclusive approach to pave the way for a brighter future.