Railways may be one of the most coveted portfolios but it can turn out to be a roller-coaster ride for many. Piyush Goyal surely knew what he was up to when he succeeded Suresh Prabhu after the latter’s exit following a spate of train accidents. Goyal completed 100 days in office on Tuesday. In an interview to DK Singh, the Union minister of railways shares his vision for the monolithic transporter. Excerpts:
You hardly got time to settle in your new ministry, with train derailments and Elphinstone stampede happening shortly after you took over. Did you anticipate such a tough start?
It has been a learning experience. Suresh Prabhu did admirably well in bringing to fore the transformation of railways. I am building upon that. I am trying to ensure that we meet the aspirations of every train traveller. There was a very unfortunate incident at Elphinstone Road. We undertook an extensive root cause analysis after that.
What is the result of your analysis?
There is a need to focus on Mumbai suburban network. We are looking at a very holistic vision of how Mumbai suburban would develop over the next five years so as to ensure much a more comfortable and safe travel for Mumbai consumers.
We have made major changes in the way stations, foot over-bridges, platforms and entry/exit points were considered in the railways. Henceforth, there will never be a budgetary constraint whenever a platform needs to be done up or foot over-bridges to be improved or new ones made. Nearly 3,000 escalators have been set up across the country for faster evacuation of passengers and for their comfort, too.
We are working to re-categorise all stations in the country based on three criteria: revenue, passenger footfall and strategic value. Revenue was always a criterion. It’s a method to decide which station is important. Mughalsarai, for instance, may not get much revenue or passengers but all trains go through that junction. Suburban stations were earlier in C category because there was not much revenue. So we are changing their categories, which will help us to allocate more resources for passenger amenities, necessities and safety.
I understand the ministry is working with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in some areas. What is it about?
The railway is working with ISRO in two major areas. The first is GPS location and mapping of all works through satellite imaging. The second is mapping the assets of the railways. Wherever railway land is available, it will be used for doubling of lines, to build other infrastructure facilities.
At some places, we are exploring monetisation of land for two primary reasons. The first is to create warehouses with cold storage facilities to store agricultural produce or goods to be transported over long distances.
What happens today is people move from production base to warehouses and then to railway stations. Our aim is to reduce one logistic chain. The second is to see if we can develop those land tracts for housing and commercial activities and use those funds to increase investments in passenger services.
Rail safety remains a major concern. What have you done about it?
My first and topmost priority is safety. We have taken many major decisions and all of them are being executed at different levels, which cumulatively will make us the safest railways in the world. For instance, we are looking at how to make signalling more modern and efficient and ensure that trains don’t collide, particularly during fog or bad weather.
In my first month as railways minister, I took a major decision to eliminate unmanned level crossings within a year. The response from all zones has been outstanding. Over the next few years, we will replace even them with underpasses and over-bridges if state governments give us adequate support.
Operating ratio has been an area of major concern for successive railways ministers. It almost touched 97% in the last fiscal. What are you doing about it?
We will certainly improve that. We are working to bring more efficiency in operations and to bring down costs wherever we can. My own feeling is that by 2022, I would target for an operating ratio of anywhere between 80-85%.
The Congress has been critical of the bullet train project…
It is typical of Congress thinking. They forget what they had started. Bullet train project was initiated during the UPA regime. Discussions with the Japanese started under (former prime minister) Manmohan Singh who subsequently started opposing it. Our government finalised it in such attractive terms that now it’s very economical and it will help develop the entire 500km stretch as a hub of economic activities.