February 14, 2018

My interview with Hindustan Times where I speak about how we are working towards bringing the charm back to rail travel

Spoke to HT’s Shishir Guptaand Faizan Haider on his plans to make Indian Railways safe and profitable. Edited excerpts:

It’s been five months since you took over. What were your big priorities then and how have you done?
I think there were two main issues, if one was to look at the macro picture, on September 4 (when he took charge of the ministry). Clearly, the first had to do with safety; my resolve to make a huge and permanent difference to safety is only getting stronger by the day. And the second, if I have to summarise a variety of objectives in one line, I wanted to bring the charm back to rail travel. I wanted to make sure that rail travel once again becomes a delight for passengers.

I realise that a lot of thought had gone into both these aspects, and a lot of work was already done by Suresh Prabhu-ji and Sadanand (Gowda) ji (the two rail ministers before Piyush Goyal). So, in that sense, it was a much simpler job than starting with a clean slate.

Taking that unfinished agenda forward, if one was to look at safety, in my very first meeting I was able to take a decision that we should completely stop manufacturing ICF (Integral Coach Factory) designed coaches. By June, ICF-designed coaches will no more be manufactured. We will only make LHB (Linke Hofmann Busch) coaches. The difference between the two largely is that LHB coaches are much more sturdy, and historical data tells us that LHB coaches have not led to fatalities. In ICF coaches, if there is an accident, there is greater possibility of fatalities.

However we don’t rest there. LHB itself is a 30-year-old design; the world has moved on to stainless steel, aluminum, which are lighter and have more safety features. So we are looking at train sets, an entire train set is kind of coupled and prepared as one train; it has better safety features.

Have you identified the countries from where you can acquire such train sets?
There are not too many options; you have Switzerland, Spain, you have Japan — four-five options only. I sent out teams to interact with companies around the world to see what the latest technologies are. We want to connect Indian railways with the most modern technologies. We don’t want to settle for something less anymore.

Another safety measure is with unmanned level crossings; across the country the amount of underpasses and Road Over Bridges (ROBs) that have been done in the last three years is absolutely unprecedented. Probably, this much work was not done in 50-60 years.

I took a decision that by next Ganpati (Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival in September), we will make sure that if at all there are any unmanned level crossings in the main routes, we will make sure they are manned.

What about signalling?
About three months ago, as I was reviewing each zone, each department, the signalling people were asked to give me a presentation — What is the most modern signalling system in the world and to see how we can implement it here? So they made a presentation that ETCS (European Train Control System) is the most modern signalling system in the world.

The ETCS has a version 1, version 2 and version 3, which is under testing and hasn’t been implemented anywhere. Version 2 is slightly more superior than version 1, so we have made a plan that over the next 20 years we should go with ETCS. It took me 30 seconds… I don’t even think the presentation was fully complete by the time I made my decision known that the railways will immediately go for 100% ETCS over the next six years, and we will give the contract at one shot so that the supplier has the benefit of economies of scale, and can then manufacture in India.

There will be competition among suppliers; there are six companies in the world (that make ETCS) who came to our meeting. I interacted with all of them, I said, “Sell at a loss also because then you will become a world leader.” In the whole world today only 20,000km of ETCS has been installed. China has 10,000, which they have done over the last 10 years. India will do 60,000 route km and 118,000 line km in six years. Now, by the time six years get over, we would have expanded our network by another 40-50% — the speed at which we are doubling and adding new lines, so then, sixth to tenth year again you will have potential to do business.

And by that time the world will start accepting ETCS because prices would have fallen. So India will have a natural advantage to supply to the whole world.

With this ETCS, fog as a problem will be history. In fog also, my train can run at full speed, because trains can talk to each other electronically. So I’ll add hugely to safety, I’ll add hugely to line capacity — it’s the cheapest way to add line capacity, with no land acquisition. Because today the headway between two trains is almost between station to station, is almost 15 minutes; it can come down to less than half.

Then I am promoting Make in India, providing jobs to people and preparing India to export this technology to the whole world, because we will become the cheapest source. You know the LED story, it’s similar to that. Finally, in order to do this, I need proper wifi across the route; so I can give wifi at every station in the country. I will have a CCTV network across the country.

Now, I’ll tell you to the next angle to this holistic thinking. When I take wifi to remote areas of the country, I’ll let children and women from villages around the station come to the station and use wifi free of charge on a kiosk.

 The other aspect of safety, which also has a bearing on capacity utilisation and efficiency, is the track problem. What are you doing on that front?
Three things. First of all, India has a huge backlog on track maintenance, you may be aware that we could never do 2,500km (in a year).

Under our government, we moved it to 3,000 or something. This year, we will make history; we are going to do track renewal, maintenance, replacement of nearly 4,300km (2017-18). I became minister on September 4; April to August the average per month track renewal was 233km; on September 7, I did my safety review meeting.

That day, I took a decision to shift whatever rail is available for track renewal. What will I get in laying new rail lines if I cannot ensure safety on old lines? In December, we did 470-odd km, January we did 576km track renewal in one month, and February and March will not be any different. By March we are going to do 4,300km.

The target in the budget was 3,600km. We will do 20% over budget.

Last year you couldn’t utilise the money; it was Rs 41,813 crore in the revised estimate, down from the Rs 55,000 crore allotted.
I didn’t need it. We didn’t need it since we have extra budgetary resources also whenever we need more capex. Another thing you must notice is that what we are trying to do is all going to result in huge savings in our investment. For instance, the preliminary estimate for the signalling system was $12 billion. I want that 12 billion to become eight billion or six billion, which is why I am throwing the carrot — 60,000 route km, 1.18 lakh line km. You mark my words, we will do it for less than $12 billion.

What is the optimal amount of track renewal you need to do?
We will need 5,500-6,000km every year. By 2019-end or the middle of 2020, I’ll make sure there will be no backlog in this country. Which is why we are importing steel also — SAIL not having enough capacity.

The unions don’t seem to be happy with some of the things you want to outsource, like printing tickets.
We will have a conversation with them. We have 11 presses. Five or six of them will be closed in the first phase. Why should railway not be focusing on core competence? Why should we be doing our own printing? I also have a plan to go 100% digital. If at all anybody wants a printed ticket, it will be available through kiosks at the railway station. I am going to give all my travelling ticket examiners a POS (point of sale) machine, I am going to give all my caterers POS machines. And to my mind it is possible as we expand our wifi network.

Your goods trains actually move at a speed of 15-18km per hour. Have you looked at this aspect — how you can make the freight business more productive by increasing this speed?
That is why we are pushing the dedicated freight corridor (DFC). Recently we approved 2,500km work on the DFC; I have a plan to identify 5,000-6,000km more for the high volume freight corridors. And as the signalling system gets upgraded, we will have more capacity on the normal routes.

The Union budget has provided for suburban railway expansion in Bengaluru. Can you provide some details regarding that?
Nobody has ever cared for Bengaluru. And you see the traffic; it takes two hours to go to the airport. This will be the most intelligently planned railway suburban network, because we are not focusing on land acquisition. What we have done is wherever we have land we will use that, wherever land is a problem, we will elevate. So, 68km is going to be elevated and 92km on ground.

What is the status of the bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad?
Alignments have been finalised. Survey of land is done. We have given the requisition for land procurement. That process is going on. Simultaneously, the technical drawings are being prepared.

What are the other avenues for revenue generation that you are looking at?
A lot of things are happening. In terms of non-fare revenue, there is huge potential of advertising across the country. There is huge amount of land that we are planning to monetise. I won’t be surprised if we assess the real worth and value of land that can be monetised, it may run into a few lakh crores.

Of course, we are looking at monetising land especially around railway stations because they are economic hubs. Even on the bullet train projects, each of the stations is going to be the hub of economic activity. Similarly across the country, take Bengaluru for example, I have written to the state government to allow us higher FSI (floor space index) under the Transit Oriented Development policy. Then, instead of an 80:20 share between the state and Centre, we can do 50:50 for the suburban project.


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