February 28, 2018

Speaking at ‘5th PHD Global Rail Convention-2018’, in New Delhi

Distinguished Ambassador of the Czech Republic to India, His Excellency Mr Milan Hovorka, senior Vice President of the Chamber, Mr Rajiv Talwar; Mr RS Bedi, Chairman of the Railways Committee of the Chamber; Sourav Sanyal, Sanjay Agarwal, Yogesh Shrivastava, Sanjay, Neeraj; all my colleagues from the railways, Mr Ravindra Gupta, Member Rolling Stock, Akhil Agarwal – looks after signalling transmission, Director General Signalling & Transmission, other colleagues, distinguished ladies and gentlemen.

Actually, at the end of all of those very enlightening talks, I had half a mind to suggest that you can consider my speech as read and heard and my case rests. Because I think most of the various initiatives have been articulated in different ways about what we are trying to do in the railways, how we are trying to change the future of the Indian rail. But I will try to bring in another dimension behind the work that we are doing to help you understand the mission with which the Indian railways today is working.

Of course, at the outset, I must say the PHD Chamber is somewhat like the Indian railways. You started in 1905; we are a little older than you, about 40-50 years old. But I think beyond an age, it doesn’t matter how old you are. But just like the Chamber has moved from Punjab, Haryana, Delhi Chamber of Commerce to progress, harmony and development, in similar fashion, the Indian railways, despite being a 160 years old is evolving itself to become more contemporary, modernize, meet the needs of a new India, connect with the youth of India which is aspiring for better passenger comfort, obviously, more safety in travel, such that His Excellency will stop travelling in planes, hopefully, and consider going on our Palace on Wheels, or the Maharaja Express and visit the desert state of Rajasthan or the beautiful cities in Gujarat and experience the interiors  of India, which no aeroplane can take you on.

Of course, having said that, we are very happy that India is also rapidly expanding in civil aviation. The growth in the last 2 years in the air traffic in the country has been a CAGR of 20% annually, and almost on month on month, it’s getting more difficult to get a ticket. There are times when I have a difficulty in getting a ticket to come take a flight to Mumbai or Delhi. And, only this yesterday night, I took a.. yesterday evening I was taking a flight from Mumbai to Delhi and I promise you the number of people on the concourse, at the air terminal were far more than any of the busy railway stations in India.

But it is also a great challenge for the railways in this context to remain contemporary, to remain relevant, to remain competitive and continue to be able to serve the people of India efficiently. And the team at the helm of affairs in the railways has taken it upon itself to change the entire mindset, the way the railways thinks and works in the next few days and months, and I am not even talking of years.

In fact, we have just come, Mr Gupta and I were there along with our other colleagues of the railway board. We meet every fortnight for lunch, just to exchange ideas, just to understand what’s happening, what new things can happen every alternate Wednesday and today was one of our lunches. And I think we were all unanimous in our agreement or we were all agreed on our future path ahead on what needs to be done to make railways hopefully the best railway in the world over the next 5 or 6 years.

And we have a great opportunity to leapfrog technology. We have a great opportunity to bring in to scale ideas which other countries cannot really expand to the level that India can, therefore, giving benefits of economies of scale, bring in the latest technologies to India, so that our people can be served with much better services, amenities, facilities. And I can assure each one of you that we are working towards that direction, we are committed to achieving these ambitious goals.

In fact, only yesterday, the honourable Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Shri Devendra Fadnavis, both the Ministers of state of defence and railways and I were in Mumbai at the Elphinstone Road station where common Mumbaikars, the common man of Mumbai, in fact, there was a group of dabbawalas, who are regular travellers of the railways, maybe for the last 100 years plus. The Koli fisher women, who are the traditional inhabitants of Mumbai, absolutely the common person, citizens of Mumbai, dedicated to the nation three foot-over bridges, which the Indian army had constructed in a record time to show to the people of Mumbai that we care for them, we care for the services that they get. And also our concern that passenger traffic travel in Mumbai should become safe.

But when I took that original decision to handover the making of these three foot-over bridges to the army, there were mixed reactions. While a large section of people, particularly in Mumbai, appreciated it deeply, the fact that the central government and the Indian army was coming proactively to support the efforts of Indian railways, and I was not deterred by the criticism that why did we have to get the army, because army comes in the picture whenever there is a crisis in the country, either at the border or even within the boundaries of India.

There have been times where in a Kumbh Mela there was a crisis and we had the army immediately coming in, there was a time when a bridge had fallen on the Ganga, the army had quickly made a pontoon bridge on top of that. The army, in fact, is meant to support civil services in the time of an emergency and before we gave this job to the army, they had done a recce and the Chief of the Armed Forces at a dinner at the Foreign Secretary’s home actually walked up to me and thanked me for giving the Indian army an opportunity to serve the people of India. That’s the kind of commitment our Indian army has.

And I shall always be grateful to the army, and I think the entire Indian railway family and every Mumbaikar will be grateful to them – Mumbaikar for demonstrating their care and concern for the citizens of Mumbai, the rail travellers of Mumbai, but the railways, because it opened up our mind to think in terms of speed of execution.

You will be very happy to know, and for some of the friends from the media, who may have missed this point, after we decided around the 29th or 30th October last year to handover these three bridges to the army, the Indian railways got so much activated that between October and February – yesterday, between these five months, the railways completed 17 foot-over bridges in the Mumbai Suburban section. By June 2018, that is only four months from now, they have committed to complete another 22 foot-over bridges and we have just approved 56 more foot-over bridges. I am given to understand that they will complete all of them before 12 months from now and that includes the tendering period, the implementation, procurement, construction, et al. – everything. And we had compared that to a time when prior to the Elphinstone Road unfortunate tragedy and the stampede there, it had taken 18 months from February 2016 to 29th September 2017, after the sanction of a foot-over bridge up to the stage of only uploading the tender on the website, the period was 18 months.

Contrast that with the new speed with which the railway officials are now taking up projects for implementation where we are talking in terms of months, rather than years, and months, end-to-end for complete construction and handing over.

You will also be happy to know that the first piece of land, the land at the starting point of the bullet train was handed over yesterday by the Maharashtra government to the High-Speed Rail Corporation, so that the bullet train project which was slated to be fast-tracked and expedited in construction can start work much faster than was originally slated. And, hopefully, India moves into the orbit of completing projects in advance of the scheduled completion day, rather than the traditional way where projects get completed in about 20 years, 25 years.

Incidentally, we have a project that’s been going on now since 1975, so that’s just about 43 years? In West Bengal! Need I say more after that? 43 years, project has been going on! That paradigm has to change.

In fact, today at the lunch, I was saying that the best thing that could have happened to the railways was the decision of the cabinet that there will be no separate rail budget, both budgets will one. Because the rail budget had become the source of a lot of the problems that the Indian railways was suffering – populism, political interference, announcements which were never expected to be fulfilled, promises which were far beyond one’s means so it was known that it is going to happen over a 30-40 year spread of time, meagre allocations to projects which meant that nothing will ever get completed, money would get squandered away, more often than not only to keep the security of the project and the land, rather than adding to any capacity. Projects never getting completed meant there was no outcome out of that investment, so no public service was ever achieved, no new freight traffic could be added, growth was consigned to 1 or 2% annually, 2% growth was considered very good. This year we may do 3 or 4% and we will make a song and dance about it.

And as a statistician, I think you know it’s very easy to always make it look good. So I won’t say 4% growth, I will say it’s twice the growth that was there for the last 20 years. But should we be satisfied with that? Certainly not! And that is the thinking which led Prime Minister Modi to take up the investments in the infrastructure space with a deep commitment to prepare the country for many-many-many years in the future.

You are all very well aware that we are looking at 100% electrification of the railways. It’s a very sound economic decision which will not only save between Rs 10,000 and Rs 13,000 crore every year for the railways, but imagine the amount of pollution that will come down, the greenhouse gases and carbon that we will stop emitting in a city like Delhi.

I don’t know if you are aware, even today, 50%, if not more, of the trains that chug into Delhi are diesel driven, more than 50%! Of course, we have a large number of routes which have been electrified, but if the train is travelling a 2000 km distance, if there is even a 100 km patch which is not electrified, we can’t keep changing engines between diesel and electric all the time. So you will run a 2000 km train on diesel just because you didn’t have 200-300 km of electric lines.

And, of course, there are many naysayers who come out, many editorials are written to suggest that it’s a bad idea to do 100% electrification. Why? Because nowhere in the world has it been done. I think India, and all of us Indians, need to unshackle our mind from the rest of the word, and just because some other part of the world is inefficient doesn’t mean India has to follow suit. I think we in India need to define and determine our own destiny and what is good for our country, rather than following what is happening in the rest of the world.

I remember, when I first articulated the concept of 100% signalling in the Indian railways, and Akhilji is here, he can possibly in  the session about how it happened. I was doing my reviews of each of the various PSUs and then the departments and zones, when the telecom review came up, I had asked them to tell me what is a more modern way of doing signalling. And I am sure most of you are aware that we are having a 100-year old signalling system in this country. I think there is nothing more shameful for this nation that we still have red and amber and green to guide our train loco pilots whether the train can move ahead or no. We still need to have a 20-minute, 25-minute headway between two trains, because of an inefficient signalling system that is a century old.

Of course, two sides to the coin, if you ask the people who have run this government or the country’s government for 55 years. They will say but then it’s better than the other system where you had a flap going up and down. To apne-apne dekhne ka nazariya hai, it’s the way each one likes to look at things. But we think differently. And when he, Mr Akhil Agarrwal presented that what’s the other things that are happening in the world, and he said that the European Train Control System, the ETCS, is the most modern system which is tried and tested at Level 2, and there is a Level 3 but not yet tried and tested. Otherwise, I would have gone in for that Level 3, he knows it.

But since it’s not yet tried and tested, I said we will do a 100% revamp of the entire signalling system at ETCS, Level 2 preferably, if at all some places we need Level 1 for operational reasons, we will make sure it can be upgraded to Level 2 later on. And our Level 2 should be such that it can be upgraded to Level 3, going forward, make the specs in that fashion. And then, the proposal was we should do 12,000 kilometres which are dense railway lines.

But I believe my poorest of poor passenger, common man, who may be travelling in Jhumri Telaiya for all that it matters, is as precious to me, his life is as precious to me and to this government, and to the current leadership of this country, as may be the life of Mr Khaitan and his Excellency, the Ambassador. Every citizen of this country, every traveller of Indian rail has the same value when it comes to a human life, and if I do believe that signalling makes travel safer then I see no reason why it should not be there across the whole Indian railway.

And look at the benefits of that, and again, I am trying to reflect the thinking of this government, the comprehensive way a project is planned by this team that is sitting before you here today. When I give out a contract for 118,000 line kilometres for new signalling and when I have a competitive price process run, can you imagine what benefits can accrue to the nation in terms of economies of scale, can you imagine how many jobs can be generated in the country, because all this equipment will ultimately have to be made in India to be competitive. At best they may import for the first few thousand kilometres out of this programme until they set up a factory or until they are in a position to source all the equipment and manufacture in India.

And think of the technology costs getting amortized over a 118,000 line kilometres across Indian railways. Think of the economies of scale for every casting, forging, electronic product, whatever we require to implement this, when we buy it to scale. And when I interacted with all the signalling system providers, I said guys, you should be actually supplying it to us at a loss. Because after they have implemented this project, whoever wins the contract, and you have all have experience of how we do contracting and tendering after my coal auctions or the way we brought solar power and brought prices down to Rs 2.5-3, wind power prices down to Rs 2.43/44, LED bulbs prices down from Rs 310 to Rs 38, I am sure you have all experienced the benefits of honesty and integrity that this government brings on the table, coupled with economies of scale and latest technology.

I said after you have implemented 118,000 kilometres, every other signalling order anywhere in the world will be yours, nobody could ever compete with that party again. And by the time, in 6 years they do this project, Indian railways would have expanded by 50%, with our dedicated freight corridors, doubling, quadrupling of new lines, so from 6 to 10th year, there will be a new contract. Again, they would be the most competitive.

I dare say the person who wins this contract will actually become almost a monopoly on signalling for a long time to come, just like you supply 85% of the cables in Indian railways. I will have to relook at the tendering system on that now.

And now, let me give you the next element of our thinking. In order to provide signalling across the length and breadth of the railways, I will need to have Wi-Fi, because after all, the trains will talk to each other electronically. So, if I have to have Wi-Fi, I will be able to give Wi-Fi on all the trains. So, all passengers in Indian railways will have the benefit of internet connectivity, all the stations in India will have Wi-Fi hotspots or Wi-Fi zones.

Then somebody asked me, but there are 7000 stations where the passenger footfalls are so small, why do you need Wi-Fi over there? I said I desperately need Wi-Fi over there first before I need it in Mumbai and Delhi. And Anilji why would I need it over there first? Absolutely! Should all the villagers who live near those stations who really have not been able to board the train and come to Mumbai or Delhi and enjoy the life that this room audience is enjoying, should those children be perpetually left behind? Or we can allow the farmer there to come to the station and know what price his product can get, or the women come in and see that if she does some good embroidery, is there a scope for her to sell on the gem portal that the government has started, or a child come in there and just explore on the computer what’s happening in the world, maybe an Akshay Kumar going on to the station Wi-Fi to see how sanitary pads can be made at a effective cost, and he doesn’t have to work as a domestic servant or a domestic help.

Seems you all have not seen Padman probably, I am not advocating, I am not getting a commission for everybody who views Padman, but I honestly think that each one of us should see that. It will open up your mind and heart and tickle your conscience on what’s happening in this country. And moment I am able to do Wi-Fi for passengers, at the stations, for my signalling, logically, I can also put CCTV cameras in all the trains and all the stations which will provide women, children, safety.

Any moment now, we will be making some announcements about what actions will be taken on human trafficking and putting a curb to the dangers and the evils of human trafficking. And railways is a mode of transport where a lot of these activities happen and the railways has decided the year 2018-19, we are going to dedicate it to ensuring that we can put an end to crimes against women to ensure safe passage for children. CCTV cameras can play an important role in that.

So, the thinking is holistic when it comes to implementing any project. And my own sense is that when the systems talk to each other, when there is a integrated system, then controlling crime, controlling any nefarious activities on the system become far more efficient than having piecemeal implementation of programmes, the cost of which we are seeing today in the Punjab National Bank fraud case. The fact that core banking solutions don’t talk to each other amongst the banks, the fact that they have not designed the system well to capture all the activities leading to a fraud, and the fact, of course, that regulatory and audit processes did not live up to the expectations that were required, a few human beings could get away with a fraud.

In the same way, if we have CCTV systems separately all over the country not able to talk to each other, not able to convey messages, not able to give images, not able to share what’s happening with the local police, with other forces, we will not be able to get the best service for the passengers, for the safety of our commuters. And that’s the change in mindset that I thought I will share with you. The various projects you talked about are obviously things that we are doing, but currently, the railways is metamorphosing into a new railway, a modern railway, connecting the dots of technology to make it more contemporary, moving forward in terms of truly making it a safe travel, truly bringing back as was mentioned earlier, bringing back the charm to travel in Indian railways, which at least I used to enjoy many-many years ago. Unfortunately, the children of today are not getting that same level of charm that we had.

I still remember, the cutlets and the toast and the tea in that flask that we used to enjoy when I was a child travelling in Rajdhani or any of the trains is something that’s completely missing today. We want to bring that charm back into the railways, bring in new science and technology to bring that excitement back into and safety back into railways. And what better day to talk about it at the PHD Chamber than the National Science Day, which the nation is celebrating today.

I think you may recall that it is Dr CV Raman’s…. it is on this date that he had discovered the scattering of photons which was called the Raman Effect. It was on this day, 90 years ago, the Raman Effect came into being. We celebrate it as National Science Day, but a great day for each one of us to rededicate ourselves to the visionaries, to those illustrious forefathers who really thought India should connect with science and technology in a big way. He was, of course, the first Nobel Prize winner in science and technology from India. And, therefore, I think it is a fitting tribute that you are holding your rail convention on this august day. And I do hope at the end of it you will come up with a paper which will help us in our own planning and in our own understanding of the next level of technology that the Indian railway should engage with.

It’s a scientific mind which is positive. It’s a positive mind which is scientific. And that’s what the Indian railways is talking of today, is acting on today. We are talking about what is possible. We don’t believe anything is impossible, and I have the confidence that given the commitment that my team has, given the excitement that I see in the entire Indian railways today, the excitement to not only perform, but over-perform, to over-achieve, I have no doubt in my mind that in the very near future, 2022 would be a great year to present to the world a new Indian railway, a modern railway, a safe Indian railway. That’s what our mission is.

Thank you.

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