Dr. Saraswat, somebody we all respect, somebody we all look up to for advice whenever we are grappling with serious technical issues, and most appropriately, somebody who is steering this dialogue during the next two days on understanding how technological advancements can play a role in the Railways, in the metro. Shri Lt Gen S.K. Srivastava, Shri Pradeep Aggarwal ji, Shri Arvind Arora, Mr. Goyal, all the distinguished participants of this important IC-TRAM conference, ladies and gentlemen.
When I was reading the thought process behind this conference, and if I recall correctly, I had addressed last year also this conference. I think a lot of water has flown under the bridge between last year and now. I was a rookie Minister at that time, I didn’t know the ‘R’ of Railways and my colleagues who were with me at that time must have been wondering that this little kid has come in and started interfering in all our work. A good old established Railway Board running it very efficiently I would say, but in its own way and somebody comes in and ruffles the feathers a little more than welcome. But I do hope at the end of one year I am looking for probably an introduction in some program where I go, where I am not remembered for the power sector, but I would also be remembered for the railway work.
It’s been a very enjoyable year of learning for me. Undoubtedly, as is going to be discussed in this conference, unless we evolve with technology, evolve with time, an organisation cannot survive. And therefore, even last year I had found that the discussions that you had were very focused on what technology can do to make Indian Railways safe, once again bring the charm back to travelling in trains, make it efficient, help mobility be more customer friendly, move high volumes of freight, and to my mind, technology is the only input, which can significantly impact the future of Indian Railways as I have seen over the last one year. Actually, today I complete one year, exactly today.
And I would like to share with you the Japanese story on Shinkansen, because we also have our own fair share of naysayers in our country. Whenever you talk of new technology, whenever you talk of introducing some out of the box idea, you have a lot of resistance. I am given to understand when the Shinkansen was first conceptualised in the 50s in Japan by the Japan National Railways, many Japanese politicians and academicians both had strongly opposed it. They were of the view that this will be the downfall of the Japanese Railways.
It was a theory called the “railway downfall theory” that the Japanese government or the people who are introducing Shinkansen technology are crazy. They are investing such large volumes of money just to bring speed and safety to the railways, how does that matter. And, if one looks back I think that has been the journey of technology all through the years. I am sure when the horse carriages were replaced by steam locomotives also there must have been enough naysayers.
Just like I am told that when the Rajdhani was introduced in 1969, even the then chairman of the Railway Board had opposed it, why do we need a Rajdhani? We are a poor country, we have a system which works and therefore we should not promote even a fast or a semi-fast train like the Rajdhani in the country. It’s very elitist, it’s very bourgeois. To my mind, I am facing somewhat a similar situation today.
I remember in one of the meetings with the Railway Board and I try to have my periodical luncheon sessions with them, hoping to work together as a team, to take the technology initiatives forward. When I was I thought making some suggestions but may not have been able to convey it well, a dialogue had come in and since we are all local I don’t know maybe a couple of foreigners I will translate it into English also, but the dialogue was said in Hindi so it’s better quoted in Hindi again और मुझे यह बताया गया कि साहब यह सब आप बोल रहे हो यह तो ठीक है, लेकिन देखिए फिर भी रोज़ सुबह दिन शुरू होता है उसके पहले रेल व्यवस्था शुरू हो जाती है और दिन में 22 हज़ार गाड़ियां निकल जाती हैं। कोई रेल मंत्री हो न हो, कोई बोर्ड मेंबर हो न हो, 22 हज़ार गाड़ियां रोज़ निकलती हैं रेलवे की।
It’s a viewpoint. We can draw a lot of satisfaction from this viewpoint. And for your benefit the comment was that at least irrespective of who is the Minister or who is on the Railway Board or who runs it or doesn’t run it, we have 22,000 trains getting out of this system every day. But I don’t think we can rest on that laurel alone. It’s a great achievement, undoubtedly. It’s a matter of pride for all of us that the wheels of the railways are moving, they’re moving over 22 million passengers every day, they are moving nearly 3 million tonnes of freight every day, trains chugging along all through the country.
But whether that is the best service that we can give to our customers, whether we are truly working with a focus as Mahatma Gandhi ji had said whose 150th birth anniversary we are now celebrating, are we truly focused that our customer is our king, are we really giving him the best deal possible. And to my mind, we have a lot to answer for. I see a lot of young children in this room and certainly since most of us are in the same age group in our 50s and 60s other than these little young boys and girls, I think it’s a moment for all of us to reflect what Justice we as a generation have done to our nation and what we are going to leave behind for our children tomorrow.
Will they look back after 20 years and remember us for some good work or curse us for having lost some very-very vital opportunities. And I think that’s the question that all of us face in our day to day working, in our lives. If we can all accept this reality that we are duty-bound to leave behind a better system than what we had inherited in whichever sphere Lt Gen Srivastava maybe in the army, somebody and some of us are working in the Railways, some of us maybe in the IT sector, each one of us has been doing our role wherever we are. But unless we start with the commitment to be the change that we want to see in the world and become that instrument of change, I think it will be very difficult to really, at least I would not be a satisfied person for whatever time I have spent now in the Railways.
I remember a team of very high officials had come to my office, probably Mr. Goyal or Mr. Aggarwal may have been there in that meeting, I don’t recall now whether you had retired by that time or no. Some very senior officials including some very senior IAS officials who had come and we were having an interaction in the Rail Bhavan conference room and one of the gentlemen who had probably served 35-40 years in government, we have a very big 7-8 minute discourse on all that was wrong in the Railways and compared the railway working with Japanese Railway, with German Railway, with American Railway. This is wrong, this should have been done this way, this should have been done this way and what not have you.
He was right in whatever he said and I took it in the right spirit that we have to aspire to address these problems, meet the challenge of making Railways better. But on a lighter note, since he was in a hurry to leave that meeting and was excusing himself after passing his comments, I asked him to stay back at least to hear my response for two minutes only. Actually, it didn’t even take me two minutes; it took me a few seconds.
I said in all the 40-35-40 years that you were in the government, most of which was spent in the Finance Ministry, I wish you had thought of all of these things and provided the necessary support and ammunition that the Railways always wanted to be able to make this an organisation comparable to the Germans and the Japanese rather than now give us in hindsight this vision.
And that is the difference that Prime Minister Modi brought to the Indian Railways. He fully realises the importance of Indian Railways to India, to India’s economy, to India’s future, the important role it plays in connectivity, in mobility, transporting millions of passengers to work every day, to their hometown for pilgrimages, for tourism, the billion plus tonnes of freight that is moved without which we probably wouldn’t even have had electricity in this room this morning.
And he recognised that the low amounts of funds that used to be made available for the Railways all these years is only making the situation worse and not helping the Railways evolve into a modern power house, Railways are not able to absorb technology, Railways are not able to connect with the best of class in the world.
And you will be happy to know that as against 2,30,000 crores that was spent on the capex of the Indian Railways in the five years before this government came in, we would have spent 5,30,000 crores between 2014 and ‘19 on upgrading the Indian Railway system, nearly two and a half times in a short period of time.
When we introduced the concept of high-speed train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, clearly, the idea was not just a 500 km stretch; the idea was to introduce the most modern technology into India. The idea was let’s see what we can do, how we can use that technology in India not only to expand these type of modern systems in the Indian Railway network but then also make India the manufacturing hub for these systems, which will make them far more affordable for the rest of the world to adopt.
And when the country is moving through a technological upgradation in almost every field, should the Railways be deprived of what is most modern in the world or should we also engage with modern technology. I think it’s not a million dollar question but it’s a no-brainer. Railways will have to look at the best that is available anywhere in the world and how we can bring it into India.
I remember soon after I had taken charge, there was an unfortunate stampede at the Elphinstone Road station, around 29th or 30th of September last year. Of course, it’s not as if the bridge had fallen or there was any reason for that stampede. It was just a sudden thunder shower, people rushing to catch their trains, somebody else rushing to get out of the platform and somebody slipped and when he slipped a lot of people fell behind him and it was a very-very unfortunate accident stampede, causing lot of angst to me and my colleagues and to all of us in the country. And I remember having extensive meetings at the end of that for two days in Mumbai. We sat almost from morning to night without even a break for tea.
And, I think that was the biggest learning experience for me how we have kept the Railways working in an age which is totally disconnected with the 21st century. Our tendering processes, our use of preventive maintenance, our use of predictive technological interventions to know when things are going wrong, our categorisation of various stations as important or less important.
And a simple thing like categorisation of stations being done purely on the revenue that it collects, and by that logic that Parel station, Elphinstone Road station would have hardly got any revenue because Mumbai suburban would always be largely season ticket driven, which is brought from all over the region, 130 stations everywhere these tickets are bought. So it will never get a priority when it comes to investments, and therefore even safety works were not given any priority in that station.
So simple thing like categorising a station based on the footfall that passes through that station and I would believe you would all agree with me that how many passengers use a station is the only defining feature to know whether it’s a systemically important station or not. When we discussed with our colleagues so many ideas came up, so many thoughts evolved then I realised that all the solutions are also available with all of us. It’s only that we are not yet able to sometimes comprehend them or sometimes be willing to challenge ourselves to explore uncharted territory.
I have had a recent success that I would like to share with you, for the last nearly a year I have been trying to propagate the idea of a convoy of freight trains and it has nothing to do with technology, I think it’s simple OR, nothing more than that. That why do freight trains and passenger trains necessarily have to intertwine with each other killing the entire railway system’s speed both for passenger or mail express trains and the freight trains almost leading to freight trains giving you an average of 25 or rather now 23-24 km/h average speed.
Of course, I wasn’t able to get my way for a long time, but only last week on 29th of September, the SECR tried this convoy concept and the idea was simple that for a defined period of time one behind the other at high speed we just move freight trains almost like a freight Rajdhani or something. And you will be happy to know that they were able to run if I remember correctly nearly 40 trains one after the other, which to my mind will not only help us to expand the freight that we move, reach our freight in time, help us turn around the freight wagons faster and increase the revenues of the Railways so that we don’t have to burden the passengers with more and more increased fares and make the entire system more efficient.
It was hardly much of technology in this but it was simple and skills to plan your timetable so that you can move all these trains one after the other, and I am given to understand that they have got almost 40% more trains, freight trains that day moving on that particular route of 600 km or so. Now, while you are discussing over the next two days technological innovations, I would urge you to look at what technological innovations can make the railways safer, can make the railways more efficient, can help us expand capacity at the least cost, what we can do to get more throughput within the existing system and what role technology can play to make this happen on the ground.
Of course, there are many other which ideas which don’t necessarily have technology in it, which are also welcomed. I mean there are very-very simple interventions which can actually make the Railways have much more throughput and much faster turnaround, which may not involve too much money spending also. It’s more just an application of mind and a willingness to change. But, fortunately for me, I have a team today in the Railways which is willing to engage with that change. I have a team of officers, a team of senior management which is willing to experiment with the unknown, which is willing to say okay, we may go wrong but let’s give it a shot.
And therefore, while one year ago I was also myself working on uncharted territory with the team I did not know so well, today, I feel much more empowered to suggest that we do want you to come up with some radical ideas. We do want all of you to give us some thoughts about what we can do and I assure you that today the Railway Board, today the management of the Railways, the various general managers, the young officers in the Railways are all willing to look at this change, are all willing to experiment, are all willing to fail, because I believe that unless we fail, we will never evolve into a better system.
And, I think gradually we are seeing that change in the thinking of the Railways. I will share another example with you, matter of great satisfaction for me. In my first meeting as Railway Minister either on the 7th or 9th of September when both Akhil ji and Mr. Goyal two of my colleagues I can recognise here and if there are some more I am sorry I haven’t seen you were also there, I was assessing safety which was obviously the most paramount subject before me when I took charge and amongst the various causes of accidents was the unmanned level crossings.
By now, most of my colleagues are familiar with my style of working. I took a decision that we have to eliminate all unmanned level crossings in one year आपको याद है न आप तो दोनो थे उस मीटिंग में. I said in one year I want all unmanned level crossings to be eliminated and I think all my colleagues were quite aghast at that idea, it sounded so stupid. And, if I recall correctly, Ganpati had just got over in August, sometime in August last year, and I turned to my colleagues sitting with me and I said when is Ganpati next year. They said 12th or 13th September, it was 13th but I think my guys mixed up they said 12th September and I put a task that by 12th September चलो गणेश चतुर्थी पर we should have no unmanned level crossings.
Of course, I was also new, they all thought I was some kid off the block and I got a big note after all the discussions and deliberations in the Railway Board, why it is not a great idea and why it will not be possible to do it. And then they advised that what we can do is and they rightly analysed that the ABC routes which carry most of the important traffic we will be able to do in one year, remove all the unmanned level crossings in one year. I thought to myself चलो अच्छा है at least उस लेवल तक तो पहुँचे कि 80% of the traffic will have no unmanned level crossing but I was not satisfied.
So while approving the Railway Board proposal, I actually wrote a one and a half page and many of you have worked in government so you know those green sheets of paper that come on every file, so I spoke my mind on that file and I wrote in great detail that while I accept your proposal that in one year you assured me that you will complete all the unmanned level crossings, let’s say by 30th September across the Railways in the ABC routes, the high priority busy routes, but what about the rest? Can we not aim at least and give some timelines by when all the broad gauge and now narrow gauge we don’t have much trains running, so that was not a matter of discussion.
In any case narrow gauge, the trains are very slow they have a man at the front who keeps watching and then driving the train slowly. So, I said I want to make sure you at least have it in your agenda, don’t end your agenda at ABC routes. So, I wrote a whole sheet suggesting that though we must still look at some time frame and how we look up the rest of the… After a few months I think we had a new member engineer who joined, who was willing to take on a challenge. And I am delighted to share with you that from that day till now we have reached a situation where today we have only 474 unmanned level crossings in the entire Indian Railways.
And of these 474, while they have given me a commitment to end it in the next few months, they have assured me that on these also the trains are very sparingly used. These are those which have one train or two trains in a day, which we are running very slowly. I think we have decided to stop night journeys on these routes until we put in manned level crossings. And technical feasibility on one Barmer area I think, 25-26 or 27 UMLCs, technically they were having a problem for which we will find some other human intervention by which we can make it safe for people to drive.
I only wanted to share with you that once the team decides that they want to make a difference, it can be done. By the way, in September alone, the Railways eliminated 1703 UMLCs, September alone, more than they have ever eliminated in the history of Indian Railways, in one month. I just want you to know what is the capability of this 1.3 million force, once they decide that they want to do something. And therefore, when you come up with your technological ideas, I can assure you I have a team today who can actually implement it and make it happen.
And this I just wanted to share with you to give you confidence that this is not just another conference where you are going to deliberate, you are going to discuss, prepare a nice paper or a document and then meet after one year again, probably rehashing the same old story. I assure you every suggestion, every discussion that you come up with, particularly on technological side, also on any other ideas that any of you may like to share with us. We have an open mind. We have a team which is willing to engage with you, to learn from you, to learn from you are experiences, to learn from what is the best in the world and we have a leader in Prime Minister Modi who believes that India should not settle for second best, India should get the best for its people.
We have a leader who is willing to give money, budgetary allocations, unprecedented allocations, so that we can serve our people better, we can create infrastructure of the 21st century, because if we want to make India truly a superpower, if we are looking at making India a country that engages on equal terms with the rest of the world, if that political empowerment that we see India having today in the comity of nations with Prime Minister Modi standing out tall as a world leader, we certainly need to ensure that we back that political strength or that big image that India has in the world with facilities on the ground where 1.3 billion citizens of India served by 1.3 million railway employees get the best deal that we can offer.
We are working towards a new railway as we move towards a new India by 2022. A railway that is safe, a railway that is modern, a railway that ensures better and higher levels of punctuality, cleanliness, quality catering, engages with technology for preventive maintenance, sees what we can do to expand our network wherever it is critical, wherever there is possibility of more business, wherever there is need looking at demand already there. And I am sure this engagement with your organisation will certainly help us in making the Indian Railways the Railways of tomorrow and bringing the charm back into rail travel – the charm that many of us in our childhood used to enjoy, the charm of going into the hill stations probably in a train.
The charm of travelling in a Rajdhani where tea would be served in that little thermos, if I remember correctly, that brown colour or green colour thermos with delicious toast and cutlet, where we would feel safe travelling in the railways, when we knew that we are going to reach our destination on time, when we knew that service quality will be with a smile. Let’s get that charm back into Indian Railways and let technology drive this effort to bring the charm back into Indian Railways.
All the best to all of you and this conference.