It may work for India if we decide to privatise our suburban railways and underground railway systems, because they involve a few routes

Voices Friday, July 11, 2014 - 05:30
Abheek Dasgupta| The News Minute| July 11, 2014| 08:30 am IST D.V. Sadananda Gowda's Railway Budget presented on the 8th of July asserted on future projects that would be financed with the help of public-private partnership. (PPP) While PPP would be good for certain projects and raise the profile of railways in India, PPP can be highly detrimental for certain other projects which also have the capability to disunite India in some ways. We look into two scenarios here - two European countries that have tried out with public-private partnerships. They are two of the biggest economies in the European Union - Germany and the United Kingdom. Since the privatisation of the rail network in the United Kingdom in 1993, passenger services have been franchised, for a limited period, to train operating companies. When a franchise is due for renewal, the Department for Transport (DfT) invites bidders to tender for the franchise. The DfT judges bids based on several criteria, and gives the franchise to the train operating committee which has the best bid. There are currently 23 train operating companies, whose running stocks are different, and all of them are private companies. This has had some negative impact, especially with the long distance trains. The United Kingdom has one city, London, which is much bigger than any of the other cities in the country. As London is in the southern part of the Home Nation of England, southern England is considerably more economically developed than northern England or Scotland. As a result of this economic divide, the bids for franchises that include lines from London to the other major cities are better, with the trains being considerably faster on these lines, when compared to the trains that connect cities in the north. Here are some facts. The 120 miles between London and Birmingham can be covered in 84 minutes. The 86 mile distance between Birmingham and Manchester, however, takes 90 minutes. Manchester to Leeds is just 40 miles, but the fastest train takes nearly an hour. This way, the gap between the northern and the southern portions of the country increased as there was a difference in the quality of transportation. On the other hand, Germany has a system of railways, for which I would use one adjective which has been used for most things German - efficient. They have their railway stations classified into various categories - from category one to class seven. Category one railway stations are the traffic hubs, and are almost always situated in the major cities, with the exception of some which are regarded as important because they are at the intersection of important railway lines. The four biggest cities in Germany - Berlin, Munich, Hamburg and Cologne have multiple Category 1 stations, and there are twenty Category 1 stations. Another reason why these stations are so good - is because they all have a shopping mall. When I was uploading a Facebook status from the central station of the eastern city of Leipzig, the description of the station was given as a shopping mall, and not a railway station! The Category 2, and the major Category 3 stations, such as the one that serves Frankfurt Airport, are the only ones which have high speed rail services. If you live in a small rural area or a suburb of a city, you have to take a regional or a local train to the nearest major station, from where you can go all over Europe. Indian lawmakers should learn from this, rather than MLAs performing hunger strikes, with their demands being that the major train between two metropolitan cities should stop in a town with a population of 10,000. In Germany, the high speed rail and regional trains are all controlled by the Deutsche Bahn (German Railways). So, if you move from a major city to another one, you don't need to go by trains controlled by private players. As a result, the quality is the same all over the country, although the ticket prices are quite expensive. However, there are some local train services that take you from one district to the next, or within the same district, and these are privatised. These trains are generally much slower and stop at every station on the way. So, what should we do in India? It would be a great idea if we decide to privatise our suburban railways and underground railway systems, because they involve a few routes. Also, in most scenarios, the Indian Railways tends to neglect these systems and only respond to massive public outrage. Instead, if a local company based in the metro at the centre of the suburban rail network decides to control it, the organisation would be much better, and it would help the commuters. If the long-distance routes are auctioned off to private players, you will see the major routes (like the one from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, or Chennai to Bangalore, or Howrah to Delhi) being bought for big money, and the quality of the rail services being significantly higher, than say, Dibrugarh to Kanniyakumari. Also, the plan to make the first high-speed rail between Mumbai to Ahmedabad didn't go as a good idea, from my point of view. Not because of any regional bias, but at 536 km, this isn't what you would call a long line from an Indian point of view (to the Germans or the British, 536 km is a really long distance). Our high-speed rail trains should have the two terminal stations significantly farther away, to the tune of 1500 or 1600 km, and higher. For example, a high-speed rail train from Chennai to Ahmedabad would be a good idea. At 1842 km, the two terminal cities are significantly far away. The train should stop at the major railway stations on the way (the non-stop Duronto Express was a massive business failure), such as Jolarpettai, Bangalore, Davangere, Hubli, Margao, Vasco da Gama, Kolhapur, Pune, Mumbai, Daman, Surat, Vadodara and Ahmedabad. This is completely unlike most regular long-distance trains, which stop at unknown stations in the middle of nowhere. Whenever I have taken the Howrah Mail from Chennai to reach my hometown, I have seen the train stopping at railway stations that are completely deserted. On the other hand, this train can accommodate more people than a non-stop train. In one trip, you will see a student in an engineering college in Chennai go to Bangalore to spend his vacations with family, a Portuguese tourist going to Goa from Bangalore and an IT professional going from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, sit on the same seat. However, in some features, it is not good enough to be as good as the Europeans, but even better than them. India is much bigger than any of the developed nations in Western Europe, and hence the distance between cities is much faster. Therefore, if our trains try to emulate them and keep a maximum speed limit at 220 km/h, the Chennai-Ahmedabad route will still take eleven to twelve hours, a fairly long distance. We need to follow the Chinese here, who, being the fourth largest country by area, have similar issues, and are now trying to have the fastest trains on the planet taking people from one Chinese metro to another. One of the major problems for high-speed rail is ticket pricing. With such amenities, tickets will be expensive, and that would be unaffordable for most Indians. The Indian Railways is given due credit, for allowing every Indian to travel from one corner of the country to another without burning a hole in the pocket. However, with the buying power of the Indian middle class increasing, travelling by air has become much more affordable, and spending the extra grands to save 24 hours or more on travelling seems to be the better deal for them. The best idea would be to keep both options open, the slower long-distance trains going at an average speed of 100 km/h, and the high-speed long distance trains going at an average speed of 200-225 km/h or higher, so that both people who value their time and people who can't spend much on a rail ticket have it their way. If Indian Railways wants to be counted among one of the world's most advanced railway networks, it has a long way to go. But every positive Railway Budget presented by a minister with vision, is a step in the right direction. Quoting the Chinese philosopher Laozi, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability on the same.