A go-slow signal from the PMO

Railway ministers are always under pressure to not just perform — like all other ministers — but to also be safe... quite literally. When Piyush Goyal was brought in to replace Suresh Prabhu as the Union minister of Railways in September 2017, it represented a double promotion — a Cabinet rank and a ministry that is an empire unto itself, unlike his previous portfolio where the Centre could give policy guidelines while execution was the prerogative of the states. Goyal retained the coal ministry, too.

What has changed since then that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his office (PMO) have rejected two big proposals that Goyal had publicly pushed for the Indian Railways? Goyal, a strong contender for the finance minister's post, is an astute finance professional with both a degree in chartered accountancy and experience in banking. The confidence with which these proposals were moved, however, belies an understanding of an organisation that is just waiting to cross 100 in its operating ratio (what it spends over what it earns) in the current financial year once the long pending recruitment drive gets over.

In such a scenario, spending close to Rs 350 billion to electrify the remaining diesel traction, and around Rs 780 billion on a new signalling system across the railway network could have been financially disastrous. Both these proposals have reportedly been rejected by the Prime Minister himself. What, however, the PMO seems to have overlooked is that there is a huge difference between the two programmes — electrification is only to add speed to passenger movement and in the process bring down the carbon footprint if the power sourced is from renewables; while signalling is to add safety to this passenger movement. In the current context, safety should be the primary focus of the government. To that extent, the PMO’s outright rejection of the signalling plan should be reviewed. 

The European Train Control System (ETCS) technology was planned to overhaul the age-old concept of red and green codes that locomotive drivers currently follow. “This is for the first time in its history the Indian Railways will be doing it,” Goyal had told reporters before Budget 2018 with much enthusiasm.

Since the programme required huge fund infusion, it needed a new financial model and, therefore, even an annuity model was considered. As Business Standard reported in January, the ETCS system has a dashboard for the driver with a bar that tells the distance that is clear to move ahead. It also has a speedometer that sets the speed limit in green and also shows the speed at which the train is travelling, in yellow. The moment a train over-speeds, it gives a red alert sign on the dashboard but if the driver carries on for another 5 km at a higher speed, the brake applies automatically. An ETCS pilot is on on a 342 kilometre stretch that includes the Delhi-Agra route of the Gatiman Express and the sub-urban rail system near Chennai.

Currently, locomotive drivers do not  have any technological support for running a train. 

The rejection of signalling proposal came because of the cost involved. The PM also questioned whether the rollout of a technology not fully proven for Indian conditions should be adopted at such a scale. These maybe valid arguments but in a scenario where the government has left the Railways to be funded by borrowings and internal revenues, a way to fund new technology must be identified by the PMO itself. Such funding could even be through an additional safety cess on passenger and freight.

Nonetheless, when the PMO rejected the electrification plan, after Bibek Debroy, chairman, Economic Advisory Council to Prime Minister, wrote a letter criticising it, the Railways were saved an unnecessary push to buy power from an industry that is working at low plant load factor. According to a roadmap chalked out by the Railway Board last year, the Railways would electrify at least 22,400 RKM by 2020-21. In the last four years, Rs 171.65 billion has been spent to electrify 16,815 RKM but experts say it is not viable to electrify low-traffic routes. 

There was also another minor no from the Prime Minister apart from scrapping of the plans for electrification and a new signalling system. Citing the lack of railway artefacts as a reason, he turned down Goyal’s plan to have a museum at Mumbai’s historic Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminal. The Railways had already invited bids for the Rs 250-million project. 

There may be no pattern in the rejection of proposals close to Goyal’s heart, but the PMO is clearly giving out a signal by sacrificing certain ideas at its altar. 

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