As India welcomes a new government this year, let us take a moment to assess the railways in the Modi Era. Indian Railway is an important economic asset which has undergone tremendous shifts over the last 167 years on the technology front with promises of modern railways endowed with safety, punctuality and a global standard of infrastructure. This is meant to compete with the competitive global railway economy, which has moved well ahead than what the Indian Railways could ever imagine.
There is no speculation over the fact that railways have been an important asset for all governments from the populistic perspective. The last five years were however different from what railways in the past decades ever witnessed.
Prior to the current NDA regime, there were unsuccessful attempts in the previous UPA regime under the able leadership of Dinesh Trivedi to improve the railway system; this was short-lived, given the conflict of interests owing to the coalition nature of the government.
The year 2014 marked by the succession of the NDA government with a landslide victory; this was a new chapter in the development of railways, with the government actively engaged in improving the speed of trains across the network. Also, state of art practices were implemented, on a war-footing basis, with the completion of the Dedicated Freight Corridor. This was amidst growing concerns of declining passengers owing to the infamous dynamic pricing strategy adopted.
This happened with the aim of improving revenue generation and surplus creation. Unfortunately, it failed miserably, with railways losing a significant proportion of their premium customers and drawing flak from CAG over the hurried and irrational implementation. This further forced the railways to withdraw the controversial pricing strategy from 144 trains.
There was still a positive side to the railway administration which was marked by improvement in regional connectivity and expansion of railways to the strategic Northeast, which for a long period of time remained isolated from the mainstream railway network. A greater cause can be attributed to rising threats from China’s aggressive railway expansion reaching almost to the foot of the Northeast region, and effectively countered by the construction of Bogibeel Bridge connecting Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, while also reducing the journey duration.
The government also witnessed strengthening of diplomatic relations with Bangladesh and Nepal through the promise of establishing new connections and strengthening its existing Railway diplomacy through the inauguration of Bandhan Express. This poses a long-term benefit from the perspective of South-South cooperation with developing countries helping each other in strengthening their railways and related infrastructure.
Railways saw a new dimension, defined by efficiency, sustainability, punctuality, safety and knowledge dissemination, with India becoming the third country in the world to have a dedicated railway university. This showed a paradigm shift in the government’s outlook towards railways as an instrument beyond populist aspirations, attracting the attention of global railway powers, infusing monetary and technology investments through 100% Foreign Direct Investment. This further added a new dimension to the idea of railway diplomacy, which was earlier defined by geopolitical interests with a greater understanding of competency in the global railway environment breaking free from the chains of ignorance, complacency and rigidity.
However, there is a downside to the dynamism exhibited by the government when dealing with the phenomenal growth of railways. There is a scope for greater reforms in restructuring the approach that the government has adopted towards frontier lines and current lines of economic importance such as chord and trunk lines.
Unfortunately, the Golden Quadrilateral has faded into a monologue approach to improve efficiency in train operations, which the government through the core elements of punctuality, safety and knowledge dissemination has attempted to consolidate and simultaneously concentrate. But, it remains far from being achieved to the point of satisfaction at a time when the world is looking up to India as the next hub of global standard railway operations and playing an active role in helping India come on a level playing field.
It is to be inferred that these 5 years were the time for learning, the rectification of mistakes and the strengthening of existing railway networks physically and monetarily. This, however, marks the beginning of a journey that the railways have embarked upon alongside global railway networks. I have a strong vision and hope that the new term will be equally fruitful and define railways in a broader perspective at the domestic and international community by its development in technical progress.