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Indian Railways invites private players to operate passenger trains, a journey from Modi’s ‘vision’ to India’s reality

The private entities will be responsible for paying haulage charges, energy charges, and a share in Gross revenue to the Indian Railways, while the trains will be run by drivers and guards of Indian Railways

Union Minister Piyush Goyal announced on 1st July that Indian Railways had invited private players to submit “Request for Qualifications” for operating 151 passenger trains on 109 pairs of routes. This project will entail a private sector investment of Rs.30,000 crore in Indian Railways. The main objective of this project is to introduce modern technology with reduced maintenance, reduced transit time, improved safety, better job opportunities, and world-class travel experience for the passengers.

In the press release issued announcing the same, the Ministry of Railway stated that the majority of the trains running under this project would be made-in-India. It will be the private sector’s responsibility to finance, procure, operate, and maintain the trains. Railways have made it compulsory for the private sector to ensure these trains are designed to run at a maximum speed of 160 kmph to reduce transit time substantially. The passenger must have a comparable or faster speed than the current running train on the same route.

While the concession period for the project will be 35 years, the private entity will be responsible for paying haulage charges, energy charges, and a share in Gross revenue to the Indian Railways. One of the major concerns, whenever there are talks about the privatization of trains, is the jobs of drivers and other employees who run and maintain the trains. Indian Railways has put up a clause that only drivers and guards hired by Indian Railways can operate these trains.

Existing Privatisation in Indian Railways

Private passenger trains are already running on Indian Railways network, but they are not truly private, as the trains are owned by IRCTC, a subsidiary of the Railways. The Tejas Express trains run by IRCTC were the first step by the Railways to let others run passenger trains on its network. While the locomotives, coaches, drivers and guards are provided by the Railways, the onboard services, ticketing, catering and housekeeping are the responsibility of IRCTC. The trains also have airline-style trained hostesses and stewards, a significant difference from trains operated by Indian Railways. The Tejas Express project has provided important experiences for the Railways on letting others run passenger trains, which will be vital when actual private players start operating trains.

While passenger train services are being opened for private players, the corporate sector is already allowed to run private freight trains on the network of Indian Railways. In 2017, the govt had allowed the private sector to run freight trains, and the first such train was flagged off by Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu in April 2017. The private goods trains are run under the Special Freight Train Operations Scheme of the Railways. The Railways is also allowing the development of private freight terminals on Railway land for private freight trains.

CM Modi had a vision for Indian Railways; PM Modi is making it a reality

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was considered a candidate for the post in 2013, he shared his views about the privatization of Indian Railways. During India Today Conclave 2013, he had said that the government constructed railway tracks, roads, and airports. While roads and airports are open for the private sector, there is no provision of the private sector to take advantage of the elaborated web of railway tracks.

In less than two months after becoming the Prime Minister, Modi had discussed his vision of developing Railway stations on the line of Airports while flagging off the inaugural train from Katra in Jammu. At that time, he had already discussed his vision with the stakeholders and in the next few months, the change was practically visible.

Suresh Prabhu, the current Indian emissary to the G20, took charge of Indian Railways in November 2014 and took several steps to modernize the system. In 2017 after Piyush Goyal assumed charge of the ministry, he paced up the modernization and introduced several groundbreaking changes in the Railways, including modern and fast trains.

By the end of March 2019, Indian Railways already modernized more than 60 major railway stations. New Delhi Railway Station or NDLS was developed with modern amenities and facilities. The luxury hotel feel of the Mathura Railway Station became a hot topic of discussion after its inauguration. Naini Railway station Prayagraj has murals of artists, dance forms and more depicting the vibrant culture of India. Varanasi Railway Station’s new look was discussed largely on social media. Under the Swatchh Bharat Abhiyan, Indian Railways ensured clean railway stations across the country. Countless photos and videos have been shared by the delighted passengers praising the Railways’ efforts to keep the stations clean. Indian Railways is also working extensively to increase use of Solar Power for trains and stations to reduce its carbon footprint.

High-speed Wi-Fi, hygienic and fresh food, better trains, modern amenities, and above all, accident-free year are few things that kept the Indian Railways on the positive side of the news. The launch of Tejas Express and Vande Bharat Express in 2019 was termed as a major step towards privatization. From Madhubani paintings on the Madhubani station’s walls, beautiful artwork on Titwala Railway Station and mesmerizing artwork on a station in Agra, to breathtaking artwork and new look of the coaches, the face of Indian Railways has changed a lot in the last six years. Indian Railways is also working extensively to expand its reach to the extreme corners of the country.

The inevitable challenges

Though Railways has come a long way, the challenges are still there. Covid-19 has caused significant loss in terms of passenger revenue for the Railways. However, Indian Railways did find a silver lining and completed 200 long-overdue projects in the last three months. From deep-rooted corruption that slowed the Railways progress to incapable contractors and efforts to sabotage tracks by Naxals or anti-social elements, Railways has to deal with a lot of challenges. The privatization of the passenger trains will open better options for the Railways to deal with such challenges and it will open doors for more jobs and better infrastructure.

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B.Sc. Multimedia, a journalist by profession.

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