What has the Rail Budget got to do with punctuality of passenger trains? Plenty, when one looks into the events leading to the main cause for present-day poor punctuality, viz. overcrowded tracks of major sections that resemble the ITO bridge in Delhi on a normal working-day peak-road traffic. With over 11,000 passenger and 7,000 freight trains originating daily, most of the major trunk routes of the Indian Railways' 65,000-km of network are functioning at over 150% of their designed capacity, with little or no room for recovery if a passenger train encounters an unexpected delay en route, such as alarm chain pulling, a signal failure, or a run-over case.
Perhaps the biggest gain from doing away with the age-old practice of presenting a separate Rail Budget in the Lok Sabha a couple of years ago was that now the minister could not play to the gallery, which used to earlier end up with populist Budgets, much to the detriment of Railway finances.
The process of 'killing the goose that lays the golden eggs' began with the inimitable Jaffer Sharief and continued unabated through political heavy weights such as Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar, Ram Naik, Mamata Banerjee, Dinesh Trivedi, Pawan Kumar Bansal and Mallikarjun Kharge. They found announcing scores of new passenger trains, extending the run and increasing frequency as a quick, simple and, in their learned opinion, a cheap way of earning popularity.
With the two coach production units-the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai and Rail Coach Factory in Kapurthala-manufacturing 5,000 coaches every year, placing 200 brand-new 24-coach rakes on the track with some leftover for replacing a few over-aged rolling stock was no big deal.
Unfortunately, the introduction of hundreds of such new trains proved anything but cheap, resulting in a serious erosion in the Railways' capability of maintaining punctuality. For all these new trains, with no commensurate increase in section capacity, meant a traffic jam in many sections. A slight delay to one train would result in a concertina effect, a pile-up with punctuality being lost for all the following.
A bigger casualty was track maintenance, for which adequate window between two trains was seldom available, resulting in makeshift repairs being carried out. Mega blocks of one-and-a-half hours were out of question and dozens of expensive track maintenance machines continued to idle.
Eventually, the infrastructure was bound to give way, as it did dramatically two years ago, resulting in not one but three passenger train derailments in quick succession. They involved not only human casualties but also claimed the scalp of Suresh Prabhu, the then minister for railways.
The primary cause for these derailments was found to be inadequate track maintenance and, understandably, Piyush Goyal, who took over from Prabhu, maintained primacy of track maintenance involving safety. This meant punctuality would continue to suffer till the 77 projects for additional tracks to augment section capacity, which had been initiated by Prabhu in 2015, were completed, and more importantly a huge backlog of track maintenance was cleared.
But instead of waiting for additional section capacity, a few railway zones took the initiative to find ways and means of improving punctuality. For instance, a year ago, a review by the Northern Railways revealed that the trunk 'A' route of Kanpur-Delhi-Ludhiana was highly congested and over a dozen freight trains were transferred to the less busy Lucknow-Moradabad-Ludhiana 'B' route, with no loss of traffic.
Automatic data logging ensured that train running on a real-time basis was available in the central control room, where timely corrective action could be taken for unintended delays. Instructions were issued that whenever a train was running late, time would be made up by cutting down on time for halts at intermediate stations. A once-a-week mega 'block' for carrying out mechanised track maintenance was scheduled so that the backlog could be cleared; trains being hit only once a week on this account.
Various such initiatives have resulted in the all-India average, which had been hovering around 70-75%, now registering 80%. In addition, the recent clearance of the Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches to run at 130kph, a small hike from their current maximum permissible speed of 120kph, would provide a valuable margin for trains to make up time on the run, and further improve punctuality.
(The author is former member, Railway Board)