The need for speed

Trouble is with operations, not capacity

Sarbojit Pal

Sarbojit Pal

Minister for railways Pawan Kumar Bansal has made a strong case for increasing the passenger fares, which have remained stagnant for almost a decade. What he promises with this possible fare hike is better services. That is a welcome remark given the multitude of challenges being faced by the Indian Railways.

The safety and security of passengers, improved cleanliness and greening of the trains and stations, and most importantly, improving the punctuality of railway operations are some of the key issues that the minister mentioned on taking charge.

Given that the Railways is financially starved and losing about R21,000 crore annually on the passenger business, it has not been able to make much improvement in its infrastructure or passenger services. A key parameter of service quality for any transport provider still remains, getting from point A to B, fast. This is an area where the Indian Railways has lagged for a long time.

In an era when train services around the world are running at speeds of over 300 kmph, and breaking the world commercial rail speed record over and over again, most 'superfast' trains of the Indian Railways still run at commercial speeds of around 55 kmph. Even the Duronto, Shatabdi and Rajdhani Expresses, which have maximum speeds in excess of 130 kmph, have appalling commercial speeds of around 70 kmph.

The Rajdhani Express provides an interesting case study. Introduced in 1969, the first Rajdhani Express, with a maximum speed of 120 kmph, was flagged off to run between Howrah and New Delhi. At the start of its operations it covered a distance of 1,441 km in 17 hours and 20 minutes. With just three technical halts, this worked out to a commercial operational speed of about 83.15 kmph. Today, the same train covers almost the same distance in 17 hours. Even with more powerful locomotives—maximum speed in excess of 130 kmph—and lighter coaches, the train could shave off only 20 minutes in 43 years. Its average commercial operational speed has risen by only 2 kmph.

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