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Reviewing Flexi-fares, But People Should Learn to Pay: Suresh Prabhu

Blaming the seventh pay commission burden for poor financial numbers, Suresh Prabhu says organizationally reform measures have been put in place to ‘revitalize’ the railways

Marya Shakil | CNN-News18maryashakil

Updated:May 26, 2017, 10:07 AM IST
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As Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government completes three years in power, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu tells CNN-News18's Deputy Political Editor Marya Shakil that the national carrier is no longer in 'ICU-like condition'. However, he adds, that it will take a while for the railways to ‘run a marathon’. Blaming the seventh pay commission burden for poor financial numbers, he says organizationally reform measures have been put in place to ‘revitalize’ the railways. Edited excerpts:

When the government was sworn in, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised overhaul of Indian Railways. How has the journey been?
First thing we did was to understand the magnitude of the problem. I presented a white paper to the parliament, spelling out exactly what the problem was… like a diagnostic tool. And the first two budgets had answers to those problems… I am really proud to say that whatever was said in my budget speeches has either been fully implemented or is at an advance stage of implementation, because implementation takes a longer time. So the solutions which were needed have been put in place.

Talking about infrastructure and investment, how much ground has been covered?
We have already allocated Rs 3.5 lakh crore to railway capital expenditure and the spending on capital expenditure has been phenomenal. This is not what I am saying… independent research publications, not the government ones, are confirming it. They have been saying that the Railways’ capital expenditure is driving a lot of growth in the country.

Secondly, just to give you exact numbers, we saw investment of Rs 6.75 lakh crore last year, 60 new projects have been commissioned, almost 8000 km additional lines were added… just imagine the scale of electrification… from 1.18 km per day in 2014, it has gone up to 13 km per day in 2016-17. We have recorded highest number of commissioning of railway lines and electrification. And highest loading of cargo at 1.1 billion tonnes.

But safety is still a matter of concern. The number of train accidents has not gone down.
If you go by the safety record, it has improved considerably. However, derailments have increased to some extent. But that’s because there is no room for maintenance. We have done many things on this front. We are bringing high-end automatic track renewal machines. Also, signaling is getting revamped and 40,000 coaches are being retrofitted. This was a big problem as in cases of accidents casualty was higher in old coaches. We have totally stopped production of ICF coaches.

How much of your plans will translate into action in the next two years?
It is not that we can put up a project within one day, or two days. The work is underway. You can see on the ground that work is happening. The time for completion, which is to be 5 years or so, has already been reduced to three and a half years, so that much time will be reduced.

On passenger amenities front, has your push for services yielded results? Your own Twitter handle sees 100s of complaints almost on a daily basis.
Earlier, there was no concept of attending medical emergencies. Now, the Railways attends such emergencies within minutes. We are trying to provide better food at cheaper prices — 13 lakh meals are served in the railway ecosystem every day. Complaints around meals in trains have come down drastically because we have made improvements on that front. Cleanliness has improved considerably both in trains and stations. Facilities like escalators, which were never there before, have been added on a large scale. We have done all that in less than three years. We have reduced the level of unmanned crossings three times to reduce the travel time of 350 trains by up to two and a half hours.

On which front, do you think there is a lot of concern
I think you know the railways is going through a process of change. When you visit a house that is under construction, obviously you find that everything is not complete… such is the stage where we are. We have laid out a plan and prepared everything for the next two years. If such reforms had started 10 years ago, today railways would not be facing problems.

Are you suggesting that if UPA had better railway ministers, things would have been easier for you?
I am not blaming anybody for it. I am only saying that we are implementing everything as it was needed and therefore, to be fair to everybody, we have presented a white paper, which has not been challenged by anybody. It gave a completely factual position about railways’ problems.

There are concerns around flexi-fare that you introduced in Rajdhani, Doronto and Shataabdi trains. Prices have gone up and in certain cases they are equal to airfare.
It was a decision of the traffic department. They felt that it will bring in more revenue to railway while benefiting people. We have already asked them to review the policy. First time in the railways’ history, seats are being made available to people after the reservation chart is prepared, and that too with a discount of 10 per cent. Unfortunately, we are not talking about the 10% discount which is available for passengers.

In our previous conversation, you had told me that passengers should be ready to pay more for better facilities. Is a fare hike on cards?
That is always the case. Just imagine the kind of facilities which are being provided in the railways in the past two-and-a-half years. Before that, passenger amenities was one of the last priorities. We consider it top priority as passenger comes first. We are trying to make the travel as good as possible. And all of this is something which we are sharing out. The railways is not a private company. You know the finances very well… the numbers are before the country that the salaries and pensions take a bulk of the money… we are trying to increase non-fair revenue this year. We have increased it by 80 per cent in one year. We are trying to do the enterprise resource planning (ERP) and use technology to reduce the cost of railway operations.

So, is passenger fare hike on cards?
For the first time, we have created an authority to deal with costing of services. If my cost has increased, so you pay me more with efficiency being the parameter. We are getting technology so that efficiency can be improved further… and that authority is best placed to decide the pricing policy. Any operation anywhere… whether it is airline, road, railways, power or telecommunication, this thing is always an ongoing exercise. So pricing has to be done on an ongoing basis and we are obviously working on it.

There are a lot of concerns about operating ratio, the financial health of Indian Railways is worrying. Is that your concern as well?
Let us understand where we started. The operation ratio when we started was already high, so we are trying to improve it. I told you it can’t happen in one year. It was already in the 90s when we started… so we have increased the passenger revenue. Earlier, we were losing passenger numbers, but this time we have increased the passenger numbers. Also, we have recorded the highest ever freight earnings… but this year the burden of seventh pay commission has come in. So we were already in the operating ratio of 90s and then you get an extra burden of Rs 36,000 crore… how much will it translate into operating ratio points – 20 points.

Is Indian Railways on track? Is Suresh Prabhu happy with his 3 years?
Railways is definitely on track. It was in ICU-like condition earlier. I always mentioned that I have to bring it out. There is a clear roadmap now. You cannot get a patient out and say that now you go and join a marathon. You need to make sure that we properly take care of it… so we are absolutely on track of revitalizing the railways.

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