It’s time to reorganise railways and create units run by professionals, not bureaucrats

Piyush Goyal, one of the better performing ministers in the Narendra Modi government, has his task cut out. Reforming Indian Railways is what he needs to go diligently about. The Far­akka Express derailment on Wednesday near Rae Bareli has led to 7 deaths and injuries to 60 others. Rail accidents that happen every year bring to focus the poor state of infrastructure, an unmanageable gargantuan organisation that has grown haphazardly even as the railway board co­ntinues to maintain its stranglehold over it with no intention to ‘reform, tra­n­s­form and perform’. These three buzzwords aired by Modi from time to time co­mprise the holy mantra for his government. But railways’ performance continues to slide and it has repeatedly let down passengers. It could be said that it is a failed enterprise.

India’s emotional connect with this mo­ribund organisation has sustained it ov­er the years. It needs to be put in critic­al care now. The vast workforce that surv­i­ves on passengers and cargo revenue ne­eds to work with precision and dedicat­i­on to get the railways to deliver. Some of the biggest rail accidents have happened in India. The management, personnel and political leadership have not learned their lessons from past mistakes. The railways reform must begin with disbanding of the Railway Board that is corrupt, inefficient and ridden with groups. Bur­e­a­ucrats must be kept out and professionals must be handed over the task of runn­i­ng the organisation. Over the years, railway ministers have given up the idea of re­forming it. They have succumbed to way shown by the Railway Board. This needs to change immediately.

A professional board of directors with clear-cut responsibilities as a holding co­mpany must be at the helm. All the zonal operations must be turned into independent firms under the holding setup. A competitive working environment must dictate functioning of railway companies. If Konkan Railways can become a separate company of sorts why not hive off each railway zone into an independent sustainable enterprise? States can have equity participation in these railway enterprises bound by the holding company. Alternatively, the functional operation of rail networks should dictate the reorg­a­nisation. For instance, the minister can think of bringing all Shatabdi or Rajdhani express trains under two different comapnies. Similarly, the bullet trains network sho­u­ld be brought under a special purpose vehicle with equity from bothe states and Centre.

Several committees and high-powered panels have made significant recommendations on re-organising the railway network. Indian Railways should undergo functional and territorial re-organisation into different companies. Only then, will reform be meaningful. That ap­art, the entire land resources and immo­v­able properties could be brought under a separate entity for management, development and expansion. From railway lin­es, platforms to the network, there is sco­pe for huge commercial exploitation acr­oss the country. The export of railway consultancy services – technical and fin­a­ncial – should be targeted to open new str­eams of revenues for the company. Rail finances – assets and liabilities – may have to be apportioned to make each zone a professionally managed enterprise that is sustainable and profitable. Modi’s idea of setting up a railway university is a positive idea. It should beco­me the centre for recruiting modern and progressive young railway leaders. Re-training and reorienting the existing wo­r­k­force at the new university should cha­nge the face of Indian Railways. All this needs to be done without losing sight of the societal role that is incumbent upon it. For that to happen, sustainable enterprise models with social objectives at the core will have to be evolved. The organisation needs to be geared up step by step to become part of a multi-model transportation network. It is a tall task that is not easy to achieve but doable.