For the first time in the history of Independent India, the IRCTC, although a PSU under the ministry of railways, but still an entity on its own, will run two passenger trains to begin with. Before Independence, the Indian rail network and its operations were managed by various private entities. The freight trains have already been operated by private players in competition with the Indian Railways. So, strictly speaking, introducing private passenger trains is not a revolutionary step per se. However, given the fact that the Indian Railways has been operated since Independence as a department (not even as a PSU) of the Government of India with no scope for private players to pitch in, this is a much-needed positive change. Since the Indian Railways enjoyed the monopoly of running rail mode, it cared little for the introduction of state-of-the-art technologies in infrastructure, integrated systems and rolling stock on par with the countries which are advanced in rail transport. When private bus operators copycat rail transport in terms of the smooth ride by introducing multi-axle Volvo and Scania buses, introduced sleeper coaches in buses and even provided chemical toilets, the Indian Railways remained predominantly stagnant in terms of quality of service offered to the passengers on board, except in premium trains such as the Rajdhani and the Shatabdi. The state road transport corporations introduced multi-axle Volvo and Scania buses in their fleet to counter omni bus operators monopolising premium segment passengers. The arrival of private players in air travel in the 2000s increased competition, reduced ticket prices and thereby increased the volume of domestic passenger traffic. Had roads and skies not been opened for private players, our road and air services would have remained lackadaisical even today.
There is much apprehension about private trains from some quarters and let us explore how far they are correct. The first one is that the private players will fix the prices too high that common people cannot travel anymore by rail. Before the opening of skies for private players, the monopolised prices of Air India never allowed the proliferation of air travel even among upper middle class, let alone the middle classes. Only after the entry of low-cost private airlines, the metamorphosis took place. As a result, domestic air passengers went up from 1.4 crore in 2000 to 13.90 crores in 2018, which is a ten-fold increase. It is left to private train operators to strategise how they will achieve profitability even in the presence of a price war and attracting passengers by giving value for money. The next apprehension is on the safety and security of passengers while travelling by private trains. Like the Indian Railways, the private players may also lease trains from the Indian Railway Finance Corporation (IRFC). Or else they can bring their state-of-the-art trains which consume less energy and provide a smooth ride even at higher speeds with minimal noise and vibrations. However, they can operate their trains only after the RDSO certification. The private players may hire drivers from anywhere but only after the certification from the Indian Railways for their fitness to be loco pilots, they would be allowed to steer the trains. The high standards of the Indian Railways and RDSO with respect to safety issues is well known and the Indian Railways or organisations under its aegis never compromised on safety standards.
The next apprehension is that the existing railway employees will lose their jobs if private trains are introduced. The Indian Railways don’t have excess running staff and hence the question of railwaymen losing their jobs with the introduction of private trains has no basis. On the contrary, the loco pilots and guards who opted either for volunteer retirement or superannuated have no bar in becoming loco pilots in private trains if they are fit enough to do the job. This can be a starter for implementing the suggestion by the chief economic adviser in the recent Economic Survey to increase the age of retirement. Moreover, with better services provided on-board and expansion of many value-added services by the private trains, these trains would generate employment opportunities for youngsters.
Transport is essentially a service, where the operators should continue to innovate to introduce new value-added services to make travel a pleasant experience rather than a chore for passengers. This is next to impossible when there is a monopoly in running rail passenger trains. The travelling ticket examiner (TTE) of the Indian Railways is not answerable to any of the inconveniences passengers face during rail travel today. If passengers fall ill during the journey or there is some serious setback in a passengers’ health, there is not even a nurse to administer first aid, let alone getting full medical care. The private players can be very imaginative and offer services which have never been thought through by the Indian Railways such as assured pick up and drop services to the railway stations, facilitating senior and super senior citizens in boarding and deboarding trains, spick and span on-board environments and emergency medical aid and clearly distinguish their services from that of others and that ultimately improves the travelling experience for the passengers.
Despite commonalities such as vagaries in climate, congestion in runways and flying as per ATC instructions, the punctuality of private airlines is about 80 per cent, whereas it is about 60 per cent for Air India. The IRCTC already announced that if the train is delayed by one hour or two hours, the passengers would be given back Rs 100 and Rs 250 respectively. Have we ever got such an assurance on punctuality from the Indian Railways ever? After the announcement of private trains by the IRCTC, the initial public offerings (IPO) announced by the IRCTC received a tremendous response from qualified institutional buyers (QIB), high net worth individuals (HNI), retail investors and employees as well. The booking of tickets in these private trains has also been very good. What more proof is required to showcase the reception for private trains by the people of India?
When Narendra Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat, he posed a question in a meeting: “When private buses could run on Indian roads, when private airlines could fly in Indian skies, what stops private trains from running on Indian railway tracks?”. The Indian Railways took an enormously long time to realise what Mr Modi envisaged six years back. However, the Indian Railways has come of age and it is better late than never.