New Delhi: Even as India signed a Rs. 98,000-crore pact with Japan for a high-speed bullet train linking Mumbai and Ahmedabad, the on-time performance of the country's express trains remains a challenge, especially during winters.
A shortage of dedicated tracks for goods and passenger trains in the country, withering infrastructure and inbuilt inefficiencies in the railways are leading to regular delays of its express trains, including its most prestigious ones. The winter fog does not help. Experts say that unless more money is pumped to improve tracks, lighting systems and signalling infrastructure, running trains on time, even during good weather, would be difficult.
According to former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi of Trinamool Congress, unless a dedicated freight corridor is started, there wouldn't be enough money available to invest in running passenger trains on time.
"Our railway is in a financial crisis and the operating ratio (company's operating expenses as a percentage of revenue) is 110 percent. We don't have enough money to even replace the old assets like the tracks, signals or locomotives," Trivedi told IANS.
He said he was not against bullet trains, but the railways were falling short of Rs 25,000 crore every year. "Had I been the minister I would have given more money to the dedicated freight corridor. This would have helped the economy. The bullet trains will only help the Japanese economy," Trivedi said.
A quick survey by IANS showed that express trains were running late between 14 minutes and seven hours. The Mumbai-Central-New Delhi Rajdhani Express was late by 15 minutes on December 20, by 20 minutes on December 21 and by 25 minutes on December 22, while the Karnataka Express (Bengaluru City to New Delhi) was late by 2:25 hours on December 20, 2:30 hours on December 21 and 2:41 hours on December 22.
Among the other trains, the Saraighat Express (Guwahati to Howrah) was 14 minutes late on December 20, 14 minutes late on December 21 and 40 minutes late on December 22. The Lucknow Swarna Shatabdi Express (New Delhi to Lucknow) was late by 1:03 hours on December 21, by one hour on December 22, 15 minutes on December 23 and 55 minutes on December 24.
The Garib Rath running from Saharsa to Amritsar was late by 6:40 hours on December 20 and by 25 minutes on December 21. The Kerala Express (Trivandrum to New Delhi) was late by 2:05 hours on December 20, by 1:05 hours on December 21 and by 1:45 hours on December 22. Even Duronto Express (Sealdah to New Delhi), which doesn't stop at any of the stations, was late by 1:28 hours on December 21 and by 3:10 hours on December 23.
The Tatanagar-Jammu Tawi Express was also late by 3:00 hours on both December 20 and 21 and it was late by 7:00 hours on December 22.
Several trains were also cancelled due to fog.
The Minister of State in the Ministry of Railways, Manoj Sinha, in reply to a question in the Lok Sabha on December 2 stated that the punctuality of mail/express trains has reduced from 83 percent in 2013-2014 to 78 percent in 2015-16 (up to October 2015). In 2014-15 the punctuality was 79 percent.
The various factors highlighted by the minister for late running of trains included line capacity constraints on account of increasing passenger and freight traffic, adverse weather conditions, intermittent natural calamities, heavy road traffic at level crossing gates, multi-faceted law and order problems, including public agitations and bandh calls in the left-wing extremism affected areas, miscreant activities such as theft of railway assets and mid-section runover cases involving cattle and humans.
Other experts say that two initiatives -- improving existing railway infrastructure and setting up bullet trains -- can happen simultaneously. Former railway board chairman Arunendra Kumar said that for the bullet train project, a dedicated high-speed standard track would be laid and the existing tracks would not be used.
"Japan will fund 82 percent of the bullet train project. India's investment will be minimal with an interest of just one percent," he told IANS, adding that there was no contradiction in moving on two fronts.
The railways were also in the process of laying new tracks across the country, Kumar said, adding that new high-beam lights were being installed to avoid delays due to fog. "When there is heavy fog, though, no light can penetrate it. In such cases, the trains have to wait or go slow till the fog clears. Risks cannot be taken in such situations," he said.
Former railway board member Rajendra Choudhary said the percentage of trains running late was small, as India had the second largest rail service in the world in terms of number of trains. He said efforts were on to renew tracks and upgrade equipment so that delays due to fog could be avoided. He said this was being done in phases.
(Sidhartha Dutta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)