Trains and the Transportation System

Some of the hazards of traveling around India by air include over-crowded airports, delayed flights, and lost baggage. I was in Bangalore for three days last week and then came back to Mumbai with a day’s stop at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad. How I wish I had the option of not flying around the country. Indian (the airlines formerly known as Indian Airlines) managed to mishandle my checked-in bag and as of now (nearly 24 hours later) the bag is still missing.

The signs are not good. I don’t mean about my bag but about the whole airlines business in India. People are not paying attention to the fact that India needs a long haul mass transportation system. And airways cannot be the long haul mass transportation system, nor can it be the road system. It has to be the rail system. There is nothing as efficient as steel wheels on steel rails for transporting hundreds of millions of people over distances that are of the order of hundreds of kilometers.

Last year I had proposed what I call an “Integrated Rail Transport System” which is worth revisiting. (A followup to that proposition is here.) I think it is time to again argue why an IRTS makes sense.

Yesterday’s The Hindu (a misnamed paper if there ever was one on the planet) carried an op-ed item which talked about China’s rail system. “At 76,000 km, the total length of China’s railways is behind only that of the US and Russia, and it is expected ot reach 100,000 km by 2020. The country already boasts of the world’s fastest train.”

The article quotes from a World Bank report titled “Highways and Railway Development in India and China from 1992 to 2002.” You wouldn’t believe it but it seems that in the early 1990s, India was ahead of China in route kilometer per capita and total route kilometer. In the decade starting 1992, China invested US$85 billion and jumped so far ahead of India that it is unlikely that India will ever catch up with China. India invested only US$17.3 billion in the same period. India’s route kilometer grew by ONE percent and China’s grew by 24 percent.

If only, lord if only, just once if India did something right in terms of infrastructure. Why are they so incredibly dense — the Indian policy makers — that they cannot get a friggin’ clue even when it stares them in the face? When would they stop their silly posturing about being this or that superpower and actually do something that will make the world stop and take notice?

I will now take a break for a moment of silence to mark the grief that I feel about the blind leadership that Indians vote for themselves. This blog will continue to propose solutions, of course, knowing full well that it is as useful as trying to teach a pig to sing: it cannot be done, it is a waste of time, and it annoys the pig.

Author: Atanu Dey


23 thoughts on “Trains and the Transportation System”

  1. While I agree with most things that you say and share your grief, it does look like this is Railways finest moment, not only in terms of both financial and operational performance, but also in terms of strategic orientation. From 2004 to the present, the Railways surplus shot up from 880 crores to 11,450 crores.Net revenues have gone up 4 times during the same period.

    No other Railway minister has achieved such a dramatic turnaround.

    What is also surprising to me is that he has now donned new clothes — from someone who has been harping on social justice to becoming an avid reformer, going ahead with new privatisation plans. Perhaps Dr. Singh and PC should take some lessons from him.

    Atanu’s response: I don’t know what is so creditable about a public sector monopoly making profits. Any monopoly can make a profit. The recipe is simple: be the only game in town and charge an arm and a leg for the shabby show. The village idiot can make a profit if he is the only idiot in the village and everyone is forced to pay him by diktat.


  2. There are some issues that need to be tackled. I read that the surplus will be 20,000 crores, of which 10k crore will go to the govt as dividend and the remaining will be invested. There is some talk of having high speed corridors but this might not fructify.
    The UK has been upgrading its rail lines to 160m rails to link it to the EU rail corridor. It’s a huge and expensive endeavor. Try replicating this in India and things midboggling very fast.
    Next comes the question of maintenance. When you have high speed trains, a much larger percent of the revenue needs to be spent on preventive maintenance. Indian rail sees these areas as revenue centers to subsidise lower class fares. There was a feature on page 2 in the TOI about the abysmal state of railway stations in India. Some european rail stations are better than Indian airports. How do you entice people to use rail when the stations are not conducive to comfortable travelling?


  3. “There is nothing as efficient as steel wheels on steel rails…”
    So true.

    This is slightly unrelated – but what do you think about building Metros in Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Lucknow, (Nagpur?) etc. on a war footing? Besides the economies of scale – there are also many large positive externalities – less pollution, less congestion etc. As India urbanizes (mostly in existing unplanned cities with huge bottlenecks) – building many more roads (which do not have the convenience of being made some feet below the shops and homes) is extremely difficult. Regarding the execution of the Metro project – in New Delhi it has indeed been impressive, so we can go with the same model.

    And regarding the source of funding – small additional tax on the sale of light four wheelers. Lest this sounds socialist, let me explain the simple reason: Cars need roads and oil (i.e. time and dollars, respectively), and also create (greater and diffused) pollution – negative externality. Electricity for metro still needs to come from the grid – which comes from the relatively more efficient thermal sources and increasingly also from hydro/nuclear/wind etc.

    PS: Capacity underutilization in Hyundai, Tata, Maruti etc. should not be a resultant problem in India’s booming economy. And if yes, export these cheap but (relatively) technologically sound cars. Only problem which I can immediately think of: low-yielding foreign reserves grow faster.

    Atanu’s response: Every metropolitan region needs a local mass transit system. The best local mass transit system known to man is a subway. And it is best to anticipate the population growth and be ahead of the curve. But we don’t do look-ahead planning in India. Our planning follows the “close the barn doors after the horses have fled” paradigm. We start considering building, say, an airport terminal only after the current facilities are severely overloaded. Then after due consideration, we take a few more years to work around the idiot commies who don’t want any progress. By then, the system is creaking and almost unusable. Then finally a half-assed terminal is added which from the day it is inaugurated is already inadequate to handle the traffic.

    Contrast that with, say, the look-ahead planning of Singapore. Their second terminal is not even up to full capacity utilization and they start building the third terminal. By the time the third terminal is ready, the second terminal is up to capacity and the third terminal starts taking on load.

    Our poverty is not so much material as it is a poverty of ideas. Ideas matter more than stuff.


  4. “And it is best to anticipate the population growth and be ahead of the curve. But we don’t do look-ahead planning in India” and “Our poverty is not so much material as it is a poverty of ideas”….

    As true as death (if not taxes). Thats exactly what I was thinking but could not articulate 😦


  5. Well said about profits made by Indian Railways! Why not a STATE MONOPOLY which doesn’t have a regulator which has lots of anti-consumer charges* make profits???!!!

    *Some of the criminal charges imposed:
    1) Super fast surcharge – Rs. 20 AND many express trains were upgraded as super fast trains :-))

    2) If I book ticket from City A for a travel which is NOT originating in City A, I have to pay Rs. 20 extra. Wonder why? 😮

    3) Railways has lots of seats reserved for the zillions of quotas they have and artificially creates demand. Two days before the travel, They release these seats as tatkal BUT charge 150-300 as extra!!!
    4) Pathetic stations, highly unhygienic food courts, stinking toilets… Oh my god!!
    and many more like this!

    But, All I see are consumers hailing this railway budget as “pro-poor” and “landmark” etc. Sad to see netas taking common people for a *literal ride* this time in a train!!


  6. It’s interesting you call “The Hindu”, a misnamed newspaper. It was obviously meant to symbolize the culture. Do you think they would give the paper the same name today, 130 years later? My guess is not, and it saddens me. But we’ll leave that discussion for a different post of yours.


  7. … but the bicycle commute alternative seems more appealing to me because it need not depend at all on central authority for design and implementation (although it may take as much time if not more) it is a project for people… by people.

    …if life design is altered so that the need to move lots of stuff frequently over large distances is reduced.

    in other words, more demand for stuff means much more stuff moving around… accompanied by (and driven by) lots of human unsettlement and resettlement in pursuit of more stuff.

    … but this is both incredibly hard and incredibly easy because it means changing human behaviour. it is incredibly hard when mainstream (read middle class) thought is fascinated with glossy posters of india shining… it is incredibly easy when the same mainstream feels the nasty pinch of falling for a facade instead of focusing on the fundamentals (sound education, un-consumerism and sustainable living, making+running markets well).

    right now we are blissfully living our little pipe dream.


  8. hi aditya

    1. you have yourself nullified your genuinely well-intentioned bicycle “project” proposal by qualifying it with time constraints. we *could* have safe and exclusive cycling paths parallel to the main roads – but this and not subway/railway systems seems utopian to me in india’s context of road infrastructure and requisite land acquistions.

    2. “if life design is altered”. it is better to let this IF materialize on its own or do you harbor stalinist social engineering dreams?

    3. “it is incredibly easy when the same mainstream feels the nasty pinch of falling for a facade instead of focusing on the fundamentals (sound education, un-consumerism…” how are education and public transport mutually exclusive aims? and what is un-consumerism? seriously, enlighten me, the author and others.

    4. the author has expressed his opinion and if you gave the hyperlinks even a perfunctory read – he clearly is not daydreaming, so who are the “we” according to you who are living in their pipe dreams?

    I truly believe that your aims are nice, but I am afraid that your conclusions/suggestions (if any) just seemed to make no sense.


  9. i wanted to title this “harsh lessons 101″… but i won’t…

    1. suggested reading: “Rural Infrastructure & Services Commons”

    2. a person who figures out a way to find local consumption alternatives has in effect redesigned his life… it also creates whole new local economies. nobody has done an energy audit on the life of a toffee wrapper yet so we still don’t know what the real economies of scale are.

    3. believe it or not… good education leads to good public transport and also creates brighter, socially aware consumers. (you may suddenly picture our “baa baa black sheep” system of rote and repeat… but you don’t know about seriously undervalued teaching methods like vigyan ashram and the school of hard knocks)

    4. “we” are all us new-generation toffee-eaters… go figure.

    p.s. if i’ve figured you right… the gujju spin on mba = “mane badhu aawde” 😉


  10. Atanu,

    Why do you insist on keep flying “Indian” even though their service is so bad?

    BTW, would love to meet you when you are down in Bangalore next to discuss your plans for improving the education system with the help of technology.



  11. Aditya…lol. i am not in a position to give lessons, harsh or othwerwise… also, i dont yet know Gujarati but please tell me the meaning of manu badhu aawde…
    1. my bad – i will go through RISC again
    2. once again i will try: “a person who has figured out…”. People respond to incentives. If his office is in the western end of the city, if he lives in the eastern part, if all the cool malls are coming up in the north and if his children’s elite schools are in the south and if the real estate in the center is real expensive – what is he going to do in the short to mid term?
    3. believe it or not a butterfly flapping its wings in china is somwhere correlated to a hurricane in florida… dude, obviously better education leads to better almost everything. but the linkage is certainly not strong enough to suggest a this-or-that when it comes to resource allocation as u insinuated
    4. my bad again – i cant seem to figure out what toffee eaters means, but it would be better if you do not include people you do not know in your generalizations
    cheers 🙂


  12. One thing Lalu deliberately missed in his Budget was allocating funds to Hyderabad’s Metro system (MMTS as it is locally called), thereby killing a form of commute that is just beginning to take root. The media no doubt loves to play up a story of a conman-comedian-politican now masquerading as a businessman.


  13. Why is it that if a PSU makes a profit, its called surplus ? Is profit a pejorative word ? Monopoly or not, IR has the best operating ratio among similar organizations the world over. Is this more skulduggery ?


  14. harsh… the un-consumer is the smart guy/babe (remember education)… who has a very good quality of life and yet avoids being wasteful (recall the toffee wrapper metaphor).

    trust me this is quite possible… although the un-consumer is an endangered species in urban india.


  15. Atanu,

    Good stuff, though I think I have a better pig analogy:
    It’s like trying to mud-wrestle with a pig. There is no point, you get dirty, and the pig enjoys it.

    Atanu’s response: Hooser, you are too late to the party. Check out Mud wrestling with pigs, a post from way back when in Dec 2004. That post concluded with, “Anyway, I struggle on. It is a futile endeavor, like mud-wrestling with a pig—it is a waste of time because you cannot win and the pig enjoys it. Or even, to put it another way, like trying to teach a pig to sing: it cannot be done and it annoys the pig.”


  16. Given the status of public finances, how do you think India could finance IRTS. PPP comes to mind but guidelines for the same are absent.


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