On the right track! History repeats itself

I have always wondered why do we have a railway budget? Indian railways is just another state-owned enterprise, owned and operated by the Government of India; there are other such institutions too but none have a minster and a budget presentation. One obvious answer is of course the sheer size of the budget — annual outlay for 2014-15 is Rs. 65,445 crore. But other than just the sheer budget size is there a reason for the budget to be presented in the Parliament with the whole country keenly watching it? Any idea? 

The rail budget of 2014-15, had a few firsts to its credit:

  • Presented by a BJP member; although BJP led the NDA government in the past no BJP member has actually presented a railway budget.
  • Plan to have India’s first bullet train
  • FDI investment is mooted for the railways; so was Private Public partnerships.
  • Allocation for cleanliness increased to 40% — an all time high; something that we consider necessary but are not ready to invest in it.
  • Fare to be linked to fuel cost.
  • Ready-to-eat meals and food court at stations with regional cuisine onboard; wonderful isn’t?
  • Coin-operated automatic ticket vending machines
  • Mobile-based destination arrival alert.
  • Mobile-based wake-up call system; how many times have we missed a station whose arrival time was 3.00 AM? This wake-up system should be extended to relatives of travelers also, so that they are aware we have arrived at the station!
  • For the first time, the focus has been to provide facilities or enhanced facilities to the customer. Railways is no longer a facility to dole out soaps or cater to fancy of a party or its representative, but is seen as an engine of growth — an infrastructure entity that needs to be revitalized.

I googled to figure out if railways has always been seen as a social initiative or did it at any point be a commercial venture catering to the needs of customers and businesses. It looks like we have come a full circle!

Indian Railways vows its origin to the need of East India Company traders who felt the need to have a transportation infrastructure in place that caters to their business needs.

According to Wikipedia, a plan for rail system in India was first put forward in 1832, and the first rail line of the Indian sub-continent came up near Chintadripet Bridge (presently in Chennai) in Madras Presidency in 1836 as an experimental line.  In 1837, a 5.6 km long rail line was established between Red Hills and stone quarries near St. Thomas Mount. The reason? To move material more efficiently to the port in Madras; it was an infrastructure requirement.

By the way, you may have read that the first train service in India was between Mumbai and Thane; so, have I got my facts wrong? No, the train between Mumbai and Thane was the first passenger service and not the first rail line; it was launched on 16 April 1853, covering a distance of 34 kilometres; it was hauled by three locomotives, Sahib, Sindh, and Sultan!!! We used to name the locomotive back then 🙂

In 1844, the Governor-General of India, Lord Hardinge, allowed private entrepreneurs to set up a rail system in India. Although  Mr. Sadananda Gowda does not explicitly mention that private cos may set up rail system, he has mooted the idea of private participation in Indian railways. So, it is a 170 year old idea!!! We should probably commemorate the platinum jubilee in 2019.

By 1900, there were multitude of companies and native states who had invested in the railways and had their own rail network; this changed in 1900 — the government initiated taking over the rail network, which was askin to nationalization of banks that India did in 1969. The nationalization was complete by 1923 when the government took over both the ownership and management control of the companies. And by the way for the first in its history, the railways made a profit in 1905!

Something interesting to note is even today there are still rail lines that are owned and operated by non-state parties.

The Mumbai Port Trust runs a broad gauge railway of its own; so  does the Madras Port Trust, Calcutta Port Trust, and the Visakhapatnam Port Trust. The Bhilai Steel Plant has a broad gauge railway network; the Tatas operate funicular (cable railway)railways at Bhira. The Pipavav Rail Corporation holds a 33-year concession for building and operating a railway line from Pipavav to Surendranagar. The Kutch Railway Company, a joint venture of the Gujarat state government and private parties, is involved (along with the Kandla Port Trust and the Gujarat Adani Port) to build a Gandhidham–Palanpur railway line.

It is interesting to note that all these railway lines are principally used to carry freight and not for passenger traffic.

On an end note, I still cannot figure out why do we have a platform ticket? You pay for an amenity. Why am I expected to pay to enter a platform and say bye to my relative or a friend who is travelling? Is spending some time with the traveler in a station an amenity? I cannot figure out what the person who introduced it thought and why we still continue it.


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