An article in the Indian Express caught my eye yesterday. It talked about the Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi seeking government assistance for the cash-strapped railways. Before we dismiss this as another instance of a mismanaged institution asking for bailout from the government and utter the privatization-word, one needs to consider the enormous social importance of the state-owned railways. That the railways are absolutely vital to the nation's all-round growth is undeniable. I, for one, am a big fan of the railways, even given all the dirty compartments, over-crowded stations et al. A train journey is an experience in itself which air travel cannot hope to match. I fondly remember the 24-hr journey from Mumbai to Bangalore nearly a decade ago. As the Udyan Express halted along the way, one was exposed to a microcosm of India with all its varied cultural hues. By contrast, air travel is just so non-happening !.
Now, when one considers the fact that the passenger fares have not been raised for nearly a decade (alteast I cannot remember the last time they were raised), you can only imagine the financial plight of the railways. Populist measures by successive railway ministers have ensured that the revenue stream is reduced to a trickle, when, at the same time, the salaries of the employees (and the railways has over a million and a half on its rolls) increases with successive pay commission implementation. And when someone like a Dinesh Trivedi wants to introduce dynamic pricing in the forthcoming Rail Budget (though it remains to be seen how beneficial it is in a scenario where demand far outstrips the supply), he is scuttled by his own boss and his predeccessor at Rail Bhavan, the honourable Ms. Mamta Banerjee. Its high time that the Government realizes that introducing new superfast Durontos and giving sops to the home state of the Rail minister is not the way of improving its quality of offering. Today, a large proportion of the customer base of the Railways can afford to, and I daresay is willing, to pay extra in return for cleaner stations, tamper-proof reservation system and punctual schedules. The success of IRCTC proves that improvement is very much possible. Hope the Government and Mr. Trivedi rises to the challenge (though with the Congress-TMC relations under strain, it may be a matter of time before Dinesh Trivedi is replaced by another populist politician ! ;-( . I, for one, would be keenly watching.