Till not very long ago, even ministers and business leaders used to travel by train. Not any longer. What to talk of the elite, anyone who can afford air travel, never takes a train which is ironical given the fact that the entire focus of the railway administration appears to be on improving passenger amenities.

However, there is a vast disconnect between what the passengers want from the railways and what the railway administration thinks that passengers expect from train travel. Passengers would be satisfied if they were assured of a punctual and safe journey while the railways believe that passengers would be more interested in peripheral facilities like free wi-fi.

There are a number of short-haul routes like Mumbai-Pune, Bengaluru-Chennai where trains reach faster than planes, of course after considering the check-in time and the time taken to and from the airport. Yet the number of air travellers on these routes is increasing which speaks volumes about the quality of services the railways offer.

Overall, too, the railways have fared poorly with an operating ratio of 111.51 per cent in the previous quarter of the current year, which means that the railways spent Rs 111.51 for every Rs 100 earned. Almost 30 per cent of the trains are late every day and derailments are on the risedespite a massive track repair exercise.

Indian Railways have a long history; established by the British to manage their Indian Empire, the Railways soon became the lifeline of the country. At the time of Independence, different sections of the rail network were run profitably by different private companies; for example, the GIP Railway preceded the Central Railway and Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway metamorphosed into the Western Railway.

After Independence, it was quite another story. From a profitable commercial enterprise Indian Railways became a Government department mutating, in no time, to a meal train for politicians. Armies of youth were given jobs in the railways on political considerations, trains were started from the Rail Minister’s constituency, ticketless travel was ignored.

At the same time hardly, any investment was made in proper maintenance of tracks and rolling stock or on improving railway infrastructure. Almost no new routes were commissioned. The result was a creaky and outdated railway system with a poor record of safety and punctuality.

A comparison with China would be instructive. In 1949, China had only about one-third of our track length but today China’s track length is double of ours. China has 25,000 km of high-speed tracks where trains run at 350 km per hour. China is now running freight trains right up to Madrid while we don’t run trains even up to Nepal.

The Rail Museum in Delhi is symptomatic of the callous attitude and lack of vision that pervades all echelons of the Indian Railways. Iconic train engines, which are an invaluable national heritage, are stabled in the open, at the mercy of the elements. No one is there to answer your questions. Marketed better, the Rail Museum could be a big draw for train enthusiasts.

Probably, nothing can restore the lost glory of Indian Railways but surely an effort could be made to get commensurate returns from our investment in therailway infrastructure. According to experts, passenger traffic is almost always a losing proposition for the railways but swayed by a need to play to the gallery, the Indian Railways prioritises passenger traffic over goods traffic.

If you compare the fare for Rajdhani AC 2 Tier or AC First Class between metro cities you would find that railway fares are slightly more than the airfare for the same date. The time taken by trains is of course much more. Add to it the unhygienic condition of trains and railway stations plus the risk of reaching late and you would easily understand why trains are the last option for premium passengers.

The problem is that ostrich-like, the railways refuses to acknowledge that they would never regain the loyalty of this segment of passengers. It would be much better for both passengers and railway finances if trains are run with only AC-3 tier and Sleeper Class coaches.

Then, neglect of basics has to end. Over the years, the Railways had promised to replace un-manned crossings by manned ones. Whenever, a mishap occurs the promise is reiterated but the situation on the ground remains the same.

Similar is the story of foot overbridges. Last year, after a horrific tragedy in Mumbai which left 22 passengers dead the Railways promised a complete audit of all foot overbridges. However, a similar tragedy took place in Mumbai within one year.

Track inspection and renewal is another unfinished task which directly impinges on safety. Punctuality appears to be a completely neglected virtue.

The CAG, in a report tabled in Parliament on 7 August 2018 observed that “The station development/redevelopment plans mainly address on facilities for the passengers on the station premises and facade of stations only and not on removing constraints and bottlenecks for ensuring timely arrival and departure of trains to/from the stations, which should be one of the most important parameters of the quality of service being provided to the passengers.”

According to the CAG, most railway stations did not have enough platforms to accommodate the trains passing through them which resulted in delays yet the Rs.1 lakh crore station redevelopment plan did not address this problem or the problem of insufficient washing pit lines and stabling lines.

A number of high-level committees have studied the functioning of the Indian Railways, the latest being the Bibek Debroy Committee but hardly any of their suggestions have been implemented. Studying the Debroy Committee report, one finds that almost the entire emphasis of their suggestions is for structural reforms at the topmost level.

One feels that instead of reforms at the top and nit picking over who reports to whom, the basis of any reform has to be the fruitful utilisation of the humungous railway workforce exceeding 13 lakh men and women. In view of rapid technological changes, work responsibilities have to be revised at all levels.

Demoralised railwaymen have to be enthused. Accountability has to be fixed for all. To increase focus on core activities, peripheral activities like running of schools and hospitals, has to be curtailed. Misplaced priorities have to be corrected. For example, the proposed investment of Rs.1 lakh crore in the bullet train, which may have few takers, could better be utilised in improving the existing railway infrastructure.

When I was a child train journeys were like long picnics which one wished would never end. Robert Louis Stevenson described such magical journeys perfectly in “From a Railway Carriage”:

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Not any longer. I only wish that my train journey gets over and I reach home as quickly as possible.

The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax.