Op-Ed Articles by R C Acharya, Part 1

R C Acharya

This is a selection of op-ed pieces by Mr R C Acharya, former Member (Mechanical), Railway Board

Doing a Dr Beeching on Indian Railways!

(This article appeared in The Pioneer, 2002-02-02.)

Nearly 4 decades ago a Dr. Beeching, Chairman of the Chemical and Pharmaceutical giant ICI (Imperial Chemical Industries), was tapped to head the then ailing British Rail with a clear mandate to get it firmly back on the rails. A renowned management expert known for carrying out a similar task at ICI, Dr. Beeching lost no time in identifying the loss making branch lines to be closed down. Like the Indian Railways the British Rail also had been a conglomerate of a number of rail Companies and as such had also ended up having duplicate maintenance facilities. These were also identified and work load rationalised so that economies of scale could be achieved.

While the latter was a relatively easy task, involving local labour unions who appreciated that relocation of workers was a better option to losing their jobs, closing down unremunerative lines was slightly more complicated. Notices had to be issued to city and town councils which were going to be affected by the termination of services, alternative means of transport determined and put in place, before the plan could be given effect to. However inspite of having to face considerable flak from the electorate the political leadership stood by the plan, though in the process Dr. Beeching became the most unpopular man in the shires.

Perhaps taking a page from Dr. Beeching's plan, in 1969 Indian Railways too got around setting up a committee to take a close look at the branch lines, especially the narrow gauge sections most of which had been a legacy of the princely States and had been losing from the day they were commissioned. Definition of a branch line first enunciated by this committee included all narrow gauge lines and such of the broad gauge and Metre gauge lines which join the mainline network at one end only.

Perceived as a status symbol, princely states of Saurashtra, Gwalior, Baroda had opted for their own narrow gauge systems though bigger States such as Mysore and Hyderabad preferred it to be part of the greater meter or broad gauge network, built by major companies viz. Southern Railways or in the case of Hyderabad, the Nizam Railway.

No less than 3 high-level committees have over the years recommended that where alterative modes of transport exist, all such un-economical branch lines should be promptly closed down. Unfortunately the state governments have time and again dragged their feet over closing down a transport facility which they do not have to pay for either to maintain or operate.

In Part XI of their reports on 'Economics' (October 1983), the Railway Reforms Committee had recommended that 40 such lines where adequate alternative road infrastructure are available and 17 such lines in Gujarat where alternative road infrastructure could be developed, should be closed down. In case the State governments did not agree for closure for their own reasons they should be forced to share the losses with the railways on a 50:50 basis.

In 1998-99 no less than 114 un-economic branch lines had incurred a loss of Rs. 328 crores. One year later on there were still 110 such lines, 44 on Broad, 44 on metre and 22 on the narrow gauge, which between them incurred a loss Rs. 348 crores, a loss which with rising staff wages and operating costs is likely to increase with every passing year.

Some of these branch lines range from from the massive 1007 kms. long Satpura section on South Eastern Railways which alone lost a whopping of Rs. 71.6 crores in 1999-2000, making this 'Blue chip' Railway (with the highest revenue) to the top of the league with nearly Rs.140 crores loss, almost 40% of the total loss on un-economic branch lines, to a mere 4 km. long stretch From Kalyani to Simanta.

However since some of the narrow gauge lines pass through mostly backward and less developed regions, leave alone closing them conversion to Broad gauge has been proposed during the last decade. In '92-'93 the 242 kms. long Gondia-Chanda fort section was sanctioned at cost of Rs. 232 crores followed by 285 kms. long Jabalpur-Gondia including Balaghat-Katangi section costing Rs. 386 crores in 1996-97. The day the entire stretch from Jabalpur to Gondia gets commissioned as a Broad gauge line, the Satpura line will no longer feature in the list of uneconomic branch lines, even if it continues to adversely effect South Eastern Railway's bottom line.

Unfortunately there are now enough precedents for any Minister for Railways to please the legislators looking for a mega handout for his or her constituency which has a NG line! No less than 9 NG lines totaling 575 kms. on the Western Railway alone are waiting for a messiah from Gujarat to try and breath life into them, at the cost of the overall health of the IR's 64,000 kms. long network!

Railways' ROR Debacle!

This article also appeared in Business Line - 2002-02-25.

In was in the 1980's that in a misplaced zeal to electrify its trunk routes, the Indian Railways a 1.7 million strong behemoth with annual revenue exceeding Rs.30,000 crores set about justifying a number of multicrore projects. Amongst them two which World Bank had an opportunity to review in its Implementation Completion report in March'95 has brought out classic cases of how widely off the mark, assumed data can sometimes be !

The two projects in question were Jhansi-Itarsi and Balharshah-Vijaywada for which the World Bank has found extremely wide gap between the projected ROR (Rate Of Return) and the actual ROR, though both sections were capable, of and were carrying, heavy volumes of traffic. Interestingly these two projects had been completed with negligible time and cost overruns and delay could not be trotted out as an excuse for some of the skewed performance data.

The World Bank found to their horror that against a projected ROR of 23.4 % for Jhansi-Itarsi section it had yielded a mere 9.0% while Balharshah-Vijaywada section reported an ROR of only 2.0%, almost a twentieth of a whopping projected ROR of 40.4%! While the speed of goods trains had been assumed to reach 36 kmph the post electrification scenario reported only 29 kmph. Actual maintenance costs turned out to be Rs. 7.54 /km as against Rs. 2.2/km, while the energy prices had rocketed from an assumed value of 40 p/kWh to Rs.2.5/kWh, a more than six fold increase!

C.M. Khosla, himself a former Member (Traffic) of the Railway Board, headed the last one in a series of 4 such Committees which have gone into economies of electrification. Known for his pragmatic approach he was assisted by a team of no less than 6 members, consisting of 4 retired from Railways all experts in their respective fields and one each from Policy Analyst Division of TERI, and Planning Commission.

The team went into great detail over the need for an approach adopting break-even level of traffic beyond which scales of economies would justify Electrification. This time honored concept had been given up in favour of Rate Of Return or the ROR almost a decade back, resulting in a very large number of electrification projects finding their way into the long list of unviable schemes which at the last count totaled to a whopping Rs. 36,000 crores ! Some the completed projects have stared showing up very poor financial results which in turn has been affecting financial health of this 1.7 million strong behemoth.

While commenting on the aspect of Project goals being not achieved, Khosla committee has observed that 'rail technologists the world over are unanimous that in the choice between diesel or electric traction, a clear break-even point always exists'. They have also observed that 'IR should revert back to the system when each electrification project is justified on the basis of level of traffic and financial return. More so, when the assumptions made in arriving at the different costs/savings and the propriety of including or excluding some of the costs/savings in the financial evaluation are not always clear.

Khosla committee has also noted that a percept that does not take into account traffic level is neither rational nor desirable. Critical of the past practice where justification for electrification has been based on savings in energy cost which can vary with fluctuations in international petroleum prices and foreign exchange reserves, the committee would like to link it to the quantum of traffic, increase in capacity of through put, better rolling stock utilization, higher speeds, lower maintenance costs, and energy saving as result of improved technology.

The actual standards of performance of the Diesel work horses viz. WDG4 and WDP4, and the Electric equivalents of WAG9 and WAP5 should be taken into consideration when making a comparative assessment of the two systems of traction. Continuing in the same vein the Committee felt that in making such a comparative study some pertinent issues need to be resolved while undertaking a financial evaluation of an electrification project viz. whether to exclude the cost of, electrification of siding, loco sheds for homing locomotives, replacement of overhead electric installation, rehabilitation of electric locomotives, modification of existing signalling gear on account of electrification, etc.

The Committee has found that on account of the long lead time for survey and implementation of such projects, Railways could initiate the techno-economic feasibility surveys when the traffic level of 40 to 45 gmt (gross million tones) or even lower has been achieved depending on the peculiar features of the section concerned, instead of waiting to reach the mandatory break even level of 53.64 gmt per route km. per year. In attempt to put a cap on further projects the Committee has found it necessary to ' allow the position to consolidate, for gaining more experience, and most importantly for studying the financial and operational ramifications in greater detail.'

Realising that Railways are facing an acute financial crunch, and the anticipated growth of traffic would be poor (2.5% in terms of net tonne kms) in the X th. Plan, extreme caution in both capital and revenue expenditure is called for. Committee has also observed that "survival of Indian Railways calls for financial prudence and conservative investment decisions." And recommended that a few of projects already in the pipe line need to be reviewed.

The Committee has found unacceptable the system of incremental planning whereby all electrification projects for a considerable time were initiated by CORE (Central Organisation for Railway Electrification) wherein consultation and discussion with others involved in the activity was totally abridged. They would like the respective Zonal Railways initiating proposals putting an end to a totally centralised planning and execution bereft of the ground realities. One of the long discussed but never seriously considered proposal is to merge the Diesel and Electric locomotive facilities into a single Traction department providing a high level of synergy in one of the most vital area of Rail Transport.

With the Railway Budget on hand only time will tell whether the well thought and well-reasoned report would be brought down from Rail Bhavan's dusty shelves!

New Zones of Crises

(This article appeared in the Business Standard, 2002-07-09.)

Railways is all about the 'long haul'. Its unique strength lies in not only the economies of scale achieved through bulk transport, be it goods or passengers, but its ability to provide a seamless and assured transport over innumerable state boundaries. The advent of IT age has now ushered in an era of command and control over its far flung operational areas from a single central point.

The over two decade old re-organisation of 25,000 miles network of Union Pacific Railroad (UPR) in United States has become an oft quoted case study for the students of management trying to figure out pros and con of de-centralization versus centralization. Faced with mounting losses and financial constraints the UPR decided to make the most of its unique geographical location viz. straddling the east-west corridor.

In a major revamping of its systems it decided to place all it eggs in one basket, at Omaha in the state of Nebraska to be exact viz. from where streams of orders went electronically, instantly obeyed and compliance confirmed within seconds, setting in motion transport of thousands of train loads and their precious cargo, which had to be picked up and delivered to precise schedules if they had to be one up over the highly organized road sector.

A 200' wide wall of TV monitors covers each and every station of the UPR's network at its Centralised Train Control System located at Omaha enabling its operatives to keep tabs on all train movements, while the Marketing effort is carried out from its offices in St.Louis. Predictably the higher efficiencies and faster response time arising from a centralized facility have contributed substantially to UPR's bottom line over the years.

In August 1947 India had inherited from the British no less than 42 big and small railway systems in operation. A well thought out reorganization exercise, with a clear cut objective to reduce unnecessary overheads, duplication of facilities, and most importantly eliminate problems associated with co-ordination between various systems, resulted in the then Hon'ble Minister, N. Goplaswamy Ayyangar favouring formation of 6 zones. K.C.Bakhle the then Commissioner of Railways (equivalent to the present Chairman Railway Board) a true blue seasoned Railway man thought otherwise (certainly better than the poor politician) and suggested 9 zones. He quit in a huff when his proposal was not acceded to.

Over the years innumerable committees have pored over this subject, a significant step being taken by the Railway Reforms Committee headed by H.C. Sarin, a seasoned bureaucrat who ended up being India's ambassador to Nepal. His committee produced no less than 25 volumes on various aspects of Railway working spread over a period of nearly 4 years culminating in 'Synopsis', the 26th. volume making its appearance in April 1985.

No less than 22 sub-committees under the Chairmanship of mostly retired railway officials were involved in this Herculean effort. Being aware of the complexities the committee recommended formation of ONLY FOUR Zones, that too spread over three phases, the Phase I involving only TWO zones!

The first zone proposed consisted of most of the meter gauge sections carved out from Northern and Western Railways with headquarters at Ajmer. This was the MG network of system of erstwhile B.B.&.C.I., (Bombay Baroda and Central India Rly.) a private company now known as the Western Railway. Ajmer was the headquarters for the meter gauge system for all purposes though it still reported to the BBCI's headquarters at Churchgate in Mumbai.

The second zone was proposed to be carved out of the sprawling Central and South Eastern Railways with headquarters at Jabalpur. The 2nd and 3rd phases involved setting up of 2 new zones with headquarters at Allahabad and Bangalore respectively. While no time frame had been given it was generally understood that the reorganisation was to be deliberate and well thought out, planned in detail, and a carefully executed exercise spread over a couple of decades if not more.

The committee was however emphatic in its observation that ethnic, linguistic, territorial or such other considerations should not be taken into account while considering formation of new zones/divisions and reorganization of territorial jurisdiction of the existing ones. They also noted that such an exercise would involve considerable expenditure and every possible effort should be should be made to keep the number of additional zones/divisions to the bare minimum.

Immediately on taking over as the Minister for Railways, Ram Vilas Paswan, the shrewd politician that he is, lost no time in digging out this report. He knew the tremendous political mileage he could gain in one stroke by announcing 6 new zones in one go, and that's what he did one a fateful morning in 1996. The two new Zones he conjured up of course included Hajipur, his own constituency and Bhubaneshwar to please his Janata Party colleagues.

Fortunately funds constraints and continued poor performance of Railways discouraged successive Ministers from undertaking this expensive exercise which by now with massive gauge conversion, introduction of end-to-end running of block rakes, and enhanced communication network has become somewhat redundant.

However over the last decade or so no less than a dozen new divisions have already appeared on the Railway map taking care of any logistics shortcomings if any. Though faced with growing financial constraints Nitish Kumar unfortunately has once again succumbed to political pressures and now decided to make Paswan's dream a reality, hoping perhaps to gain considerable mileage on his own !

Good management practice dictates a span of control of not more than seven or eight. Konkan Railway with headquarters at Goa is set to join the IR system as the 16th. zone, when its 10 year mandatory pay back period is over. However even before that a stage is already set for another reorganisation, this time may be of the Railway Board which will now have to cope with not only the 15 zones but also the 6 major Production Units, 21 General Managers in all! Perhaps regrouping the 15/16 Zonal Railways as North, East, West and South sectors would be the next logical step to maintain an effective span of control and delegate responsibility for decision making.

However the important question is not whether such an exercise of reorganisation is inescapable or not, but whether the Railways can afford to indulge in the luxury of proliferation of overheads and power centres, spending scarce resources on creation of non-performing assets such as brand new office buildings, staff quarters and other supporting infrastructure etc. Unfortunately the political leadership in India, which ever party they may be from, can seldom see beyond their immediate gains and are only too happy to hand out populist goodies with never a thought for the long term impact their actions may have.

Sarin committee's specific objective that redistribution of staff and other support systems from the existing zonal headquarters from which the new zones are proposed to be carved out, is likely to remain elusive! No doubt the 6 new posts of General Managers and scores of Head of Departments and other supporting staff will open up avenues of promotion, create new jobs and lead to large scale induction of personnel from the beneficiary states. However it is ultimately the common man who will end up picking the tab, through the annual ritual of enhanced freight tariff and passenger fares, popularly known as the Railway Budget!

The exercise basically involving re-distribution of the same piece of cake has, as expected, left some of the Chief Ministers sore over transfer of certain divisions to new zones. Apart from adding to overheads and becoming a constant drain on Railway's finances, the exercise is not likely to generate any new freight or passenger traffic. Far from improving its managerial capabilities the number of zones enhanced from 9 to 15 would only make the Railway Board's task of coordinating the vast 62,000 kms. network far more complex!

With Hajipur in Bihar, Hubli (not Bangalore) in Karnataka, Jaipur in Rajsthan, Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh and Bhubaneswar in Orissa, a stage is now set for the remaining ststes including Manipur to clamour for its own piece of cake, a brand new Rly. Zone with its headquarters preferably located in the state Capital where the Chief Minister could summon the erring General Manager and show him who is the boss!

Indian Railways are still struggling to cope with the Rs. 35,000 crores worth of backlog of projects and with the total disruption in smooth working which the new zones promises to bring in its wake, the 1.7 million behemoth may soon become a basket case. That of course is perhaps going to be some one else's problem, or is it?

Railways: The Folly of Hajipurization

(This article appeared in Business Line, 2002.)

Victory at last! Nitish has carved for himself a niche in the history books for enhancing the already bloated babudom of Indian Railways, a wasteful exercise which the Railway Board mandarins themselves are not enthusiastic about. Arguments that creation of new zones is akin to bifurcation of states for better administration simply do not wash since Railways' primary task is transport and not maintaining law and order. Basic units viz. the divisions are already in place -- more than 60 of them, and new zones would only create more confusion and loss of operating efficiency, at a time when consolidation of it myriad activities and down sizing needs to be accorded top priority.

In a major move which will cast its shadow on the Indian economy for years to come, the Cabinet has now decided to stand by the '96 and '98 decisions to create 7 new rail zones, taking the total from 9 to 16 . Unfortunately the whole issue became clouded as a Nitish-Mamata spat on the bifurcation of the Eastern Railway, in which the NDA had but to side with Nitish. In the process the folly of balkanization, or now popularly known as Hajipurisation of the Indian Railways took a back seat.

In the long history of the Railways contribution, perhaps only a handful of Railway Ministers is worth a mention. Starting with N. Gopalaswamy Ayyangar who took charge as the first ever Minister and reorganized the motley collection of 42 Railway systems into 6 zones (increased a few years later to 9), we had T.A. Pai who in the very short tenure earnestly set about getting the nation's economic life line to work on commercial lines.

Madhu Dandawate went out of his way to ensure that Railways' immense resources were not misused. The list ends with the late Madhav Rao Scindia who in the late '80s took the 1.7 million strong behemoth to scale new heights of performance and efficiency, including introducing for the first time ever the concept of Inter-City trains. Rest of the dozen or so who adorned the Minister's chair in Rail Bhavan, were acutely aware of the complexity of the organisation and wisely allowed the system to function with as little interference as possible. Knowing fully well the vital role the Railways was playing, and would continue to play for years to come in the nation's economic growth, they had refrained from using its vast resources for their personal gains or as a vehicle for building up their popularity base. That is until a decade back when the indomitable Jaffer Sharief took over the reigns.

He set about putting to optimum use the vast resources, financial and otherwise, to push through some of his pet projects. Thus was born the bottom less pit known as the project 'Unigauge' under which a herculean task of converting over 25,000 kms. of meter to broad gauge was taken up! Suresh Kalmadi who followed Sharief's ignominious exit was quite happy creating a new division at Pune and left the Railway Board mandarins much to themselves to run things as they deemed fit. But in '96 within a few weeks of his assuming charge of world's largest Railways Ram Vilas Paswan knew that he had struck gold when his able aids dug up the H.C.Sarin report of 1985.

The report mentioned the possibility of forming 4 new zones. Never mind if it had not been accepted then, or years later rejected by parliamentary committees, and the CAG, Paswan immediately announced creation of a brand new zone in his constituency viz. Hajipur, even though it had nowhere been in the reckoning in the Sarin report. Perhaps to justify his action five more zones were created in quick succession with headquarters at Jabalpur, Jaipur, Allahabad, Bhubaneswar, Bangalore, pleasing no end his political allies in these states.

In '98 the shrewd Nitish Kumar lost no time in blowing the whistle and putting on record through his now famous 'Status Paper' and later on a 'White Paper' on the Railways tabled on the floor of the Lok Sabha, highlighting the sad state of its finances created by his worthy predecessors. A huge back log of Rs. 35,000 crores worth of projects, mostly un-remunerative, faced the cash strapped organization. It amply justified his inability to oblige his political allies when they approached him with their long list of populist demands. Mamata Banerjee was quite content with keeping the new zones issue on the back burner, knowing fully well the financial constraints and the fact that they would neither generate more traffic nor improve efficiency.

Staging a come back last year Nitish found it prudent to keep quite till last month, when perhaps under pressure from the states who had been promised the goodies 6 years back, and realising that he may have to bow out in 2004, he threw all caution to winds and announced that the New Zones would be functional within the next few months. Opinion of the Rakesh Mohan committee which had last year found creation of new zones 'of dubious value' and the Railway Board's own recorded minutes in which it had given a thumbs down to the scheme, were simply brushed aside.

It is a decision which is fraught with serious implications as a long list of States, including heavy weights such as Gujarat, Punjab, Kerala, Jharkhand, Haryana are waiting in the wings to press their own claims. Not a very happy augury for the next decade, leave alone the next 150 years!

Hopefully wiser counsels would prevail, placing the fate of the nation's economic and industrial life line in hands of the likes of Arun Shourie who in his very brief tenure has successfully master minded the extremely complex task of disinvestment. May be because he has no axe to grind, no political allies to please, or simply because he is a political 'rookie'. Railways could also considerably gain by plugging into this intellectual power house, to recharge their almost defunct batteries, and make an honest attempt at looking beyond their nose!

The 'Pink Book' Syndrome

(This article appeared in the Business Standard, 2002.)

The recent accident of Rajdhani express in Bihar, though reportedly as a result of an act of sabotage has once again placed a question mark on adequacy of safety inputs being organized by Railways. Of course the question of who is responsible will be eventually decided by the Commissioner of Railway Safety but translating ideas into action is perhaps the most crucial part of any administrative or management process.

On paper though Railways does it admirably well, in fact too well. How? It does so with a couple of thick volumes called the 'Pink Book', (since the cover page is invariably of Pink colour) that are placed on the floor of the house along with the Railway Budget.

The yearly plan for Railway's growth is spelt out in great financial detail and given its importance, replacement of the permanent way viz. track and repairs to bridges etc. forms an first of many chapters. Once the Rail Budget is passed, the 'Pink Book' becomes the bible authorizing expenditure on various heads of accounts.

If it is not in the 'Pink Book' it does not get done or made, - and conversely if it is there no one can take it out either since this is a document which has the approval of both the Lok and Rajya Sabha. Understandably it also has token amounts allotted against thousands of projects which on account of severe financial constraints the Railways has no means of completing in the next decade or so!

Herein lies the key to all problems facing this 1.7 million strong behemoth which has over the last one decade been burdened with Projects worth Rs. 35,000 crores which are still in the pipe line. The indomitable Jaffer Sharief followed by Suresh Kalmadi, Ram Vilas Paswan, Mamata Banerjee and Nitish Kumar have all contributed their little bit in conceding populist demands from the legislators, inevitably resulting in the plethora of projects, forcing Rakesh Mohan to comment rather strongly in his report: 'From the view of investment strategy, the most undesirable feature of the annual budget exercise is the very short-term focus it imparts on all investment activities.'

He has further added, 'The priority of IR is to invest in the Golden Quadrilateral linking Delhi-Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai. Instead of de-bottlenecking, IR is being forced against its wishes to invest in initiatives that make matters worse, no better. About half of the capital fund has been absorbed in gauge conversion which has produced no discernible performance improvement.

New lines have absorbed 20 to 30% of borrowed Capital, only to increase IR's reach into areas where there is little or no traffic, at a time when un-remunerative lines should have been closed in order to free resources to liberate those arteries clogged with traffic.

Finally Rakesh Mohan has noted that 'The hard headed conclusion is that the Railway Works Programme (viz. the Pink Book) has lost focus over the last decade and is on the way of becoming an autonomous process with little connection with organized aims or resource limitations. The prevailing structure has served well in a captive market and planning needs associated with it. In a changing scenario brought about by the economic reforms, IR is now in a competitive environment where there is need to bring in customer orientation at the project framing stage itself.'

Soon after assuming the mantle of the Minister for Railways, Nitish Kumar was hailed as the first ever luminary to bring transparency in decision making, when in June '98 he placed on the floor of the Lok Sabha a 'White Paper' which laid bare the financial burden facing IR, listing all the Projects which featured in the 'Pink Book'.

The committee was however emphatic in its observation that ethnic, linguistic, territorial or such other considerations should not be taken into account while considering formation of new zones/divisions and reorganization of territorial jurisdiction of the existing ones. They also noted that such an exercise would involve considerable expenditure and every possible effort should be should be made to keep the number of additional zones/divisions to the bare minimum.

It was emphasized that the total burden of Rs. 35,000 crores would take no less than 35 years for them to be completed going by the current trend of yearly allocation. Of course these also included the 70 new lines mentioned by Rakesh Mohan in his report which if and when completed would remain un-remunerative for years to come!

While Nitish Kumar managed to avoid adding to the already long list of projects by observing a Works Programme holiday for a year he could not repeat the trick next year and succumbed to a host of populist demands from the legislators. A proposal for review of the long list of projects in the pipeline has also been kept in the cold storage since last 4 years, for Nitish or for that matter no Minister worth his salt would find it politically expedient to annoy his colleagues by jetissoning their pet projects.

However it required a person of the caliber of late Madhav Rao Scindia to do it, when he reviewed a long list of pending works and dropped about a couple of dozen of them, of course with Cabinet's approval. Perhaps the sponsoring legislators were promised some other goodies of equal if not better value to them, such as stopping a Super-fast express at a way side station, obviously a much cheaper option for the Railways!

Inadequate level of maintenance inputs on the British Rail privatized by Margaret Thatcher more than a decade ago has led to a number of serious train accidents, last one being at Potters Bar on 10th. May '02 claiming 7 lives and injuring about 70 passengers. The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) equivalent to our own CRS (Commissioner of Railway Safety) found no evidence of any sabotage.

Now in a major reversal of the privatisation policy 'Railtrack' will shortly become 'Network Rail', a non-profit body with a 500 million government backed buy-out. Reportedly Railtrack's debt of about 7.1 billion together with a 9 billion bridging loan from nine banks and a 4 million emergency back up fund will also be guaranteed by the government.

Back home a one time grant of Rs 15,000 crores recently announced by the PM to be spent over the next 5 years, including Rs. 3000 for repair and replacement of about 500 highly distressed old bridges may be too little too late!

However even now a total review of the 'Pink Book' by a group of Ministers, who would put their political stamp of approval on the list of projects prioritised by the Railway Board, could salvage the situation enabling Railways to go ahead with tasks which need to be done right away. In the process it would contribute to restoring the confidence level of the traveling public in Railway's capability of reaching them to their destination in one piece, preferably!

See for more op-ed articles by Mr Acharya.