The signing of key agreements at the end of last year on the development of the high-speed network and setting up diesel and electric locomotive factories in the state of Bihar to build 1800 locomotives tell one side of the story, but the other side of the picture is grim. By November, freight and passenger loading figures remained substantially short of budgetary targets, while the operating ratio had climbed to an alarming 97.3%.


In a recent report, the Comptroller and Auditor General highlighted another major concern about IR, noting that the number of accidents had risen by 160% between 2002 and 2013, when the target was to reduce such incidents by 80%.

When railways minister Mr Suresh Prabhu presents the NDA government's second railway budget at the end of February, he faces the unenviable task of balancing IR's immediate problems with the long-term goals of modernising the network and scaling up operations to meet future needs.

Prabhu has made a strong start in this challenging post, shunning the populist culture of past railways ministers by refraining from announcing new passenger trains or projects, while deciding to focus on expanding infrastructure by prioritising capacity enhancements such as track-doubling.

In a bid to accelerate the implementation of projects, Prabhu has devolved financial and administrative powers from the Railway Board to general managers, divisional railways managers and further down the chain of command.
The process of bringing sanctioned projects to implementation has also been shortened from three years to four months. In addition a mechanism on accounting reforms has also been initiated, while a Safety and Tariff Regulator will be appointed.

However, reforms have so far been initiated on a piecemeal basis and are not the outcome of an institutional plan to professionalise IR. After 19 months in office, the NDA government which has an overall majority in the Lok Sabha - India's lower house of parliament - has so far been unable to restructure the Railway Board, a recommendation of several expert committee reports.

When he presents his second budgetary speech next year, will Prabhu come out with a more specific and detailed plan of action to reform and revitalise IR? This is the question everyone wants an answer to in 2016.