IF anyone has the chance to yank Indian Railways (IR) out of its current troubles, it is its current chairman, Mr Ashwani Lohani. Unlike his predecessors, he has held leadership roles outside the railway, having been chairman and managing director of Air India, chairman and managing director of the India Tourism Development Corporation, and managing director of the Madhya Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (MPTDC). More importantly, he has succeeded at reviving the flagging fortunes of the organisations he has headed; having earned the sobriquet of being the “turnaround man.”

Ashwani Lohani CMD Air IndiaIn 2016, the government decided to end the practice of presenting a separate rail budget in parliament. But Lohani says the rail budget has in fact always been a part of the main budget. “To that extent, there is not much of a difference, but there is less pressure now from Members of Parliament for more trains or stoppages. To that extent, it is less cumbersome.”

Several committees of experts have discussed reforming IR management structure, and Lohani accepts that reforms are needed in order to scale up operations to meet future needs. “I am working on process reforms, as well as structural and culture reforms,” he says. “As part of process reforms, powers have and continue to be delegated. Financial sanctions for the divisional railway managers (DRMs), for example, has been increased to Rs 1bn ($US 15.5m), up from the earlier Rs 200m, and they have also been empowered to take decisions to set up goods sheds or employ medical professionals on contract. They will also have the powers to provide multi-utility vehicles to supervisors and take decisions on staff transfers.

“Earlier, such decisions had had to be taken by the zonal headquarters and IR’s 17 zones had had their separate schedule of powers. This has now been replaced by a model schedule of power.

“General managers, meanwhile, have been empowered to take all decisions relating to safety, while the DRMs have the authority to take administrative and financial decisions concerning passenger amenities.

“As part of structural reforms, gazetted officers were recently posted as station directors at 75 A-1 category stations. Two, three or even four assistant divisional railway managers (ADRMs) have now been stationed in the divisions. Up to now, only one ADRM had to juggle between the multifarious tasks of managing a division.

“I have also been working on transforming the work culture. Instructions have been issued to all zones and divisions as well as the railway board, on not accepting bouquets of flowers, greeting cards or boxes of sweets. It is high time that IR’s feudal culture is put to bed.”

Another change afoot is the way IR is funded. Lohani says IR will be increasingly looking at private and foreign investments to fulfil its modernisation agenda.

“The station development plan is one of the biggest public-private partnership (PPP) projects launched by IR,” Lohani says. “In order to become an attractive investment destination, IR is working at tweaking policies and guidelines. In the months and years ahead, the new policies will begin to show results.”

“IR is also working towards instituting a long-term procurement policy, and a policy in this regard has already been issued for the zonal railways. This will be extended to the production units as well in the coming days. Such measures will help perk-up rail finances.”

IR constitutes a big component of prime minister Mr Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” plan. Lohani says the two biggest PPP projects, the electric and diesel locomotive factories at Madehpura and Marhoura, are progressing well. “The first 8.9MW electric locomotive will arrive in India in February. After years of neglect, IR is finally getting its due share of investments, and there is big excitement on this count. The suppliers - the domestic industry - have been rising to the challenges.”

Despite IR’s best attempts to behave like a commercial enterprise, it is still required to offer train fares at extremely low rates and provide sufficient services to meet demand as part of its social responsibility. As Lohani confirms, it is up to the politicians to decide whether to increase train fares.

However, it is a different story for freight where Lohani says IR is working at ways to increase freight volumes. “Dwarf containers, which were inaugurated last January, will be proliferated in the months to come,” Lohani says. “Such double stack containers are capable of carrying 60% more volume compared with the traditional containers that are currently in use.

Safety has emerged as a big concern in India in recent months and Lohani says funds are not a constraint to solving these issues. “Maintenance of infrastructure and assets is my highest priority,” he says. “We are working on a multi-pronged approach: procurement of advanced technology, better training of employees, and use of good quality rolling stock. Improvements in these areas will become visible in the next few months.”

Plans to set up a Rail Development Authority (RDA), which have been under consideration for some time, appear to be making progress. “Hopefully, the RDA will be set up in the first quarter of 2018,” Lohani says. “The body will advise IR on fares revision, and it will also seek to arbitrate possible disputes between private investors and Indian Railways.”

New lines

Construction of India’s two new freight railways, the 1856km Ludhiana - Dankuni Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC) and the 1504km Dadri (near Delhi) to Mumbai Western Dedicated Freight Corridor, has been painfully slow, since they were first announced in 2005 and approved in 2008, but the end now appears to be in sight, with considerable progress achieved in recent months. By October next year, the 351km section from Khurja to Kanpur of the Western DFC will become operational. The Eastern DFC will be completed in March 2020, while September 2020 has been set as the deadline for the completion of the Western DFC.

Unfazed by the difficulties in building the two DFCs, India is now embarking on its first high-speed rail project. Construction of the 508km Mumbai - Ahmedabad high-speed line was inaugurated in September 2017 by Modi and his Japanese counterpart Mr Shinzo Abe. “This signature project of Indian Railways is now on the fast lane,” Lohani says. “A team of about 100 Japanese engineers has arrived and are working on adapting Shinkansen technology to Indian conditions. Issues such as steel and concrete corrosion on account of the region’s salty and humid conditions are key challenges that need to be tackled.

“The Joint Venture will need to take place across several sectors including civil and track work, signalling systems, electronics and rolling stock manufacturing and urban development. Japanese officials are also supervising work on setting up a high-speed research and development institute at Vadodra in Gujarat.

“Civil works will begin next year. While the project has a 2023 deadline, the Indian prime minister has expressed a desire that it gets completed in 2022, and IR is confident about meeting the new completion targets.”

In common with many railways, IR has been analysing for some time how it can benefit from digitalisation. “We have been experimenting with various predictive analytics systems,” Lohani explains. “Systems such as Religent (Siemens), Predix (GE), Health Hub (Alstom) and Avis (Bombardier) are being looked at.

“The aim is to deploy such technologies to bring about improvements in the throughput and efficiency of IR’s assets. These experiments are at a premature state, but IR will certainly be heading in the direction of digitisation in the months and years to come.”

IR is a huge organisation, almost like a state within a state, so achieving almost anything is often a slow and at times painful process. Nevertheless, both the government and Lohani appear determined to finally implement the change IR so badly needs.