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Railways and Prabhu traveling at Goods Train speed

Dr. P Pullarao

Recently Railway Minister received a widely publicized  snub from the Prime Minister’s office.  The PMO  pointed out that the Railway Ministry was not spending the money allotted to it in the  budget and this  led to slow economic growth and also higher costs of projects. Actually, it was a soft snub . But the  obvious message was that Mr. Prabhu talked a lot and did little. When Suresh Prabhu  took over as Railway Minister from the  in-effective Sadananda   Gowda, the PM expected a fast track action drama. Instead, there been a torrent of words.


Admittedly, the problems of the railways are difficult and no man can solve them within a short span of time.  But Prabhu portrayed the situation as one of simply throwing enough money and the problems would solve themselves.

Reacting to the snub from the PMO, there have been sympathetic stories in the world media recently.  Various heads of financial institutions in Mumbai have been praising the new modes of funding which Railway Minister has introduced. Actually, the easy part for the railways is to borrow money.  Any bank will lend money to the railways. The hard part is what the railways will spend it on. The way Railway Minister Parbhu   has been speaking is nothing short of expecting a magical transformation of the railways.


The other stories in the media relate to the new way that contracts are going to be given and that Zonal Managers can award contracts without going to the Railway Board. It has also been highlighted that 71 major projects were mentioned in the last Budget and railways are focusing on them. Of course, it is a great change that Railways are attempting to complete projects. That itself is a major change which Prabhu has brought to the railways. Definitely, Prabhu is trying for a new work ethic in the railways.


But the major weakness seems to be that Prabhu has to understand that two kinds of changes are  needed in the  railways. The first change is relief and efficiency in the short term. Those small steps which will make a major difference are missing. There is no plan to effect and ensure small changes mediately. Such small changes would  have meant that Railway Minister Prabhu has brought change.


Talking about big plans is needed. But the public sees no change.  Railway Minister has had nearly 15 months. Visible changes are not there. It would be better for the Railway Minister to have two plans. There has to be a rigorous implementation of small changes in the railways.


The Chinese railway model must be carefully sized up:


Prabhu has got a little carried away by the possibilities of mega projects. But we must also keep the Chinese economic faltering in mind. The Chinese railways were a great show piece of China. Their bullet trains and other achievements did cause wonder. But now with the Chinese economic slowdown, many errors in the railways have come out. China may be able to afford such errors. Burt India cannot.


We should take the best from the Chinese   railway achievements. But we cannot imitate the Chinese railways. Thousands of miles of track were laid without any assessment of demand.

The single objective of the Chinese railways was simply to achieve objectives without assessing their need. Though the Chinese railways laid thousands of miles of new track, the immense seasonal rush and the in-capacities of the Chinese railways are legendary.  The Chinese railways achievements have to be seen along with the obvious defects. A Bullet train covers up many defects. The Chinese railways had a series of major accidents recently. These accidents are also a lesson for India.


The Chinese also spent extravagantly on prestige projects in the railways. This led to a wrong conclusion that the entire Chinese railways have achieved total and equal development.

The Chinese went for prestige projects to send political and strategic messages to the world and used it as a way to impress and over-awe the world. The Chinese did achieve that objective. But the issue now is whether the Chinese will be able to maintain that image or not.


Railway Minister Prabhu has a serious challenge ahead of him. While he might be able to pursue long-term plans, he has serious short-term challenges. Unless he shows immediate improvements, even small ones, he will have a serious image problem.


More emphasis should be given to solvable short terms issues.  Prabhu has to do this urgently.

His credibility and political capital will vanish otherwise. Prabha has only to got the second biggest railway station in the capital Delhi. He should visit Nizamuddin railway station and will  learn that in the last 15 moths, nothing has been done. This is just an illustration of the total lack of action by the railways . The railway is used to a culture of inaction. The example of Nizamuddin railway station can well  be applied to every other railway station in the country.

Change has to be visible. The railways look and work the same.


Dr P Pulla Rao is a Socio-political and Economic analyst


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