Steaming Ahead with Piyush Goyal

Ashish Sharma
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The Railway Minister wants to be the moderniser of the world’s largest transport system. He shares his ideas with Aresh Shirali

ANYONE GIVEN TO heaving a sigh of resignation at the mention of Indian Railways, that metallic beast of burden yet to snap out of the black-and-white era, should pay close attention to what Piyush Goyal has to say. At 53, India’s Minister of Railways is evidently young enough to see ‘track’ as a verb, as something all information online is subject to, and also eminently grey enough to speak of restoring the romance of rail travel, a challenge far stiffer than, say, recovering the lost art of laying a needle on the track of a vinyl record. “I do hope that we’ll be able to transform this organisation and bring back the charm that Indian Railways always had for citizens,” he says, speaking to Open at his Rail Bhavan office in Delhi.

The technical details, Goyal need not elaborate. They’re in a docket called ‘Vistaar’, which, in line with the Government’s acronymania, stands for ‘Vision of Innovative, Safe, Timely, Affordable & Accountable Railways’, which in turn is almost perfectly aligned with what he has broadly wanted to do more or less all his life. With his parents in politics, both nature and nurture appear to have conspired in this. “Ever since childhood, I had close exposure to very senior leaders of the RSS, the Jan Sangh and then the Bharatiya Janata Party,” he’d said in the car on the way here from his party’s new fortress-like headquarters on Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg, adding how the “nationalism and ideals” he picked up at home in Mumbai led him to the belief that “there is no better way to have an impact on the destiny of your motherland than through public service in politics”. Good education would prove invaluable in this, his parents held, and he is grateful to be armed with a partly parallel career of 20 years in business that began remarkably early. Even as he pursued a BCom, to which he would later add a law degree and chartered accountancy, he had a startup to his credit. “I had the advantage of seeding a small-scale industry when I was very very young, in my teens—this was a steel forging plant near Mumbai.” His youth, thus, was already a maze of complexity, though not anything that could deter a true Mumbaikar, as he proudly calls himself. He stayed in Sion, studied near Churchgate and took local trains to get there, switching tracks at Dadar every day. But his early learnings, his “pangs of growth”, were forged not in class but elsewhere: “Being a first generation entrepreneur gave me a lot of insights into the real issues any entrepreneur faces, the wide span that one has to confront. You’re dealing with labour, banks, government officials, suppliers, customers. It gives you a holistic world vision.”

Did he ever dream he’d be in charge of the country’s largest employer? With 1.3 million on its rolls serving 23 million passengers a day, with another 90,000 being recruited right now, the Indian Railways is nothing if not intricacy wrapped in complexity inside a labyrinth. “Nah,” responds the Rajya Sabha member. He had no such specific ambition. Yes, his father VP Goyal was Vajpayee’s Shipping Minister, but he himself got no major position while his father was alive, he points out. “In our party, you are recognised for your merit,” he says, “not for your surname.”

Even so, it has meant that Goyal is one of the few BJP leaders acquainted with both the Vajpayee and Modi regimes. He is diplomatic about the difference, speaking of varying styles and visions that find expression within the BJP’s frame of ideology (“a kind of guiding light for all of us”). Isn’t the latter more rigorous, though? “Certainly,” he says with a laugh. While he does recall his father putting in similarly long hours, he says, “This government is much more action-oriented, much more outcome-oriented— working things to scale at unprecedented speed.”

Exhibit A in support of the action aspect is the Railways’ latest move to enrol nearly 90,000 new workers. Assistant loco pilots, blacksmiths, carpenters, fitters, pointsmen, track maintainers, gatemen and sundry technicians—tens of thousands are needed for all manner of work. The aim is not to offer jobs just for the sake of employment. “It’s a need-based decision, considering the ambitious plans we have to expand the Railways,” clarifies Goyal, who was handed the portfolio over from Suresh Prabhu in a cabinet reshuffle six months ago, “New technologies, lines, electrification of network, signalling systems… there’s so much happening across the system that we’re feeling the crunch of a manpower shortage.” Applicants need to be tenth pass and those with ITI certificates will be accorded preference. Given the job scarcity in India, the Railways might find MBAs applying too, as happened about 15 years ago, though that was perhaps because youngsters back then envisioned a khalasi (manual worker) as some sort of astronaut, thanks to a popular clip on TV called Space Khalasis.

Being a first generation entrepreneur gave me insights into the real issues any entrepreneur faces, the wide span that one has to confront. You’re dealing with labour, banks, government officials, suppliers, customers. It gives you a holistic world vision

The posts are all terrestrial and there’s plenty of work to do. Some 3,600 km of worn-out tracks are to be replaced in 2018-19, with a monthly pace of 400 km no longer considered crazy; about 4,000 km of lines are to be electrified, which would leave only a little over half the 67,000-km network for conversion before smoke-spewing diesel engines are finally phased out (heritage trains will retain their steam puffers for old times’ sake); 18,000 km of tracks are to be doubled; and 5,000 km turned broad gauge. No less bulky is next fiscal year’s order list, which features 700 locomotives, 12,000 wagons and 5,160 speed-friendly coaches. There is also a great deal of heavy lifting to be done for the Dedicated Freight Corridor being laid that will fork out from Ludhiana and Dadri in the north to Mumbai and Kolkata, not to speak of the Indo-Japanese Bullet Train venture, for which an educational institute is being set up in Vadodara for the zen and kaizen of it.

All of that, while existing assets are made to sweat. As an example, the Minister cites a Shatabdi journey he took from Delhi to Chandigarh some weeks ago. After the three-and-a-half hour run, the train would stay there overnight and return only the next day, logging just seven hours over the cycle. “That is something that has been agitating me ever since I became Minister: how can we sweat our assets, utilise our trains upto 12, 13 or maybe 15 hours a day?” Why, he adds, he has just approved a new service that uses just one rake for the work of two. Suggestions are coming in thick and fast. An MP, he recounts, had requested a service to be extended by 100 km all the way to Gwalior, since the train was found resting for over 14 hours at one place. “I said, ‘Why 100 km? We can take it 200 km’.” It goes on to Jhansi now.

More than efficiency, though, safety was a flaring concern at the point Goyal took charge, given the alarming frequency of train wrecks last year. Half a year in Rail Bhavan, he remains categorical: “There is no compromise at all on safety.” Ministry data charts show a sharp rise in the quantum of track length blocked off for upkeep; even if this disrupts a few services, it simply has to be done. Among other measures, Goyal wants signalling systems to be fully automated and unmanned crossings to be done away with. In time, ISRO satellites are expected to keep watch, a la Google Maps, with ground sensors doing their bit to head off disasters big and small. In the longer term, track-drop toilets being outmoded on trains— whether bio-pots or vacuum toilets are better is yet to be worked out—could possibly spell ‘Swachh’ gains of hygiene too.

The Rs 148,528 crore earmarked for the Railways in the Union Budget for 2018-19 is “more than sufficient” to modernise all that needs to be, says Goyal. “The earlier mindset was that there’s always a shortage of funds,” he says, “Everything was centralised, so everything had to come to the Railway Board for a decision, and people were unsure what speed they wanted the railway system to expand. Typically, a project taking 15-20 years would be quite natural. Today, every day is being calculated, every target is being made far more aggressive.” Cost overruns, he implies, will soon be a thing of the past if he has his way.

Everything was centralised, so everything had to come to the Railway Board for a decision. Typically, a project taking 15-20 years was quite natural. Today, every day is being calculated

In terms of hard figures, however, whether the service is being run better could take several years to show up. The Railways’ so- called ‘operating ratio’, a measure of how many rupees are spent for every Rs 100 of earnings, is placed at a dismal 96 for 2017-18, and much needs to happen for the Government’s aim of 85 by 2022 to look realistic. Of the Rs 187,000 crore odd expected in revenues this year, about 38 per cent is taken up by the wage bill alone. Pensions are another 24 per cent. “That’s nothing we can do anything about,” says Goyal, “It’s a 160-year-old organisation.”

THAT, THE MINISTER could say again. The bulk of this hulk of a carrier looks a century-and-a-half old. Of course, an optical dazzler is on its way. The proposed Bullet Train that promises to crunch the Ahmedabad-Mumbai run from eight to two hours is sure to snazz up the image of Indian Railways, but the cost involved has left many an observer agape. Isn’t premium inter-city transport best left to air carriers? No, argues the Ministry; while rail infrastructure in general is expensive to lay, a train burns only a third of an aircraft’s fuel, which lets it make up the money over large numbers and long periods. Plus, there’s the convenience factor, says Goyal, citing the example of a US trip he took not long ago: “I was in Washington at a lunch, and I said, ‘Look, I’ll have to leave because I have to catch a flight to New York.’ And the people said, ‘But that would be quite a waste of time; we have a railway station right across from where we’re sitting, you hop onto the train there and you’ll be in New York within about…’ I think it was three hours or something, ‘and you’ll get out right outside your hotel.’ And ‘Going to the airport [instead], checking in, flying time, and coming back after getting your check-in bags at Kennedy Airport, and then reaching your hotel in the traffic, you’ll be half dead and it would take you far longer than the train would.’ And I actually wasted my plane ticket and got a train ticket. So I think the times are changing. Train travel has its own advantages.”

Granted, a good rail trip always beats a flight anywhere in the world, and so too in India, if one learns to blank out the experience at either end of it. This, alas, is not a small ‘if’. Netflix audiences of Love Per Square Foot might revel in an adorable old platform announcer who spouts philosophy about tracks being like fate lines on his palm, but that’s cinematic licence. The reality of an actual Indian station is not the stuff of gleeful posts on social media.

That might well turn out to be the Real McCoy. An empathic and swift addressal of Indian stations could put Vistaar on a whizzy bullet track to success. The potential is obvious. Even if Goyal’s Ministry manages to push only the most significant stations into the 21st century, he would in all likelihood leave a railway legacy that millions would rave about for decades.

Can the Minister do it?

That private players be awarded contracts to redevelop stations is not a new idea, but arriving at a workable way to implement it has proven rather tough so far. Around 8,000 of those dots on Rail Bhavan’s map have been identified with Railway land parcels that could be put to productive purpose (beyond malls and hotels, as the Minister clarifies). The focus of this broad exercise is on 600 of India’s most heavily used, all of them marked for an overhaul. It’s an astonishing ambition, given the existent record. An earlier attempt to auction projects for 23 stations to private developers didn’t get too far, with Bhopal’s Habib Ganj all there is to show for it. What the proposal needs, Goyal reckons, is a revision of the deal’s modalities to enhance its appeal. “The rationale” of the new plan awaiting Cabinet clearance, “is to get the best value and long-term investors.” If greenflagged, an offer of clearer ownership to corporate bidders could act as a deal sweetener. “I believe, based on feedback from stakeholder consultations, that the 45-year tenure was not enough, that they were looking for a longer span, especially when they’re investing millions of rupees. We’re now looking at a 99 or 90-plus year lease,” says the Minister. “We’re also looking at allowing mortgage of the premises; they may need bank support,” he adds, “We will also allow multiple leases, so they can ‘own’ it and if necessary even transfer it.”

The rationale of the proposed private sector participation plan is to get the best value and long term investors. We are now looking at offering a 99 or 90 plus year lease

Will it work? A few big realtors are reported to have signalled interest. And what of stations that get left on the shelf, sans bidders? They will be taken up by the programme’s nodal agency, Indian Railway Station Development Corp Ltd, which was set up in 2012 and now boasts of an array of redesign blueprints.

Not that the Government does not intend to remodel any stations on its own as a first preference. It does. Gandhinagar’s, for example, is being rebuilt in alliance with Gujarat’s government. Also, a new plan for Ayodhya has been announced that envisages a Rama temple design, news of which has raised a few eyebrows even though it would be on real estate owned clearly by the Railways. Asked about it, Goyal has been quoted in a newspaper as saying, “In Ayodhya, if the [station] is connected to the birthplace of Lord Rama which all of us are well aware of, if Mathura is connected to the Vrindavan Temple, if Ajmer Sharif is connected to the dargah or mosque over there, and if Agra is connected to the Taj Mahal, I think it’s a great contribution of the Indian Railways to teach our history, our heritage and our tradition to the next generation.” On whether Ayodhya’s station would be inspired by a model of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, no official call has been taken yet, but the political inflection of the idea is evident. Then again, only the naïve expect politics and economics to obey an ancient axiom on parallel lines that never meet. It would’ve been odd if Vistaar wasn’t also aimed at a BJP victory next year.

MEANWHILE, GOYAL’S credentials as a market liberaliser have been endorsed by a major shift achieved by the other Ministry under his charge, Coal. For the first time since their nationalisation in 1973, mines for these chunks of carbon have been thrown open to private miners for commercial rather than just captive use. To the relief of power plants, the country’s output is firmly on an uptrend and the effort now is to haul it where it’s needed. Hence the coal wagons, the synergy between the two portfolios, the drive to get all the cogs and wheels into clockwork synchrony. It’s vital infrastructure, after all, which only underlines the size of his challenge at Rail Bhavan. “But it’s great fun,” he says with a broad smile, “It’s a great opportunity, I’m learning and unlearning both.” Often, he admits, he goes to sleep with some problem or another playing on his mind, but the joy is in waking up with a solution. “Unless you put in all that you have,” he says, “you won’t be able to get the kind of transformational results that Prime Minister Modi expects from each one of us.”

Transformation, make no mistake, is on top of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Vikaas’ agenda and the Vistaar programme is no trivial part of his ‘New India: 2022’ promise.

So, which railway system in the world impresses Goyal the most? He specifies none, since “all have their pros and cons”, but mentions four in particular. “The Japanese are extremely well known for the efficiency with which they operate, their punctuality, cleanliness, precision working. Swiss railways are beautiful in terms of the beauty of the surroundings. The German railway is impressive in its ability to have transformed an existing rail system to make it semi-high-speed. The American is a railroad system that is relatively less critical to the people of America because it is used more for freight.” Ideas for the reform of Indian Railways, the Minister adds, are being taken from everywhere.

All said, Vistaar could win cheers all around if its final outcome is a revival of an all-Indian romance on rails, a pot of amity at the end of a rainbow; and not just, say, for rich riders of Palace on Wheels, that steamy classic still huffing and puffing ahead cowcatcher-first with its quaint chimney, a mobile museum with the engine of an industrial revolution drawing a relic of Raj-era luxury along.

As with vinyl records, it occurs to me on my way out, some tracks could endure long into the information age even if the imagery they evoke remains sepia-tinted. Hmmm. Memory spins me back to an overnight wait on a lonely platform 25 years ago, my mood dark and ears reeling from bugs as much as Bob Zimmer- man’s search for meaning in his awesomely raspy I and I against Mark Knopfler’s guitar: ‘Outside of two men on a train platform there’s nobody in sight / They’re waiting for spring to come, smoking down the track.’ India had just begun opening up its economy back then, almost everything around was bleak, and the rails one could see converge on the grey horizon had not a hint of colour, let alone anything dramatic. Well, well, whaddyaknow.