On Friday, Parliament heard that the Indian Railways will not be privatized as a whole, but the PPP mode would be adopted for new lines and projects so as to generate much-needed funds. In effect, this would be a partial privatization of the railways; not a bad idea altogether.

The history of railways in India is a long story of neglect. The railways that forms the lifeline for the nation is ailing on several fronts and the Modi government’s promise of changing the scenario for the better, an offer made in 2014, is yet to seriously translate into reality. Populism of successive governments and lack of initiative to invest heavily in modernization are the principal reasons for the way this sector is made to suffer for long years.

The British Raj gave India the railway facility much before most nations around the world could experience its onset. Today, across the world, the railway systems have taken firm hold and several nations modernised it to a level that India is made to take a backseat. When trains run in China with speeds above 300km per hour, a feat achieved by Japan much before, India’s express trains run at speeds of less than 100km per hour – though there are a few showpieces which scaled their speeds up marginally. The terrible scenario of trains waiting for more time at signals than at stations is continuing, much to the discomfiture of the travelling public.

The railways faced serious funds crunch for long years because successive governments kept fares at unreasonably low levels. Also, a large part of the earnings the Railways made from freight is lost to it in recent decades because railways – run by babus and a unionised workforce — failed in reliability and punctuality while truck services took major advantage of these. Those like Mamata Banerjee who led the railways for various terms played to the gallery and refused to rationalise fares. The resultant funds crunch meant major initiatives like modernization of tracks and raising the line lengths to new heights had to be held back. Big cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru with their teeming populations took small strides to Metro system only recently, while Kolkata had introduced it in the 1980s and Delhi in the 1990s.

Work on Bullet trains – promised by Modi in 2014 – is under way on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad sector, while the promise of modernization of tracks is mostly a dream. Without modernization, the railways’ speed will remain at snail’s pace.

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