Railroading India’s Railways

NEW DELHI – Every February, the Indian Parliament performs a curious and unique ritual. The railway minister (a portfolio that exists in few democracies nowadays) presents the “railway budget" to the lower house for its approval. A packed chamber hangs on the minister's every word.

The practice began in the days of the British Raj, when the railway budget rivaled that of the rest of the Indian government. Of course, railway revenues today, at $23 billion, no longer dwarf the country's budget, which now stands at some $268 billion. But India's railways still produce other mind-boggling figures: 23 million passengers are transported daily (over eight billion per year, more than the world's entire population) on 12,617 trains connecting 7,172 stations across a 65,000-kilometer (40,000-mile) network. And, with 1.31 million employees, the railways are the country's biggest enterprise.

In short, the railways are the lifeblood of India's economy, touching the lives of every segment of society and playing a key role in moving people, freight, and dreams across a congested landscape. Yet much needs fixing.

India's trains carry four times the number of passengers as China's, despite covering only half as many kilometers, but still lose about $7 billion annually. The problem is that a succession of railway ministers, viewing the trains as poor people's only affordable means of transport, have refused to raise passenger fares, squeezing freight instead. This has proved popular with voters but disastrous for the country.