The Indian railways have a rich 165-year-old history built on miles and miles of tracks dependent on a multi gauge system from 1871. In 1991 the government announced a change to this gauge system; however, it remains incomplete. Chitresh Shrivastva argues how completing this transformation could unlock the Indian economy.

When we refer to gauges, we are referring to the distance between the two rails. Railways in India are known for their reach to the most remote parts of the country. At the height of its expansion with the objective of promoting connectivity to areas of geopolitical and administrative importance, the promoters resorted to adopting a multi gauge system in 1871 under the leadership of Lord Mayo with the twin objective of curtailing exorbitant costs of construction, and also providing direct connectivity to the hill stations or the summer capitals of the British, which also possessed valuable tea gardens and orchids important to the British Economy later exported to their home country.

72 years down the line, with the railways gaining global attention and growing competition amongst nations aggressively pursuing expansion of their railway networks, while competing against growing domestic competition from roadways and mushrooming of budget airlines especially in India, the multi gauge system in the current economy stands redundant. From operational feasibility point of view, a multi gauge system not only hinders seamless transit between regions, but also puts immense liability on the railways from the perspective of expenditure on maintenance and also deprives regions of a holistic development of railway network

Indian railways in the contemporary economy

Post-economic liberalisation in 1991 signalled a revolution in the Indian Railway transportation with the railways embarking on a uniform gauge across the length and breadth of the network with hill railways being the exception to this project under the leadership of Late. C.K Jaffer Sharief, the then railway minister. When we look at the problem of gauge heterogeneity, the problem is confined to the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, pockets of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and parts of Northeastern India which are undergoing rapid transformation under the current Ministry especially with the recent inauguration of Bogibeel Bridge asserting a greater reach over northeastern India.

About 6,000 kilometres (3,728 miles) of tracks were sanctioned for gauge conversion. However, the conversion stands yet to be completed, while the railway grapples under financial constraints, given decline in traffic demand in the recent months owing to unviable projects such as dynamic pricing and further decline in freight share.

The Uniguage Project was first announced on 1st April 1991, during which the total length of Metre Gauge was 23,419 kilometres (14,551 miles) which reduced to just 3,479 kilometres (2,161 miles) of metre gauge currently operational.

The pace of gauge conversion has strong yet positive implications in the long run with the coming of the Dedicated Freight Corridor the railways are anticipated to compensate for the losses in the freight segment and providing last mile market connectivity in areas with strategic, geopolitical and economic importance which have so far been devoid of  returns due to metre gauge, as these lines run through the areas bordering our neighbours such as Pakistan, China and Burma on the northeastern front.

Providing a standard gauge in these areas is of great importance given the looming threat over the integrity of the Indian states which has been actively countered through rapid expansion of rail lines in the Northeastern region while also providing connectivity to the metropolitan cities, which are part of the Golden Quadrilateral or run close to the quadrilateral. A uniform gauge would provide greater access to these areas in case of war like situations and pace up troop mobility in such areas.

The project would also benefit passengers through rigorous improvement in train speeds would ensure compensation to passengers with semi-high speed services such as Train 18 raising hopes of regaining the passenger market while competing with the global railways such as that of America, China, and European countries.

Long term benefit of a homogeneous gauge

Switching to a uniform gauge system ensures minimal loss of time in the period of transit between two gauges and also provide impetus to expansion of the freight network and help bridge the gap between the centres of production and consumption. Further it will result in the even distribution of policies across the regions which include electrification and speed increment policies (also known as Mission Raftaar in the Indian Context).

At a time when Indian Railways is venturing into Japanese and Chinese styles of diplomacy of railways and harnessing greater relations in the field of technology transfer in the areas of signalling and telecommunication, rolling stock, locomotive and dedicated corridor type projects (while also being an active member of International Union of Railways) the global demand can only be met through homogeneity of gauge system, essential to catalysing various strategic and developmental projects which have been stalled for a prolonged period.

The very example is the Project Uniguage itself which has been moving at an intensively slow pace despite its proposal placed 28 years back. This can be attributed to a multitude of challenges placed before railways in diverse directions, thus hindering the main focus of the railways from homogeneity of the gauges which is pivotal to implementing other relevant infrastructural initiatives such as electrification and speed increment, while also expanding dedicated corridors for passenger and freight traffic. It is time that the railway shifts its focus to this 28-year-old project on fast track to fulfil its future infrastructure goals and swift railway modernisation.

This article gives the views of the author and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured photo: Two trains. Credit: Unsplashayush kulshrestha @ayush04.

Chitresh Shrivastva is an independent researcher and a writer on railway policies.

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