Slowing down the Goyal Express

Though they emitted smoke, trains looked good when they were pulled by coal engines. Those adorable Puffing Billys gave way to diesel demons which looked ungainly, but they still did not spoil the landscape.

Then came the electric locomotives with their ugly poles and power transmission lines, all of them spoiling our countryside skylines. One wonders whether R.L. Stevenson would have penned From a Railway Carriage, had he seen today's diesel and electric monsters.

But, our environmentalists, those eco-monsters who have no eye for beauty but only for carbon footprint, say that diesel is dirty and that coal power corrupts the air absolutely. Electric locomotion is cleaner, even if the electricity is generated by burning hydro-carbons, they say. So the poles and power lines are here to stay, though a few whizkids are now finding ways to run trains with no engine. They test-ran the Puri Express so last week, for full 15km from Titlagarh in Odisha. Bravo!

Piyush Goyal, who runs our trains, is one who believes that electric power is cleaner and cheaper. He knows what he is talking about. He had been handling the power portfolio for close to four years before he moved into the Rail Bhavan; so the gent knows which kind of power tends to corrupt, and which power corrupts absolutely. From the power ministry itself he had made an offer to the then railway minister Suresh Prabhu to pay the entire bill for electrifying India's rail network. Then, when Narendra Modi sent him to Rail Bhavan, Goyal thought it was a godsend.

Once he got things on track, Goyal began working furiously to charge up the entire rail network of India. He found that the railways ran 19,000 passenger and goods trains, of which 5,000 were still on diesel. Railways have a total route length of 67,000km, of which 38,000km are yet to be electrified.

Prabhu and his predecessors had been charging the remaining lines slowly and steadily with budgetary targets, but Goyal thought things ought to be on the fast track. So, he laid out plans to electrify the remaining 38,000km at the rate of 4,000km a year, and then advanced his own deadline to achieve total electrification from 2022 to 2020. He would spend Rs 35,000 crore to get it done, and that would save him Rs 11,000 crore a year on fuel alone.

Goyal was thus speeding like a bullet train when Bibek Debroy, who heads the PM's economic advisory council, raised the red flag. He dug out some old committee reports that had advised against full electrification, and wrote to the PMO that no country runs all its trains on electric current. China, Russia and Europe run a third or more of their trains on diesel. The North Americans and the Latin Americans run almost all their trains on diesel. And, the world over, more than half the trains are pulled by diesel locomotives.

Debroy asked for a 'strategic rethink' by another expert group, which could take up to six months, and till then, go slow on electrification. Meanwhile, Goyal would better spend his money on safety works, network decongestion, expansion works, scrapping old diesel and electric engines and buying fuel-efficient ones.

Once he read Debroy's note, Modi called Goyal and the entire railway board, and read the riot act. The railways still had a lot of good diesel engines left, and wasting them would not be a good idea, he said.

Poor Goyal is back on the slow track. But, where had he gone wrong?

Only two years ago had India signed a $2.5 billion contract with the US giant General Electric, under Modi's Make in India programme, to build 1,000 high-horsepower diesel engines over 10 years at the rate of 100 engines a year. What would the railways do with those engines, if Goyal were to run all his trains on electric power?