In 1909, the Divisional Superintendent of Sahibganj (now in Jharkhand) received a letter about the dismal service of railways by a troubled passenger who could not find a toilet on-board.

"I am arrive by passenger train Ahmedpur station and my belly is too much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just I doing the nuisance that guard making whistle blow for train to go off and I am running with 'lotah' in one hand and 'dhoti' in the next when I am fall over and expose all my shocking to man and female women on plateform. I am got leaved Ahmedpur station.

"This too much bad, if passenger go to make dung that dam guard not wait train five minutes for him. I am therefore pray your honour to make big fine on that guard for public sake. Otherwise I am making big report to papers."

The letter by Okhil Chandra Sen, now displayed at the Railway Museum in Delhi, is cited as having prompted the Indian Railways to build "attached toilets" for train compartments.

While the letter was written 100 years ago, even today it is not unusual to come across complaints about the Railways – the difference is that the ones on social media, particularly on Twitter, tend to attract more attention, where some have found out that by directly tagging the minister, they are able to get their complaints redressed. Despite this, however, the public perception of the largest employer in the country remains that of an inefficient laggard.

Take for instance, the debate that takes place around the rail budget every year when Members of Parliament make it an annual ritual to score political points and voice their constituencies’ demand for new trains, stations and stoppages. But for the general public, the concerns are more basic about issues that affect them every day: clean toilets, hygienic food, train safety and timely arrival and departure of about 13,000 trains.

Why is it so difficult to fulfil these basic demands? What ails Indian Railways?

While there is no easy answer to that question, what most experts and committees ever set up to restructure and bring the railways back on track agree on is that the culprit is the ambiguity on what the Indian Railways is supposed to do. Is it a national carrier meant to serve the people? Or a public sector entity meant to provide high quality services and boost the economy?

“For many decades, Indian Railways has carried the burden of both public and business expectations which has led to most of the problems it faces today,” says NP Srivastav, former finance commissioner in Indian Railways. “It is torn between providing cheap travel to the general public and making money from serving businesses which is why there’s a conflict in deciding prices, trains, running schedule and many other things.”

An overstressed system

Srivastav isn’t off the mark in his assessment. According to the latest statistics released by the Indian Railways, average speed of a passenger train in the country is merely 36 km/hr while goods trains travel even slower with an average speed of just 26 km/hr. To put this in context, cars in traffic-clogged Delhi travel faster and Chinese trains have an average speed that is twice that of Indian ones.

The problem of slow trains isn’t exactly a new one. A note written back in 1954 by Railways Secretary AK Chandra said that “the speed at which the passenger and freight traffic is moving is yet to attain pre-war level.”

The words ring true even today when the government is trying to rope in French state-run companies to provide India with high-speed train technology and has promised to make substantial progress on the dedicated freight corridor in the coming years which is expected to speed up the movement of goods.

Slow speeds not only make train travel unattractive for many who would rather choose roads or buy affordable tickets for economy class air travel, but they also have a direct impact on the state of the economy.

“When your trains are running slow and freight is expensive, why would a transporter choose to ship with railways instead of road?” asks Srivasatav. “This has started happening. Roads have become a big competition to railways when it comes to carrying goods and something clearly needs to be done.”

This, however, is not what, many contend, is stopping railways from increasing its earnings. Former Railway Board Chairman Vivek Sahai believes the problem is of fares more than anything else.

"Our train fares for goods are the steepest in the world while we lose money on passenger trains," Sahai said. "You can't have a healthy entity when freight, which makes up for two-thirds for railways' earnings, is exorbitantly priced. Roads will take over sooner or later if this continues."

For instance, a World Bank analysis from 2012 showed that the productivity of Indian Railways doesn’t match up to international standards. China makes three times more money than India does on every passenger carried while it charges only 50% of the Indian tariff for transporting goods, after adjusting for purchasing power parity.

Clogged arteries

While acknowledging the problem of trains running slow and getting delayed, Indian Railways also realises that there’s not much it can do in the absence of enough investment in network expansion and decongestion programs. “There has been severe congestion on the network and has resulted in the inability of the system to accommodate more trains and increase the speed of trains,” a white paper on Railways said last year.

Railways, hence, is not an underperforming entity but an overstressed system which often faces abuse at the hands of politicians who announce new projects, trains and stations that add to bottlenecks and congestion on the network, resulting in slowing down of trains. For instance, more than 40% of line sections in the country are currently running at 100% or above capacity.

Meanwhile, the situation is even worse when one looks at only the High Density Network lines which cater to a lot more traffic each day. Here, 65% of the lines are running on 100% or more capacity already. The following map visualises the extent of the problem.

Sahai said that while there are certain routes which are congested and in need of serious respite from introduction of new trains or stoppages, he contended that there are many unconnected parts of the country which should be the priority of the government and new trains can be introduced to ease pressure there.

"Only the A routes are somewhat congested while many routes don't have enough trains to ferry passengers, which is why passenger revenue is not growing as fast as it should but the government is not putting new trains on the tracks," he said. "When the government is spending heavily on track expansion and doubling of the tracks, what's the point of them lying idle if new trains aren't being introduced to connect the hinterland?"

Bibek Debroy, member of the NITI Aayog, who wrote the report on restructuring of the railways last month, believes that it's not as easy to connect new stations just because the line capacity isn't full up to the brim because there might be heavy traffic on some parts of the route already.

"We see if place A is not connected to place B, we want to connect these two. But, what if a place C that lies in the middle of that route sees heavy traffic between B to C, by adding more trains, the situation will be of a perpetual jam then," he explained. "What we need is rationalising the number and length of trains that we are running to make sure that the traffic flow is smooth."

Getting back on track

The government, last year, acknowledged the need for upgrading rail networks and took some promising steps. One of the most prominent moves in the last budget was introduction of no new trains – the first time in many years – signalling the seriousness of the government.

Already, there are 362 sanctioned projects sitting on shelves for new lines, doubling of single lines and gauge conversions. Each project here could take anywhere between 3-5 years to complete after land acquisition happens and hence, experts feel that the railways can barely afford to take up new ventures which will only make it bleed further.

Recently, NITI Aayog’s Transport Advisor also took note of these pending projects and said that the Railways’ target of doubling existing corridors in the next five years was “aggressive, adding that it will be a challenge to achieve the feat given that the track record of Railways has “not been very impressive.”

According to Sahai, the railways is in serious need of this capital expenditure but someone has to be held accountable if the network is still congested.

"They claim that there is congestion and financial constraints so we won't introduce new projects but railways is not even spending its allocated plan expenditure in full," he said. "They can blame the government for not giving enough funds but who is stopping them from spending what they have got in their kitty? On one hand, claims of network congestion are made but the government then says we have spent so much to ease networks. When will those benefits accrue?"

Srivastav, meanwhile, suggests that the government continues to plough through its existing projects and completely “depoliticise” the budget in order to cater to Railways' health first rather than try to meet populist expectations.

“They should take a 5-year plan holiday,” he said. “All projects which haven’t yet started should be shelved, and no new trains should be announced, or any other project should be undertaken, for five years. Only ongoing projects must be completed because the cost of interest and materials on ongoing projects gets higher with each passing year.”

Like each year, Railway Ministry is flooding with requests from MPs for new trains, modernisation of stations and other things. Unlike previous years, though, the Railways is thinking hard about introducing only a few new trains or introducing just premium ones which charge higher than the normal fare – something which may benefit a lesser number of people but could make the beleaguered entity a bit more money.