Recently, the Indian Railways announced rationalisation of freight fares.  This rationalisation will result in an 8.75% increase in freight rates for major commodities such as coal, iron and steel, iron ore, and raw materials for steel plants. The freight rates were rationalised to ensure additional revenue generation across the network. An additional revenue of Rs 3,344 crore is expected from such rationalisation, which will be utilised to improve passenger amenities. In addition, the haulage charge of containers has been increased by 5% and the freight rates of other small goods have been increased by 8.75%. Freight rates have not been increased for goods such as food grains, flours, pulses, fertilisers, salt, and sugar, cement, petroleum, and diesel. In light of this, we discuss some issues around Railways’ freight pricing.

Railways’ sources of internal revenue

Railways earns its internal revenue primarily from passenger and freight traffic. In 2016-17 (latest actual figures available), freight and passenger traffic contributed to about 63% and 28% of the internal revenue, respectively. The remaining is earned from miscellaneous sources such as parcel service, coaching receipts, and platform tickets.

Freight traffic: Railways majorly transports bulk freight, and the freight basket has mostly been limited to include raw materials for certain industries such as power plants, and iron and steel plants. It generates most of its freight revenue from the transportation of coal (43%), followed by cement (8%), food-grains (7%), and iron and steel (7%). In 2018-19, Railways expects to earn Rs 1,21,950 crore from its freight traffic.

Railways fig1

Passenger traffic:  Passenger traffic is broadly divided into two categories: suburban and non-suburban traffic.  Suburban trains are passenger trains that cover short distances of up to 150 km, and help move passengers within cities and suburbs.  Majority of the passenger revenue (94% in 2017-18) comes from the non-suburban traffic (or the long-distance trains).

Within non-suburban traffic, second class (includes sleeper class) contributes to 67% of the non-suburban revenue.  AC class (includes AC 3-tier, AC Chair Car and AC sleeper) contributes to 32% of the non-suburban revenue.  The remaining 1% comes from AC First Class (includes Executive class and First Class).

Railways’ ability to generate its own revenue has been slowing

The growth rate of Railways’ earnings from its core business of running freight and passenger trains has been declining.  This is due to a decline in the growth of both freight and passenger traffic.  Some of the reasons for such decline include:

Freight traffic growth has been declining, and is limited to a few items

Growth of freight traffic has been declining over the last few years.  It has declined from around 8% in the mid-2000s to a 4% negative growth in mid-2010s, before an estimated recovery to about 5% now.

The National Transport Development Policy Committee (2014) had noted various issues with freight transportation on railways.  For example, Indian Railways does not have an institutional arrangement to attract and aggregate traffic of smaller parcel size.  Further, freight services are run with a focus on efficiency instead of customer satisfaction.  Consequently, it has not been able to capture high potential markets such as FMCGs, hazardous materials, or automobiles and containerised cargo.  Most of such freight is transported by roads.

Figure 2_Railways

The freight basket is also limited to a few commodities, most of which are bulk in nature.  For example, coal contributes to about 43% of freight revenue and 25% of the total internal revenue.  Therefore, any shift in transport patterns of any of these bulk commodities could affect Railways’ finances significantly.

For example, if new coal based power plants are set up at pit heads (source of coal), then the need for transporting coal through Railways would decrease.  If India’s coal usage decreases due to a shift to more non-renewable sources of energy, it will reduce the amount of coal being transported.  Such situations could have a significant adverse impact on Railways’ revenue.

Freight traffic cross-subsidises passenger traffic

In 2014-15, while Railways’ freight business made a profit of about Rs 44,500 crore, its passenger business incurred a net loss of about Rs 33,000 crore.17  The total passenger revenue during this period was Rs 49,000 crore.  This implies that losses in the passenger business are about 67% of its revenue.  Therefore, in 2014-15, for every one rupee earned in its passenger business, Indian Railways ended up spending Rs 1.67.

These losses occur across both suburban and non-suburban operations, and are primarily caused due to: (i) passenger fares being lower than the costs, and (ii) concessions to various categories of passengers.  According to the NITI Aayog (2016), about 77% to 80% of these losses are contributed by non-suburban operations (long-distance trains).  Concessions to various categories of passengers contribute to about 4% of these losses, and the remaining (73-76%) is due to fares being lower than the system costs.

The NITI Aayog (2016) had noted that Railways ends up using profits from its freight business to provide for such losses in the passenger segment, and also to manage its overall financial situation.  Such cross-subsidisation has resulted in high freight tariffs.  The NTDPC (2014) had noted that, in several countries, passenger fares are either higher or almost equal as freight rates.  However, in India, the ratio of passenger fare to freight rate is about 0.3.

Fig 3_Railways

Impact of increasing freight rates

The recent freight rationalisation further increases the freight rates for certain key commodities by 8.75%, with an intention to improve passenger amenities.  Higher freight tariffs could be counter-productive towards growth of traffic in the segment.  The NTDPC report had noted that due to such high tariffs, freight traffic has been moving to other modes of transport.  Further, the higher cost of freight segment is eventually passed on to the common public in the form of increased costs of electricity, steel, etc.  Various experts have recommended that Railways should consider ways to rationalise freight and passenger tariff distortions in a way to reduce such cross-subsidisation.

For a detailed analysis of Railways revenue and infrastructure, refer to our report on State of Indian Railways.

Mr. Vaghul, our first Chairperson, passed away on Saturday.  I write this note to express my deep gratitude to him, and to celebrate his life.  And what a life he lived!

Mr. Vaghul and I at his residence








Our past and present Chairpersons,
Mr. Vaghul and Mr. Ramadorai

Industry stalwarts have spoken about his contributions to the financial sector, his mentorship of people and institutions across finance, industry and non-profits.  I don’t want to repeat that (though I was a beneficiary as a young professional starting my career at ICICI Securities).  I want to note here some of the ways he helped shape PRS.

Mr Vaghul was our first chairman, from 2012 to 2018.  When he joined the board, we were in deep financial crisis.  Our FCRA application had been turned down (I still don’t know the reason), and we were trying to survive on monthly fund raise.  Mr Vaghul advised us to raise funds from domestic philanthropists.  “PRS works to make Indian democracy more effective.  We should not rely on foreigners to do this.”.  He was sure that Indian philanthropists would fund us.  “We’ll try our best.  But if it doesn’t work, we may shut down.  Are you okay with that?”  Of course, with him calling up people, we survived the crisis.

He also suggested that we should have an independent board without any representation from funders.  The output should be completely independent of funders’ interest given that we were working in the policy space.  We have stuck to this advice.

Even when he was 80, he could read faster than anyone and remember everything.  I once said something in a board meeting which had been written in the note sent earlier.  “We have all read the note.  Let us discuss the implications.”  And he could think three steps ahead of everyone else.

He had a light touch as a chairman.  When I asked for management advice, he would ask me to solve the problem on my own.  He saw his role as guiding the larger strategy, help raise funds and ensure that the organisation had a strong value system.  Indeed, he was the original Karmayogi – I have an email from him which says, “Continue with the good work.  We should neither be euphoric with appreciation or distracted by criticism.” And another, "Those who adhere to the truth need not be afraid of the consequences".

The best part about board meetings was the chat afterwards.  He would have us in splits with stories from his experience.  Some of these are in his memoirs, but we heard a few juicier ones too!

Even after he retired from our Board, he was always available to meet.  I just needed to message him whenever I was in Madras, and he would ask me to come home.  And Mrs. Vaghul was a welcoming host.  Filter coffee, great advice, juicy stories, what more could one ask for?

Goodbye Mr. Vaghul.  Your life lives on through the institutions you nurtured.  And hope that we live up to your standards.