The land above the tracks

Almost exactly a year ago, we were on our way from Vienna to Budapest and ended up reading the Vienna Hauptbahnhof Railway Station some three hours early. It had been snowing that morning in Vienna (it was April 1st, and supposed to be spring), and not wanting to go anywhere in that shit weather, we simply got to the railway station. It didn’t help matters that our train (which was coming from Munich) had been delayed by a further hour.

We were not short of options for entertainment in at the railway station, though. In fact, it hardly looked like a railway station, and looked more like a mall – for there were no tracks to be seen anywhere. We spent the four hour wait shopping at the mall (it was just before Easter, so there were some good deals) and having breakfast and lunch at what could be considered to be the mall food court. And when it was time for our train to arrive, we simply took one of the escalators that went down from the mall, which deposited us at our platform.

Each platform had its own escalator going down from the mall, which had been built on top of the railway tracks. It can be considered that the entire Vienna Hbf station was built on the “first floor”, making use of the land above the railway tracks. Land that would otherwise be wasted was being put to good use by building commercial space, which apart from generating revenues for the Austrian Railways, also made life significantly better for passengers such as us who happened to reach the station insanely early.

This is a possible source of revenues that Indian Railways would do well to consider, especially in large cities. The Railways sit on large swathes of land above and around the rail tracks, especially at stations (where such tracks diverge). Currently, the quality of experience in Indian railway stations is rather poor. If a swanky mall (and maybe other commercial space) were to come up above the tracks, it could completely transform the railway experience.

There will be considerable investment required, of course, but given the quality of real estate on which most Indian railway stations sit, it is quite likely that private developers can be found who will be willing to invest in constructing these “railway station malls” in return for a share of subsequent rent realisation. There is serious possibility for a win-win here.

As the Vienna Hbf website puts it,

The BahnhofCity Wien Hauptbahnhof features 90 shops and restaurants occupying 20,000 m² of floor space. A fresh food market, textile shops, bakeries and cafés are designed to make BahnhofCity a meeting place. During the week, it will be opened until 21:00 and many shops will also open on Sundays. Excellent public transport links and 600 parking spaces complement the offer.

An idea well worth considering for the Indian Railway Ministry.

Unions and competition

I completely fail to see why workers’ unions are against competition in the sector. The latest round in this comes from the National Federation for Indian Railwaymen (NFIR), which represents most of the workers in the Indian Railways, which has slammed the Bibek Debroy report on railway restructuring claiming that the report seeks to bring in privatisation into the sector.

Business Standard reports (emphasis mine),

While Debroy has sought to define liberalisation separately from privatisation in the report, he has also said the entry of private players into the system is already provided by extant policy. fear any effort at bringing in private players into railway operations would jeopardise the workers’ jobs and negatively impact railways’ financial health

That private players coming in to railway operations could jeopardise jobs simply defies logic. Currently, the sector has a monopoly employer, namely Indian Railways, and this limits the bargaining power of any worker. With the coming of more (private) players, the demand for skilled workmen is only going to increase, and any new players would be much better off recruiting existing employees of the railways who are experienced in this business than recruiting from elsewhere.

So the coming of private players can only be a good thing from the point of view of workers.

 

However, what is good for the workers is not necessarily good for workers’ unions. The NFIR is a powerful union, representing 80% of the Railways’ 1.3 million employees (source: Business Standard report quoted above), or about a million employees. With the coming of private players, this number is surely going to go down (thanks to workers leaving, etc.) and this surely cannot be good news for the unions.

In other words, what is good for workers is not necessarily good for unions, and vice versa. And it is important to take this into account while making policy. In popular discourse, workers’ welfare and workers’ unions’ welfare get conflated, leading to policies that are pro unions but (they have higher bargaining powers) but not necessarily pro workers.

Recognition of this distinction can lead to much superior public policy.

Pricing railway safety

Yet another railway accident has happened. As someone on twitter pointed out,

The problem with the Indian Railways is that there is no real measure of safety. How do we know how much safer the trains and tracks are compared to last year? Given the way the Railway finances are put out currently, there is no way to figure this out. Without the railways putting out more disclosures, is there a way to put a number on how safe the Indian Railways are? In other words, is there a way to “price” railway safety?

As you are well aware, and as the above tweet points out, it is standard practice in Indian Railway accidents for the Railway Minister to announce an ex-gratia payment to the families of the dead and the injured in case of any accident. I’m not sure if there is a formula to this but one cannot rule out the arbitrariness of this amount. As I had pointed out in an earlier post on RQ, accident compensation needs to be predictable and automatic. Can we use this to price railway safety?

First of all, we need to point out that the railways follows a cash accounting system, and thus doesn’t need to account for any contingent liabilities such as ex-gratia payment (last weekend I sat through an awesome lecture by Prof. Mukul Asher (councillor to Takshashila) on public finances, and he pointed this out). Hence, it would be prudent on behalf of the Indian Railways to hedge out this contingent liability.

How do you hedge a contingent liability? By buying insurance! What the Indian Railways needs to do is to buy group accident insurance – all the ex-gratia payments will then by paid out by the insurance company, and the railways will only pay a premium to these companies, thus hedging out the risk! And this process will help put a price on railway safety!

How is that? Let us say that given the railways’ bad record in safety, and its continued promises that safety will be improved each year, the railways decides to take up group accident insurance on an annual basis. Let us say that there is a competitive bidding process among general insurers in India (both public and private sector) to provide this insurance (railways is a large organization, and insuring them will be a matter of prestige, so companies will bid for it). The premium as determined by this competitive bidding process is the price of railway safety!

We can do better – instead of buying one overall policy, the Railways can think of insuring different routes separately, or perhaps zones. This will help put a price on the safety of each route or zone! There will be some transaction cost, of course, but price discovery will happen, and we will be able to put a price on risk!

But then, this is all wishful thinking. It is unlikely this will happen because:

1. Given the cash accounting system followed by the railways, there is no incentive to hedge contingent liabilities
2. Buying insurance means increasing scrutiny. The railways will not want to be scrutinized too hard. It is currently an opaque organization and it will want to be that way.
3. Given the railways are wholly government owned and there are government owned general insurers, there might be some collusion which might  result in underpricing the risk.
And so forth…

Nevertheless, the point of this post is that it is possible to put a price on safety!

Pricing fines for ticketless travel

In large mass transit systems such as those in Mumbai (or even Chennai), ticket checking turnstiles can significantly slow the flow of human traffic. The sheer number of passengers that use these transit systems daily makes it impossible to check the ticket of each and every traveler. Hence, the Railways, rather than checking the tickets of every passenger, instead relies on random checks. During these random ticket checking efforts, people traveling without a ticket are asked to pay a fine. This, the Railways hope, will be deterrent enough for people to purchase tickets before travel.

However, rather than ensuring deterrence, what this system has resulted is in an informal “ticketless travel insurance” economy. The concept is simple – rather than buying a ticket from the official ticket counter, you instead buy protection from an “informal insurance provider”. For a nominal “premium” (believed to be in the range of Rs. 100 per month) these providers insure you against ticketless travel. In other words, in case you get caught by the ticket checkers during the course of your “insurance”, these “insurance providers” step in to pay your fine! Check out this article in The Hindu about how these insurance providers work (WARNING: The link isn’t working too well for me, and is taking me to a third party site a few seconds after loading The Hindu page, so be careful before clicking through).

The very existence of this market, however, implies that fines for ticket less travel are not being priced properly. The math is fairly simple: if the price of the ticket is p and the probability of your ticket getting checked is frac {1}{N} , then the fine for ticketless travel should be strictly greater than Np. If not, it works out cheaper for your to pay the fine each time you are caught rather than buying the ticket.

So what role is being played by these “informal insurance companies”? Risk management! People don’t like risk. While on an average your ticket might be checked only once in 30 days (number pulled out of thin air), there is no reason that you will not be pulled up for ticket less travel multiple times in a month. By outsourcing the risk to a central party who pools the risks (from several commuters), you have a steady cash out flow and are hedged against getting caught multiple times (you might get caught but your insurer pays the fine). In fact, this is how insurance works in other sectors also.

What should the Indian Railways do to drive these “informal insurance companies” out of business? Currently, if the fine is S, S le Np. From this equation, you can see that the Railways can do one of three things so that this inequality gets reversed – the price of a ticket can be reduced – but that would be equivalent to cutting off the nose to spite the face, for it would have significant adverse impact on the railways’ revenues. Next, N can be reduced, or in other words the frequency of surveillance be increased. This, too, is not easily implementable since the Railways will have to invest in additional resources to check tickets. The last option is to increase S, and there is nothing that prevents the railways from doing this!

How will this work, though? By raising the cost of fines for ticketless travel while keeping the frequency of ticket checking constant, the “premium” a commuter will have to pay to these insurance companies will increase. If the fine amount is increased to a certain level, the premium a commuter will have to pay to buy ticketless travel insurance will exceed the price of buying tickets! And the insurance market will implode.

While this seems like a simple solution in theory, I’m not confident of it being implemented any time soon. Who knows – one might have to go to the Union cabinet to increase the level of fines in local trains. That’s how our railways is structured.

Criminals in politics

During the Anna Hazare show, skeptics said people shouldn’t randomly protest, they should come out and vote (for the record, people have voted in really large numbers in the recently concluded assembly elections). Hazaarists replied saying that there’s no point voting because every candidate is a crook, and they are all corrupt, or something to that effect. Then someone else popped up and said that criminals should not be allowed to contest for elections.

Now, there exists a law barring criminals from contesting elections. However, only people convicted of a criminal case can’t contest, not those who are under trial. The justification of this is that activities such as “riots”, “protests”, “dharnas”, etc. come under the criminal law and you can’t “obviously” bar people who take part in such “noble activities” from contesting. So you have people who have led noble dharnas contesting, as those who have been accused of committing rape or murder. Inclusive democracy, as they say.

What I don’t understand is what is so noble about holding protests, blocking roads and railways and holding entire population to ransom. I don’t understand why perpetrators of such crimes need protection, and are allowed to contest elections.

So I think one step in decriminalizing politics would be to bar people with a criminal case against them (not necessarily convicted) from contesting for polls. Of course we won’t put this law with retrospective effect, but it’ll apply to only new cases that might be filed against potential candidates from the date on which the law is notified. It would have welcome side effect that politicians would now think thrice before they decide to hold rallies that stop road and rail traffic and hold the mango man to ransom. And apart from potentially decreasing corruption, it would make our cities a much more peaceful place to stay in.

But I’m being impractical here. Who will bell the cat? Why would any politicians “act against themselves” and bring in such a law? Can some Hazaarists please stand up, or rather sit down in fast, for this, please?