Chinese Railways versus Indian Railways!

irAll of us have repeatedly heard about the “success” of the Indian Railways under the stewardship of the current railway administration. So much so that the “success” of the Indian Railways has become a fashionable case study in Harvard Business School and the subject of lectures in IIM, Ahmedabad , INSEAD and Harvard Business School.

No doubt the Indian Railways has made progress. But the progress is relative- compared to other government agencies and departments in India– which is not to say much!

But how does the progress of the Indian Railways compare on a absolute scale?

To take an objective look at the “success” of the Indian Railways, let us compare the Chinese Railways and Indian Railways. After all, everyone and everyone’s analysts are comparing China and India.

Let us start at the beginning…..

The first Chinese Railway train was operated in 1876, from Shanghai to Woosung (15 miles) nearly a quarter of a century after the first train in India was run in April 1853 between Bori Bunder and Thane (21miles)

In 1945, China had 27,000 km of rail, of track. In 1947, when India got independence, India had 53596 Route kms of track- thanks to the British! Net, net China had just about ½ the route kilometres of India in the mid- 1940s. And that too for a much larger area.

How do they compare today? Chinese Railways today has 78,000 route kilometres, overtaking India sometime in the mid 1990s making only the rail networks in the USA and Russia larger in size. The total track length is 154,600km. By contrast Indian Railways has stagnated at  63,327 route kilometres of network.

The Indian Railways has suffered from the same neglect and apathy towards creating a solid foundation of infrastructure, as our roads, power, irrigation, airports.

As of 2007, Chinese Railway owned about 578,000 freight wagons, 44,000 coaches and 18,300 locomotives. India had 225000 freight wagons, 45000 passenger coaches and 8300 locomotives.

This vast difference in the number of freight wagons and locomotives explains why Indian railways carries less than a quarter, ~22%, of the freight carried by the Chinese Railways.

In 1950 Indian Railways carried 44 billion freight tonne km, against 39 billion in the case of Chinese Railways.

Last year, India moved 750 Million MT of freight last year while China moved 4. 5 times that i.e 3300 Million MT of freight.

On a global basis, China’s rail transport volume is one of the world’s largest, having six percent of the world’s operating railways, and carrying 25 percent of the world’s total railway workload.

China regularly runs heavy-haul freight transportation speed limit to 120 km/h. The highest speed notched up for a freight train, on the Indian Railways is 100 km/h (62 mph) for a 4,700 metric tonne load.

The Chinese Railways plans to spend US$ 292 billion ~ 15 lakh crore [ 1lakh = 0.1million = 100000, 1crore = 10million = 10000000] over 10 years. This translates to Rs 1.5lakh crore per year spent on the Chinese Railways for Capital Expenditure. In contrast the Indian Railways spends just a quarter (1/4) of what the Chinese Railways spends. The proposed investment for the 2008-2009 fiscal year is Rs. 37,500 cr, which in itself 21% more than for the previous fiscal year.

And passengers? Indian railways moved 6.2 billion passengers while China moved 1.4 billion passengers. What is to be noted is that out of the 6.2 billion passengers that Indian railways carried, 1.1 billion are Mumbai suburban passengers which are short lead passengers and can be considered a different subsidiary.

However the quality of passenger travel in the Chinese Railway is far superior. Chinese has express trains with speeds of 300kms/hr. Maximum speed of a passenger train in India is about half of the Chinese Railways at 160kms/ hr. The pictures of the Chinese High-Speed Railway (CHR) will give you an idea of the qualitative difference in passenger rail travel between China and India.

Chinese High Speed Railway Trains

The Chinese Railways depended on steam locomotives till the 21st century while India phased out their steam locomotives ahead of the Chinese in 1990s. In December 2005, the world’s last regular revenue mainline steam train finished its journey on the Jitong Railway marking the end of steam era. Nevertheless, there are still some steam locomotives used in the industrial railways in China.

The Chinese Railways are organized in a more modern and business-like manner. Five major railway corporations — one each for rolling stock, railway construction, goods and materials, civil engineering, signalling and telecommunications — have been separated from transport enterprises and made autonomous, although state-owned. A number of passenger and freight transport companies have been created to operate on a competitive basis. These enterprises will finally be regrouped into three to five larger, separate companies.

The government has encouraged local authorities to build and operate their own railways up to 2,000 km. By the end of 1999, there were approximately 75 local railways with a total route-length of 4,800 km. About 20 more such projects, totalling 1,800 km, are under construction. To attract foreign capital, Chinese rail enterprises are encouraged to issue stocks on overseas stock markets. In 2001, their ministry of railways (MoR) also approved foreign participation in rail freight transport.

In contrast, as with most things in this country- education system, justice system, government (IAS, IPS …), we have just taken what the British have given us and using them without Indianizing and modifying it to the changing needs and requirements. We have the Railway Board, under the Ministry of Railways – the same structure that the British setup more than 100 years ago!!

Employees Chinese Railways employs 3.18million people while the Indian Railways has employs 1.6millionemployees. This translates to a productivity of 1308 MT/ employee on the Chinese Railways, double that of the 652MT / employee on the Indian Railways.

The Chinese Railways has already linked itself to the Europe and runs regular container trains. This is an alternative to the sea-route to Europe. This is part of the Pan-Asia rail network plan.

The railway to Tibet makes Chinese logistics and supply lines so accessible in case of a conflict with India. While India is just now built a part of the railway line in Kashmir and is just now planning a railway to Sikkim. A railway to Arunachal Pradesh is nowhere close to planning.

So to summarize, here is a table.


Indian Railways

Chinese Railways

Route kms (1945/1947)

Route kms (current)





Freight Carried (Billion MT per year)



Passengers carried (billions/year)

6.2 billion

1.4 billion

Investment per year (Rs Cr)



Number of


Freight Wagons

Passenger Coaches












Maximum Speed (kms/hr)

Freight Trains

Passenger Trains







Reminds you of the Hare and the Tortoise story! Except that here, the Hare is way ahead of the Tortoise. And the Hare is moving ever faster all the time while the Tortoise is falling behind!!