Suresh Prabhu presents passenger-friendly railway budget

HYDERABAD: Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu presented in Parliament on Thursday a passenger-friendly railway budget, avoiding the temptation of hiking railway fares and resisting pressures from States to introduce new trains.

Mr. Prabhu has received compliments for not indulging in grandstanding, it must be said that there was no case for a fare hike as the loss-making Railways stands to save US $ 2 billion due to fall in diesel prices. This is the first full-year’s railway budget of the Modi Government and billed as an indication of what lies in store for the general budget which will be presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on February 28.

The Minister’s disinclination to hike passenger fares disappointed the markets which began showing a downturn.  Railways incur a loss of Rs. 26,000 crore on passenger fares which is cross-subsidized by freight fares. However, the Railways has been losing market share in goods transportation to the road sector as freight fares are among the highest in the world.

The most significant of the railway budget – widely perceived as progressive rather than populist—is Mr. Prabhu’s resolve to end the “vicious cycle of under-investment” in the railways. “Railway facilities have not improved substantially for the past few decades which is the result of under-investment that affects capacity, leading to poor morale”, he said. To end this vicious cycle, Mr. Prabhu proposed a plan outlay of Rs. 1.01 lakh crore for 2015-16, a huge increase of 52 per cent over the previous year.

Nine high speed corridors and high-speed trains

Mr. Prabhu said that the speed of nine railway corridors would be increased to 160 and 200 kmph and introduction of high-speed trains. The feasibility study for High Speed Rail between Mumbai and Ahmedabad was in an advanced stage and was expected by mid-2015, he added.

He also announced a 67 per cent increase in the allocation for passenger amenities like “Operation 5 minutes” which will allow a passenger travelling unreserved to buy a ticket within five minutes of entering the railway station.

The other passenger-friendly measures are e-catering to select meals from an array of choices including pizzas, Wi-Fi facilities at B category railway stations, 24 X 7 helplines for attending passenger problems and security-related complaints, surveillance cameras in suburban trains, disposable linen, more general class coaches in identified trains and mobile charging facilities in general compartments.

He said 7,000 toilets would be replaced with bio-toilets and new toilets built at 650 stations. A new department would be established for keeping stations and trains clean under Swachh Rail Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. He said railway tickets could now be booked 120 days in advance.

The Minister said the Railways would become prime mover of the Indian Economy and proposed a five year action plan. He proposed an increase in the investment in the overloaded railway network to 8.5 trillion rupees over the next five years with focus on modernizing existing tracks and introducing faster trains.  The ratio of rail revenue available for investments would rise to 11.5 per cent in the coming fiscal from 8.2 per cent during 2014-15, he added.

Railway assets to be monetized and not sold

Monetisation of railway resources rather than selling assets would be the focus, the Minister said indicating that stations would have much commercial component than now. As expected, Mr. Prabhu announced several green initiatives like setting up 1,000 MW solar plants, installing water recycling plants and making efforts to get noise levels of locos down to international levels.

He said select routes will have Train Protection Warning System and Train Collision Avoidance System and the number of unmanned level crossing reduced by 3,438. As many as 77 new projects covering 9,400 kms of doubling/tripling/quadrupling works were proposed by him.

The Minister, in fulfillment of the Modi Government’s promises, said a big thrust would be given to railway connectivity in North-Eastern States and in Jammu & Kashmir. For farmers, Mr. Prabhu offered a special travel scheme called Kisan Yatra besides a state-of-the-art perishable cargo centre, which is now in an advanced stage of construction.

Sixty-one-year old Mr. Prabhu, an accountant by profession and Minister for Power in the Vajpayee Government, however, faced criticism that he had announced ambitious schemes without indicating the resources to execute them.

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