Suresh Prabhu covered a lot of ground in his railway budget setting out four goals, five drivers and 11 thrust areas for his ministry. First the good news: No new trains or projects were announced, which means that already crowded tracks will not be further burdened and we will see an improved punctuality of passenger and goods trains. The bad news is that he has shied away from hiking passenger fares which remain abysmally low at Rs 0.30 per km, lower than Delhi Metro’s fare of Rs 1 per km.
Leading the 11 ‘thrust areas’ is ‘quality of journey’ for the passengers ranging from providing 17,000 bio-toilets in coaches to 650 new toilets at various stations. He has promised e-catering on 108 trains for passengers to get the food of their choice, apps for train bookings, improved access for the disabled, new helplines for women and the facility to purchase a ticket online in five minutes!
He also proposed more satellite terminals to reduce overcrowding of existing ones, but has pinned his hopes on the PPP (Public Private Partnership) model which is a highly indeterminate option and could result in turning over Railways’ land to property dealers. Some new innovations include setting up electronic displays at 2000 major stations to show real time status of trains, of course with private participation which would lead to advertising, adding to the cacophony and noise pollution on platforms.
Booking tickets 120 days in advance will undoubtedly help citizens to plan in advance, but a higher penalty for last minute cancellation of booking would have also helped to discourage touts who manage to block tickets during the busy festival season.
Prabhu has placed great faith in union transport, highways and shipping minister Nitin Gadkari who would help him with providing rail connectivity to ports. For improving rail safety he has drawn heavily on the Anil Kakodkar report proposing the ATP (Automatic Train Protection) system which will be very expensive.
Plans are afoot for roping in PSUs to partner the Railways in providing better connectivity to transport their raw material and finished products such as coal, steel and cement. Prabhu has claimed a good preliminary response but how much this will translate into reality remains to be seen.
Businesses will welcome proposals for automatic fare rebate for loading wagons on (empty) return journeys. But the results could be mixed since matching consignments with availability of empty wagons will not be easy and could also result in higher wagon turnround affecting operational efficiency.
Suresh has promised to build 970 RUBs (Road Under Bridge) and ROBs (Road Over Bridge) to eliminate unmanned level crossings that caused accidents.
Setting up a Logistics Corporation will usher in an era of greater involvement by the Railways in multi-modal transport by setting up new facilities at hundreds of disused goods sheds. Undoubtedly partnering with major private logistics providers will be crucial for the success of the scheme.
The only redeeming feature of this year’s rail budget is the fact that at last realisation has dawned on the powers that be, that populism has to give way to pragmatism for regaining the financial health of the nation’s economic life line and a crucial engine of growth!
The size of the Plan Budget has gone up by 52% from Rs. 65,798 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 1,00,011 crore in 2015-16. Support from the central government constitutes 41.6% of the total Plan budget and internal generation 17.8%, perhaps the best financial indicator to ensure that the Railways will at last be moving on the right track.
RC Acharya is a former member of the Railway Board
The views expressed by the author are personal