The first impression gained from Mamata Banerji’s budget for Railways is the focus on passenger services. This is a refreshing change as the railway is the people’s choice of travel in a country as populous and large as ours.
The budget indicates intent towards broadbased passenger infrastructure development. Whether it is the introduction of new trains, enhanced ticketing arrangements, review of the Tatkal scheme or upgradation of railway stations, improved catering, student and other concessions, the passenger concerns appear to hold centrestage. Some new ideas include non-stop trains between cities, infotainment on select trains and provision of a doctor on long distance trains.
There are other related matters like a coach factory at Kanchrapara, international facilities at identified stations, air-conditioned double-decker coaches for inter-city travel as well as security improvement at specified stations.
The measures for passenger services are not all new and a number of them have been announced earlier. One cannot take exception to improvement in passenger services and one prays that the delivery of these promises does not fall woefully short, as has been the experience previously.
Another pleasant surprise is policy statement on development of the network. It is sorely in need for capacity expansion. The budget also mentions regarding the need for ascertaining the social viability of railway projects as separate from economic viability. While this may appear to be a regressive step, it is necessary to remember that even today a number of projects within the government including the roadways and railways are being justified through the viability gap funding route. This is actually another way of recognising the social need for the projects. One only hopes that this does not result in populist projects under the garb of social viability.
Even in the passenger segment, South Korea, Taiwan, China, which were lagging behind Indian Railways not many years back, today all have high speed trains of 250 km per hour plus. Today they provide technology to the Indian system --- witness the Delhi Metro. Induction of high speed trains acts as a technology and safety multiplier for the whole system. What can provide better proof than the fact that ever since the introduction of high-speed trains with the start of the Shinkansen in 1964 there has not been a single fatality on any such system worldwide. This is achieved through cutting edge technology, which has spin offs in all areas of railway working. The budget is silent on the introduction of any high speed link.
While there is mention of setting up a new coach factory in Kanchrapara, the progress of the earlier coach factory at Rae Bareilly, and the new electric and diesel locomotive factories have found no place in the budget.
The technology induction through new electric and diesel locomotive units seems a faraway dream. The projects for locomotive and coach factories will take a long time to complete but what is distressing is the length of time spent in even starting the projects.
The budget mentions creation of an industrial corridor along the route of the eastern freight corridor on lines of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor planned. This is a welcome step and would provide a fillip to industrial growth in the country and also help in improving the viability of the corridor.
The imperative need of the railway is capacity expansion, especially on the high-density routes, as well as technology upgradation. Indian Railways has been steadily losing the edge it had over the Chinese Railway in both these areas. While China has been investing heavily in rail infrastructure the same has not been the case in India.
It is necessary that Indian Railway regains its position amongst the leading world railways through increased network and advanced technology.
Sumant Chak is Director, Asian Institute of Transport Management