Despite the ‘Garib Rath’, the air-conditioned trains for the poor, Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Railway Budget is not the populist tract that was expected. In fact, it is pragmatic and has moved a considerable distance from the beaten track. The Railways has taken on the challenge of competing with cheap airlines and road-borne freight. Freight rates have been made flexible and AC I and AC II class fares reduced with more flexibility promised. From this perspective, even the Garib Rath is not such a bad idea. Air- conditioning need no longer be seen as a luxury for the well-heeled traveller.
The clearest signal in the Railway Budget is that the Railways has once again begun thinking big. This is manifest in its largest-ever Plan outlay of Rs 23,475 crore, 32 per cent higher than the current Plan. Besides the usual pot pourri of new lines and doubling of projects, the Railways will begin work on construction of two high-speed dedicated freight corridors moving east and west from Delhi, which will cost Rs 22,000 crore. While the prime minister has called on Japan to formally consider its funding, it is clear that the Railways are ready to go ahead, using internal resources if necessary. This changed mindset results from the great success that the Railways has had in recent years through its ‘increase volumes-reduce unit costs’ strategy. The far-sighted freight management system launched in the late Eighties has led to the generation of Rs 11,000 crore internal reserves.
This said, we are still a long way from providing a world-class system in terms of speed, safety and travelling comfort. A big concern in recent years has been safety against ‘human-error’ accidents and crime. But with the Budget’s positive signals, these no longer seem to be insurmountable problems.