Railways minister Suresh Prabhu, in his maiden Rail Budget, has not announced any new trains or projects. This is good news as it means that the already-crowded tracks are going to be relieved of further crowding. This will allow the existing passenger trains to strive to maintain punctuality and, most importantly, permit goods trains to run faster.
However, Mr Prabhu has not closed the doors yet on new trains, promising a review by a committee in next few months to come up with some suggestions in the hope that perhaps the members of Parliament will soon forget about it.
The bad news is that he has once again shied away from hiking passenger fares, which remain abysmally low at Rs 0.30 per kilometre. This is the lowest fare in the world. In fact, it is much lower than the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation fare of Rs 1 per km and Rs 4 per km of the Reliance Metro in Mumbai.
Mr Prabhu has strived to cover a lot of ground in his effort to make the railways regain its place as the engine of economic growth, for which he has set out four goals, five drivers and 11 thrust areas.
Undoubtedly, his fast-paced presentation had the ears of Lok Sabha members except when he suggested that MPs, along with corporates could pitch in and fund some of the rail projects or passenger facilities at railway stations in their respective constituencies with the Rs 1 crore MPLAD (MP Local Area Development) funds at their disposal.
Understandably, the MPs did not sound happy even though two MPs from Maharashtra had already obliged Mr Prabhu as he hastened to announce their names on the floor of the Lok Sabha.
At the top of his 11 “thrust areas” is improving the quality of journey for the passengers, which included providing 17,000 bio-toilets in coaches, cleaner stations with specially set-up multi-disciplinary organisation to ensure compliance, new toilets at 650 stations as against 120 provided last year. This all seems to be a part of Prime Minister Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
Promising to usher in e-catering on 108 trains to get passengers food of their choice from fancy brands, apps to provide train booking on the go, wheelchairs for physically disabled and transport at the terminal, etc. — all paid services — is a part of his initiative to improve the quality of travel. All this is now IRCTC’s baby, which will have to put in a lot of hard work to make it all these proposals a resounding success.
Setting up more satellite terminals to reduce over crowding of existing ones is also on the cards for which Mr Prabhu has pinned his hopes on public-private partnership model. This could, perhaps, result in turning over the existing area and land bank to property dealers. To ensure that this does not happen, a committee of experts to oversee this initiative has been proposed.
Some 2,000 major stations will now have electronic displays to show real-time status of various trains. But again this will be done with private participation and the private entities will be permitted to advertise, which will only add to the noise pollution.
Booking tickets 120 days in advance would help citizens to plan their travel in advance, but perhaps higher penalty for last minute ticket cancellation should have been proposed to discourage touts who manage to block tickets during festival rush.
Mr Prabhu has also persuaded Nitin Gadkari, the minister for shipping, to shell out around Rs 2,000 crore to provide rail connectivity to ports, while plans are afoot to get some of the cash rich PSUs, such as coal, steel, etc. to partner railways in providing better connectivity.
Proposals of an automatic freight rebate scheme in an effort to reduce empty flows of wagons in traditional empty flow direction, will be welcomed by shippers. However, the task of matching consignments with availability of empty wagons will not be easy.
Setting up a logistics corporation will usher in an era of railways’ greater involvement in multi-modal transport by setting up new facilities at hundreds of disused goods sheds. Here the partnership with a major private logistics provider will be crucial for the success of this scheme.
While Mr Prabhu has proved that he has noble intentions to bring railways back on track, most of his proposals come with attached corollaries. The success of Mr Prabhu’s plans will depend on effective management and use of funds and the earnestness of the railways to put the plan into practice. Perhaps, the biggest takeaway from this year’s Rail Budget is the fact that populism has, at last, given way to pragmatism, at least for this year.
The writer is former member of the Railway Board