Rail Budget 2015: No fare hike, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu aims for transformation

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New Delhi: Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu on Thursday spared passengers from any hike in fares but made changes in freight rates to rake in more money while ruling out privatisation. Presenting the first full-fledged Rail Budget of the Modi government for 2015-16, he made adjustments in freight rates that exempted salt but would hike rates on carriage of cement, coal and coke, iron or steel and petroleum products.

The Budget also revised the commodity classification and distance slabs for carriage of commodities that can raise freight rates up to 10 per cent in some of the items.

The Minister did not project any figures that will accrue out of the adjustment in freight rates to be effective from April 1 this year. “I have not increased passenger fares. We are directing our efforts to make travel on Indian railways a happy experience with a mix of various initiatives,” he said as he laid out 11 major thrust areas of railways in the coming financial year. He did not announce any new trains, saying on the ground that a review was on about the capacity to add more trains, which will be announced after the review is over.

Against the backdrop of talk of privatisation of railways, the Minister said Railways will continue to be a precious national asset and people of India will own railways always. In the hour-long speech, Prabhu unveiled the thrust areas as the national carrier to become the prime mover of economy again, resource mobilisation for higher investments, decongestion of heavy routes and speeding up of trains, passenger amenities and safety. Outlining the budget estimates for the coming year, he proposed a plan outlay of Rs 1,00,011 crore, an increase of 52 per cent over revised estimate of 2014-15.

Passenger earnings growth has been pegged at 16.7 per cent and earnings target budgeted at Rs 50,175 crore. Goods earnings is accordingly proposed at Rs 1,21,423 crore, which includes rationalisation of rates, commodity classification and distance slabs. Other coaching and sundries are projected at Rs 4612 crore and Rs 7318 crore. Gross traffic receipts are estimated at Rs 1,83,578 crore, a growth of 15.3 per cent.

Prabhu said over the next five years, Railways envisage an investment of Rs 8.5 lakh crore for which a broad indicative investment plan has been prepared. “But the scale of investment needs is such that it will require us to seek multiple sources of funding. We will tap other sources of finance. Multilateral development banks and pension funds have expressed keen interest in financing new investments. “They seek sources of predictable and recurring revenue, which we can provide through the issuance of long debt instruments to fund revenue-generating railway projects,” the Minister said.

The 11 thrust areas include cleanliness, new toilets covering 650 new stations, bio-toilets, national fashion technology to design bed linen, online disposal of bed rolls, and 24×7 helpline number for security related complaints. An ‘Operation five minutes’ will be introduced for issuing unreserved tickets besides other initiatives like hot buttons, coin vending machines and concessional e-tickets for differently-abled passengers. E-catering will be launched for select meals from an array of choices, ordering food through IRCTC websites at the time of booking tickets and integrating best food chains into the project.

The Rail Minister set four goals to transform the national transporter over the next five years. These include delivery of a sustained and measurable improvement in customer experience and to make rail a safer means of travel. It also includes expansion of railways’ capacity substantially and modernise infrastructure (increasing daily passenger carrying capacity from 21 million to 30 million; increase track length by 20 per cent from 1,14,000 kms to 1,38,000 kms; growth of annual freight carrying capacity from 1 billion to 1.5 billion tonnes).

Making the railways financially self-sustainable is also one of the goals. For this, large surpluses are to be generated from operations, not only to service the debt needed to fund capacity expansion, but also to invest on an ongoing basis to replace depreciating assets, Prabhu said.

Giving details of investments segment-wise, he earmarked Rs 1,99,320 crore for network decogestion, including DFC and electrification. Rs 1,93,000 crore were earmarked for network expansion, Rs 39000 crore for national projects (North Eastern and Kashmir connectivity projects) and Rs 1,27,000 for safety (track renewal, bridge works, road overbridge, road underbridge, and signalling and telecom).

Rs 5000 crore was allocated for information technology/research, Rs 1,02,000 crore for rolling stock (locomotives, coaches, wagons production and maintenance), Rs 12,500 crore for passenger amenities, Rs 65,000 crore for high speed rail and elevated corridor, Rs 1,00,000 crore for station redevelopment and logistic parks.

Prabhu also announced a number of new passenger-friendly initiatives like ‘Operation 5-minute’ so that ticketless passengers get regular tickets within five minutes of entering station.

Other steps include making railway helpline number 138 operational 24×7, toll-free number 182 for security-related complaints and CCTVs in select trains for women safety. SMS alert service is to be introduced to inform passengers about train arrival/departure, while wi-fi facility would be introduced at 400 railway stations. Rail-cum-road ticket is to be extended to many stations and more trains are proposed to be added under scheme for ordering food while booking tickets.

More general class coaches are to be added in identified trains and more air-conditioned EMU services would be introduced on Mumbai suburban section. Tickets can now be booked 120 days ahead of travel date, instead of 60 days now, to tackle tout menace. Projects worth Rs 96,182 crore to be undertaken to expand capacity of 9,420 km rail lines. Feasibility report of high-speed train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is expected by middle of this year, the Minister said.

Four dedicated freight corridors are to be completed this year, while 6,608 kms of track are to be electrified, he said. Wagon-making scheme is to be reviewed to make it easier for private investment, he said. Speed on nine corridors is to be increased from 110-130 to 160-200 kms per hour respectively, Prabhu said. A 5-year corporate safety plan is to be ready in three months to identify annual quantifiable targets.

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