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In paper? Or in action?
Indian Railway is getting ready for a better future. Innovation, policy changes, effective monitoring of pending projects, attracting FDI, increased attention to passenger amenities... have received deserved attention.

Will rail travel be a better experience after hearing our rail minister, Sadanand Gowda on the rail budget 2014-15?

With a recent fare hike of 14.2 per cent, that conveniently side-stepped the Parliament, the public had apprehensions of more burden in the maiden railway budget of the new government. In the end, what we have got is the promise of a modernised rail system.

The minister had three concerns: one, of the sanctioned 676 projects only 317 projects had been completed. Horror of horrors, in the last 10 years 99 new line projects were sanctioned but only ONE has seen the light of the day. Two, passenger fares have been plugged below cost. And three, freight fares are so high that the traffic has got diverted from the railroads.

The fare hike will generate Rs 8000 crore. Surprise of surprises, the minister has allowed private investment in rail infrastructure through the FDI (requires cabinet approval) route and has sought to target future projects through public private partnership. This is fair play considering that we need Rs 9 lakh crore to complete the Golden Quadrilateral and about Rs 60,000 crore for introducing just one bullet train. Railways cost the government around Rs 30,000 crore in subsidies and it spends 94 per cent of revenues on operating costs, leaving next to nothing for investment.

Indian Railways have been both a monopoly and government hegemony and everything that is wrong with the public sector is witnessed in it. The minister has announced major welcome reforms. These include: safety, cleanliness, and passenger amenities. Rs 40,000 crore would be needed to be needed for track renewals, elimination of unmanned level crossing and construction of road-under-bridges and road-over-bridges.

Special packages for pilgrim circuits and introducing new trains are a plus to tourism. The reservation system will be revamped with booking made available through mobiles and post offices. Then there is the plan to improve ticketing to support 7200 tickets per minute against 2000 tickets per minute today.  There are plans to try out coin operated automatic ticket vending machines, and facilities to buy platform tickets and unreserved tickets online.

Bullet trains will make a start with the launch of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed track. Around Rs 50,000 crore per year for next 10 years, are required for ongoing projects.

With the inherent inefficiencies in the Railways, moves like increasing speed of trains to 160-200 kmph in 9 sectors, introduction of new trains, WiFi in select trains; setting up a Railways university; solar energy to be tapped at major stations; all provide for a paradigm shift.

The Budget is replete with ideas but lacks timeline promise and a proper blueprint for implementations. Given the size of our Railways, and its growth potential in the context of our needs, government should pursue this path for maximum economic gain for the country.




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