Commuters drive no-frills rail budget
PRABHU’S PLAN No fare hikes or big reforms, railway minister tweaks existing system to promise better ride
Railway minister Suresh Prabhu chose gradualism over a big-bang approach on Thursday, fusing entrepreneurship with populism in a Rs 1.21 lakh crore investment plan as part of a broad strategy to turn the network into an efficient and profitable organisation.
Prabhu kept fares and freight rates unchanged in the railway budget for 2016-17, but announced new types of trains aimed at catering to the needs of passengers across the income scale. He announced the launch of Antodaya Express, a long- distance, fully unreserved, superfast train service, for the common man to be operated on dense routes.
Additionally, the railways will add Deen Dayalu coaches in some long- distance trains for unreserved travel. Another three new services — Humsafar, Tejas and UDAY — are aimed the relatively well-off passengers.
The second budget of Prabhu, a chartered accountant, had a tinge of political undertone. Two new dedicated freight corridors will connect a crucial industrial town in West Bengal — Kharagapur — to Mumbai and Vijaywada, respectively. The third will run from Delhi to Chennai. A dedicated auto rail hub will also come up in the southern metropolis.
The projects were announced weeks before assembly polls are to be held in both West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Prabhu, who was hailed for adopting a business-strategy approach to turn around the decrepit 163-year-old network, placed the focus firmly on passengers, announcing a raft of amenities.
These include allowing passengers to cancel tickets by calling in at the dedicated telephone number 139, installing 17,000 hi-tech toilets on trains, rolling out wi-fi services in hundreds of stations and professionalising millions of porters or “coolies” by training them in soft skills and renaming them “sahayaks” (helpers).
Prabhu, who laid out a Rs 8.56 crore five-year turnaround plan last year, had very little room to splurge given a ballooning wage and pension bill on account of the 7th pay commission payouts.
“New revenues, new norms and new structures need to be evolved,” Prabhu said in his hour-long speech.