With the hikes in passenger fares and freight rates implemented like a bolt from the blue a few weeks ago, railway minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda’s maiden Rail Budget was a tame affair. The only shocker, as far as passengers are concerned, is his proposal to link future passenger fare hikes to the rise in fuel prices This would neutralise the effects of the rising cost of fuel on the railways. The Budget document, however, was more a vision statement and a measure of his intent for the railways in the coming months.
It had multiple focuses, from people-centric amenities at railway stations and on trains to a lot of opportunities for private-public partnership, foreign direct investment, safety and outsourcing of work, particularly in cleanliness, sanitation and water provision at railway stations. In keeping with the character of his boss, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mr Gowda should have given a timeframe for achieving the amenities and proposals he has made. This is most important, for instance, in changing over to bio-toilets. This was talked about before but nothing happened, so a time-bound installation of these would be assuring. Mr Gowda is placing a lot of hope on the public-private partnership (PPP) mode for development of future projects.
The experience of the railways of the PPP model has not been edifying. It had, in fact, been a failure in the earlier regime. This was reflected in the shortfall in the revised plan expenditure target that was due to the non-materialisation of the PPP target. Perhaps one of the more significant tasks the minister has had to undertake is to reverse the skewed priorities followed by the Manmohan Singh government, namely spending more on new lines that were under-used rather than on doubling and tripling the existing ones to decongest the over-utilised network. He has indicated the course-corrections he would be undertaking. An area in which the Rail Budget really falls short is security and safety. He has indeed said they were recruiting 17,000 male constables for the RPF and 4,000 women RPF constables. He said special instructions would be issued for safety of women travelling alone and women RPF constables would escort ladies-only coaches. But somehow this does not inspire confidence.
One will have to see how this works. As far as safety on the rails is concerned, the proposal to use a modern, vehicle-borne ultrasonic flaw-detection system to detect rail and weld fractures is welcome as is the ultrasonic broken rail detection system that will be tried at two locations as a pilot project. The urgency of getting this going on a national scale cannot be underestimated considering the number of accidents this year alone, many of them ostensibly because of fractured rails.