New Delhi, Feb 26 Train fares remain unchanged. Charges on some services such as tatkal and reservation will be hiked. Freight charges will rise. The extant, unreliable e-reservation system will be replaced. As many as 106 new trains will be introduced. A swanky coach will be added on select trains. And all key stations will have escalators.
These are some high points of Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal's Rs.63,363-crore (Rs.633.63 billion or $11.5 billion) maiden annual budget for his ministry tabled in the lower house of parliament Tuesday that borders on populism with a fair dose of measures on fiscal discipline, safety and travel comfort.
The other highlights include seven more executive lounges at key stations, elimination of unmanned level crossings, sprucing up the Railway Protection Force for the safety of passengers especially women, deployment of a new anti-collision system, free wi-fi in select trains and modern kitchens with strict quality control.
"The growth of Indian Railways is inextricably linked with the growth of the country," Bansal said in his 80-minute budget speech -- the last such annual exercise for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government before the next general election scheduled in 2014.
"Indian Railways must remain financially sustainable so that resources generated can be ploughed back for efficient upkeep, operation and maintenance of the system itself for the benefit of the rail users," he said, setting the tone for frequent adjustments in train fares and freight tariff.
"The UPA government is sensitive to the needs of the people and it was after some wide consultations and deliberations that some revision was effected in fares from Jan 22," he said of the recent hike in fares, while also proposing automatic revisions in freight tariff based on fluctuations in fuel charges.
"As regards passenger fares, since these were revised only in January this year, I do not intend to pass on the additional burden to them now and railways will absorb the impact of Rs.850 crore (Rs.8.5 billion or $155 million) on this account," said Bansal, the first Congress party minister to present a rail budget in 17 years.
But where the passengers will have to shell out more will be in services such as tatkal, which has been hiked from a minimum of Rs.75 now to Rs.90 for a sleeper class ticket and from Rs.200 to Rs.300 for an executive class ticket.
This apart, the clerk charges have been hiked by between Rs.5 and Rs.10 and cancellation charges have been raised by between Rs.10 and Rs.50. The enhanced reservation fee has been scrapped. The hike in freight works out to around an average of 5.8 percent.
"It is a reformist and forward looking budget which presents a realistic picture of railway finances," Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said of the budget, even as the opposition called it wanting in a host of areas.
"The rail budget has definitely exposed the UPA government's inability and the lack of vision to revive the ailing Indian Railways," said Rajnath Singh, president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the principal opposition.
Bansal said that while making all these proposals, he was happy to note that the operating ratio of Indian Railways -- money spent on recurring costs such as salaries, wages and interest to earn Rs.1 in revenue -- had come down to 88 paise from around 95 paise.
"Lower operational ratio announced by the minister will help provide for the much needed funds which can help modernization," the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) said, as the corporate sector largely expressed satisfaction with the proposals.
Passengers were happy they were spared a fare hike but hoped promises on travel comfort will be kept.
"I hope the net ticketing system improves. I've never managed a tatkal ticket. They seem to vanish in minutes. Hope something is done on that," said Satish Nair, an accountant here who finds it hard to get tickets to his hometown in Kerala.
The minister said railways remained the single most important catalyst in India's growth story and was a vital organisation integrating the nation from Baramulla in the north to Kanyamumari in the south, and from Dwaraka in the west to Ledo in the east.
The country's railroad network, ranked among the top five in the world, is spread over 64,000 km with 7,083 stations, to ferry 23 million travellers and 2.65 million tonnes of goods daily on 12,000 passenger and 7,000 freight trains. It employs some 1.4 million people.
The railways' sheer contribution to the economy and the role it plays in nation-building is what has prompted a separate budget since 1920 -- long before independence in 1947.
Bansal, who represents Chandigarh in the Lok Sabha, said he was well aware about the problems faced by passengers while booking tickets on the internet. He promised a next-generation ticketing system by the end of this year.
"The system shall be able to support 7,200 tickets per minute against 2,000 tickets per minute today. It'll support 120,000 simultaneous users at any point against the present capacity of 40,000 users with capability to easily scale up as demand increases."
The advocate-turned politician also extended the internet reservation timing from 00:30 hours to 23:30 hours, promised a new system to book tickets through mobile phones, SMS alerts for reservation status and free wi-fi on select trains.