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No fare hike, eye on travel comfort in India's rail budget

Posted on Feb 26, 03:21PM | IANS

New Delhi, Feb 26 : With no fare hikes, 106 new trains and a host of proposals for travel safety and comfort, such as escalators at key stations, a new e-ticketing system and a swanky coach in select trains, Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal presented his maiden annual budget for his ministry Tuesday.

"The growth of Indian Railways is inextricably linked with the growth of the country," Bansal said in his 80-minute budget speech in Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, that clearly bordered on populism with a fair dose of measures on fiscal discipline.

"Railways must remain financially sustainable. Resources generated must be ploughed back," he said in what was the last such annual exercise for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government before the next general elections, scheduled in 2014.

But Bansal said there will be no major fare hikes this time, having already revised them last month. He nevertheless proposed minor revisions in some charges, such as those for tatkal and reservations. He also called for a routine 5-6 percent fare hike every year.

On freight, he said, there will be an upward revision of 5-6 percent from April 1 to balance the hike in fuel costs. He said freight and passenger fares must be de-linked from the fuel costs with periodic automatic adjustments.

Bansal said while making all these proposals, he was happy to note that the operating ratio of Indian Railways -- the money spent on recurring costs such as salaries and interest to earn Rs.1 in revenue -- had come down to 88 paise from around 95 paise.

He kept the plan target for 2013-14 at Rs.63,363 crore (Rs.633.63 billion or $11.5 billion)

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 Dwarka in the west to Ledo in the east.

Bansal expressed grief over the loss lives due to the recent stampede at the Allahabad station and said a concrete safety plan would ensure that travel on Indian Railways is hassel free. The minister said safety of women, in particular, will be a priority.

He said the remaining 13,000-odd unmanned level crossings will be mechanised, while 400 lifts and 179 escalators will be deployed in catagory one stations. This apart, coaches will be made wheel-chair friendly and approaches made easy for the differently-abled.

"With the popularity of Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains, high-travel comfort has been high on passenger agenda. For this, one such coach, that will provide excellent ambience and services, will run on select trains. Such coaches will be called 'Anubhuti'," he said.

India'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.

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. Accordingly, he promised a next-generation ticketing system by the end of this year.

The advocate-turned politician also promised a new e-ticketing system through mobile phones, SMS alerts for reservation status and free wi-fi on select trains, apart from setting a target of Rs.1 trillion for projects under public-private partnership.