Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu presented the Union Rail Budget for the financial year 2016-17 on Thursday in Parliament. The minister spared fare and freight rate hikes, keeping passenger amenities in focus, spanning ease of booking tickets and cancellations to actual comfort and cleanliness.
The minister, several members in Lok Sabha said, probably left the decision on whether he would raise fare and freight hikes or not to a later date. The minister, in the process, de-linked it from the budgetary exercise for the first time. Prabhu, in his 68-minute speech, highlighted the need for an independent watchdog for railways, alluding that such matters could be dealt by it.
He also significantly enhanced the plan outlay for developmental projects to Rs. 1.21 lakh crores. "This year, our investment will be close to double of the average of previous years -- a feat never achieved earlier," he said while tabling the Rail Budget in the Lok Sabha.
Prabhu announced a host of steps to boost the functioning of the Indian Railways like adding 65,000 berths on trains, 2,500 water vending machines, 17,000 bio-toilets in coaches, 1,780 automatic ticketing machines, 120,000 concurrent users for e-ticketing, and introducing e-catering services at 408 stations across the country.
He said that apart from these measures, the quota of lower berths for senior citizens will be increased by 50 percent to 120 such seats per train. He added that more stations will come under the special scheme for old and differently-abled passengers. He announced that a new train “Tejas” will be introduced.
"These are challenging times, may be one of the toughest," he said, adding: "This budget will document a journey of transformation, the journey of our nation, by touching millions of human lives daily."
But there have been some slippages as well in terms of improving the operating ratio that spells out how much of the revenue generated is spent on day-to-day operations. Globally, a 75-80 percent or lower operating ratio is seen as a healthy benchmark. In the 2015-16 Rail Budget, Prabhu had targeted to bring the operating ratio down to 88.5 percent, or the lowest in nine years, from an unsustainable level of 93.6 percent in 2013-14 and 91.8 percent for 2014-15. But this has proved elusive.
"For the year 2016-17, we expect an operating ratio of 92 percent after including the immediate impact of the 7th Pay Commission, as against 90 percent likely to be achieved in the current year."
The minister assured that the Indian Railways’ performance will improve as the “three pillars of strategic thought process are adopted”. They include new ways of generating revenues, new norms for spending money and new structures for executive projects and programmes.
According to official data, India boasts the fourth largest railway network in the world with some 64,460 route km, after the US (224,792), Russia (128,000) and China (112,00). Nearly 21,000 trains ply daily to ferry 23 million passengers and 3 million of freight.
The network spans 29 states and three union territories via some 8,500 stations. It criss-crosses Baramulla in Jammu and Kashmir in the north to Kanyakumari in Tamil Nadu in the south and Ledo in Assam in the east to Naliya in Gujarat in the west.