Wednesday, Feb 27, 2002
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- 25 new express trains to be introduced
- Freight tariff rationalised
- Measures to net Rs. 1,360 crores
NEW DELHI, FEB. 26. The Railway Minister, Nitish Kumar, today opted for politically tough measures to tackle the financial paradox facing the Railways. The passenger fare and freight rate increases proposed in the Railway budget for 2002-03 are expected to net an additional Rs. 1,360 crore - 910 through passenger fares and 450 through freight.
Presenting the budget in the Lok Sabha, Mr. Kumar proposed higher charges for most passenger classes, but refrained from the easier alternative of an across-the-board hike in freight rates. Thus, while losses from the passenger services are sought to be curtailed, freight rates have been finetuned and concessions reduced to counter the stiff competition posed by the road transport sector.
The passenger fare hike, the highest-ever resource mobilisation effort, addresses the problem of unrealistically low second class fares, but the Minister failed to resist the annual ritual of an upward revision in the middle-class patronised AC-3 tier and AC-2 classes. However, the fares of Rajdhani Express and Shatabdi trains have been left untouched to increase occupancy levels. In a sop to young families, Mr. Kumar proposed free food for children under five years on these trains.
The AC-1 fare has been marginally reduced to bring more paying passengers on board. This class has low occupancy rates and most passengers are from the ``non-paying'' category because on some sections the fare is more than that of air travel.
Mr. Kumar attempted to spread the fruits of liberalisation by proposing `Jan Shatabdis', whose running time would be the same as that of their elite versions but the fare would suit the pocket of the common man.
Explaining the rationale behind the passenger fare hike in the `Passenger Amenities Year' and sparing of the freight segment, Mr. Kumar said the tariff structure had to be finetuned to attract larger volumes and ward off competitive pressures on the Railways in the liberalised economy. He pointed out that despite an increase in the working expenses, there had been no increase in passenger fares for the past two years except for a safety surcharge, levied from October 2001, to create a non- lapsable fund for replacing overaged assets.
Mr. Kumar promised computer-based unreserved, monthly and quarterly season tickets even from locations other than the boarding station. A pilot project would begin in the next fiscal to extend the benefits of the IT revolution to the 12 million unreserved passengers daily, out of a total 13 million patronising the Railways. The computerised passenger reservation system (PRS) would be extended to the hinterlands by relaxing the criteria to include stations where the workload is above 100 transactions per day. A total of 150 more PRS terminals are planned in the next fiscal, taking their total number to 850.
Terming the Railways as a ``visible symbol'' of the Government, Mr. Kumar tried to address concerns relating to passenger safety and hygiene. The Railway Protection Force may be entrusted with the safety of passengers by making legislative changes. This task is now performed by the Government Railway Police, whose personnel are on temporary deputation from the State police forces.
On the food front, 50 ``food plazas'' - to be run by well-known operators - would be opened at railway stations while the water problem would be alleviated by a Railways-marketed bottled drinking water under the `Rail Neer' brand.
While restraint on the freight rate front is a cornerstone of the railway strategy to hold on to its market share, the other policy initiative proposed includes the handing over of booking and handling facilities to private entrepreneurs to make customer interface more responsive. Construction of revenue-yielding lines are being encouraged by entering into joint-ventures with ports on a cost-sharing basis.
On the modernisation front, the Railways would breathe easier since Rs. 2,200 crores would accrue from the PM's Special Railway Safety Fund. This would enable the Railways apportion an additional Rs. 1,000 crores for replacing overaged tracks, Rs. 300 crores more for rolling stock (as compared to revised estimates for 2001-02) and double the funds for bridges and signalling and telecom.
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