It is that time of the year again when people look forward to hearing about the national income and expenses; about any change in policies, new projects and schemes that government may undertake and the benefits that we, the common-folk, may derive from these. But before the national budget, it is time for the Railway Budget. This year, the Rail Budget 2016 will be presented by the Railway Minister Suresh P Prabhu on 25 February 2016.
Financially speaking, Indian Railways had hit rock bottom when the NDA government took over in 2014. The first budget was presented by D. V. Sadananda Gowda and focused on completion of all the unfinished projects undertaken by the previous UPA administration. Suresh Prabhu’s first rail budget in 2015 emphasised sharply on investment in technology and services along with setting up new tourism initiatives. This year, the people of India are looking forward to more in terms of reduced fares and better services.
Modernization is likely to be the keyword and the main focus of the 2016 rail budget. Investments in capacity building and creation of new assets are likely to go up by about 20 to 30 percent. The government is likely to woo back freight traffic lost to trucks and roadways by slashing tariff, made possible by the falling diesel prices. In 2015, Suresh Prabhu had revealed that the government was likely to invest about INR 1 trillion into its railway infrastructure over the next 5 years. Out of this about INR 400 billion funding was allocated in 2015-16. This budget is likely to see an increase in this investment as a second installment.
Apart from construction of new tracks, manning new level crossings, and other infrastructural development, the government will focus on the freight business of the railways. Freight tariff was hiked in the 2015 budget but may see some rationalization in 2016. Steel and cement transporters may benefit from discounts. The rail freight business has grown by about 1 percent this financial year but has fallen slightly short of the 1.2 billion tonnes target set for this FY. Diesel prices have fallen steadily over the past 5 years while rail freight tariff has increased by some 67 percent. This budget should address this disparity.
Focus on Modernization
The direction of the railway ministry is clear – modernization of the railways and making it the preferred and convenient mode of travel across the country. The 2016 budget is likely to introduce a number of new projects and schemes that will help modernise the railways and make it a partner of the Digital India dream. From online waiting hall booking to fully automated reservation, and from communication based control systems for trains to linen tagged by Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) systems, we are likely to witness a sweeping modernization drive. We’re also likely to hear more about the state-of-art eco friendly coaches undertaken by the Railways workshop in Bhopal. With spacious, plush interiors, jerk-proof seats, LED lights, and bio toilets these coaches will breathe a new lease of life into rail travel. Each of these coaches are likely to cost about INR 14 lakh and the government is likely to enable indigenous manufacturing of high-speed and semi-high speed coaches (capable of speeds between 160 kmph and 200 kmph) for Rajdhani, Shatabdi, and other premier trains as well.
Speed and Services
Judging by the direction taken by the Railway Ministry in the recent past two other key areas of emphasis in the Rail Budget will be speed and services. The key indication towards this trend is the impending launch (March 2016) of the Delhi-Agra Gatiman Express, India’s first train to ply at about 160 kmph speeds. In his budget speech, the minister is likely to announce a host of special features and amenities to be made available on the train. Apart from sliding doors, high-power emergency brakes, GPS-based tracking systems, and automatic fire alarm a number of luxury services are also likely to be introduced. More Gatiman trains are likely to be announced more routes including Chandigarh-Delhi, Kanpur-Delhi, Goa-Mumbai, Hyderabad-Chennai, and Nagpur-Secunderabad. While India still awaits its first bullet train service (by 2022), these high speed trains will be a close alternative.
There is likely to be a very sharp focus on cleanliness, amenities, and grievance redressal systems of the railways. The minister set a trend this past year by responding to complaints and requests for help received through Twitter. E-catering has been introduced in select trains and the budget may make way for expanding the scope of both complaint redressal and food services.
Will Passenger Fares Increase?
This is one important question that comes up with each railway budget. This year, though the government may consider addition of general coaches and other such amenities to facilitate the passengers, it is highly likely that passenger fares may go up by about 10 percent. The high government expenditure as a result of enhanced investment in overall development of the railway network, services, and infrastructure coupled with the outlay of the Seventh Pay Commission is likely to necessitate such a hike. The hike will, on the one hand, be immensely profitable to the Indian Railways, coinciding closely with the peak travel season (starting March), but on the other may trigger worries that passengers will shift to low cost airlines rather than taking the train. The tightrope is one that the ministry must navigate carefully. The enhanced and improved services on offer may be a great advantage in this case.
Common Man’s Rail Budget Wishlist
- Enhanced suburban connectivity, especially with large metropolitan cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru, features on top of the rail budget wishlist this month. An increase in the number of suburban trains, increased frequency, faster connectivity is necessary. Daily commuters also look forward to convenience in matters of ticketing such as online issue of passes, enhanced discounts etc.
- Better quality food, enhanced cleanliness and hygiene maintenance, bug and rodent free trains are poignant demands raised by the people. This means that the trains will need more dustbins and better maintenance of toilets and sanitation. Better access to clean drinking water is one important demand. Better in-train mobile network connectivity, and more charging points are also required.
- Safety and medical aid are two expectations of passengers and commuters. As of now most railway stations do not have ramps and are ill equipped to deal with medical emergencies. Differently abled passengers have a tough time using the rail services. More escalators, elevators, and wheelchair provisions are required. First aid kits and trained medical professionals are required. Safety is another important demand. Helpline numbers and presence of RPF personnel in greater numbers is another expectation.
- An important aspect of the wish list is the technology emphasis that a mobile-friendly India now needs. Partial refund on Tatkal cancellation, ability to choose convenient berths, SMS intimation of delay in departure, online parcel booking services are some demands of Indian passengers.