Doing away with a tradition that has lasted some 92 years, the government of India will be merging the railway budget and the union budget this year. Also, this year the budget is likely to be presented early in the month of February. Even as the country gears up to understand and examine this first combined budget, we are certain that Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu already has his priorities sorted. Let us take a look at what we expect will be on top of Mr. Prabhu’s To Do list in the upcoming fiscal year.
Earlier this week, the Railway Minister unveiled a programme called Mission 41K. The main focus of the mission is to save about INR 41,000 crore in energy consumption from the Railways budget over the next decade. The minister has pledged to increase use of clean and renewable energy as well.
1. Electrification and Infrastructure Development
Under the newly launched Mission 41K, the Indian Railways is working towards electrification of 24,000 kilometres of rail track within the next five years. Currently the rate of electrification is about 2,000 kilometres per year. Soon the railways will have to find methods to more than double the annual pace of electrification, if the target is to be achieved. Better infrastructure and procuring cleaner energy from new sources also seems to be on the cards.
2. Massive Expansion
One of the top priorities set by Suresh Prabhu for the Indian Railways is a six fold expansion in its traffic figures. Not only does the carrier plan to dramatically increase the number of passengers it carries but also plans to focus on freight traffic lost to roadways and other means of transport in recent years. Recent news reports say that the railways has a target of growing to achieve 19.4 trillion kilometres (in passenger traffic) and 6.68 trillion kilometres (in freight traffic) by the year 2030.
3. Security and Women’s Safety
Even as the Ministry of Home Affairs sent in a NIA (National Intelligence Agency) team to investigate the involvement of Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI, in two rail accidents in Bihar since November 2016, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu sent in strict directions to security establishments to remain extra vigilant. Security and women’s safety are likely to feature right on top of Prabhu’s agenda this year.
4. High speed Trains
The one topic that has kept Indians on their edge is that of High Speed Rail. Since 2014 when the budged made way for the dream of high speed trains plying Indian tracks, we’ve been debating either decidedly for or vehemently against them (and nothing in between). Tests, trail runs, every little morsel makes it to the deadlines. There is little doubt, then that the high speed trains should be one of the priorities that Indian Railways will look at this year.
5. Luxury Coaches and Services
We’ve all seen the plush new coaches; the new compartments designed by the designed by coach rehabilitation workshop (CRWS) in Bhopal. Through last year, Social Media was full of these ergonomically constructed coaches’ pictures. But we really haven’t seen them in trains. We’ve heard the PM tell us why trains should have services at par with airlines. The upcoming FY should be Indian Railways’ opportunity to translate these dreams into reality.
6. Dynamic Technology
Last year in September, the railway ministry made it to the headlines with the introduction of dynamic fares (similar to surge pricing in Ola and Uber cabs) in premier trains including the Rajdhani, Duronto, and Shatabdi. It looks highly likely that this form of dabbling with dynamic technologies will continue through the upcoming fiscal year. It is possible that dynamic pricing will be introduced in other superfast and express trains or perhaps some tweaking to the website will make holiday fares different (at least for some routes).
7. Part Privatization
While Shakespeare may have championed “To Be or Not To Be?” Suresh Prabhu is most likely thinking more on the lines of “To Privatise or not to Privatise?” Well, not all of Indian railways, certainly but some parts of the operations are best outsourced. Some headway has been made in terms if the catering and cleaning services but railways must look at more efficient models even if it means greater privatisation of services.
8. Smart Stations
The development of smart railway stations is another important agenda for the railways to look at. While the railways got the approval of the central government for station redevelopment of 407 railway stations in 2015, only two stations have undergone tendering as of now. The Gandhinagar railway station is set to receive INR 250 crores for its redevelopment with world class amenities and a n for the , which includes building a 300-room. More such redevelopment needs to happen across India.
9. Strengthening Suburban Rail Network
Strengthening and perhaps even expanding the suburban rail network in India’s metro cities should be one of the important tasks that the railways undertakes this year. The organization has already sought the support of the state government in Tamil Nadu to enter a joint venture and boost the suburban rail network. Cities such as Mumbai and Kolkata need a lot of attention as the livelihood of hundreds of thousands may depend on the railways. Delhi is proving to a major challenge as the improvement of the Ring Rail Corridor was chocked by the freight traffic. This is important, though if anything is to be done about the capital’s pollution levels.
10. Railway University
In the 2015-16 railway budget, the Railways Minister promised to upgrade the Bharatiya Rail Rashtriya Academy in Vadodara into a full-fledged university – the first of its kind in the country. Expectations ran high and the courses and curricula in the university were expected to be of global standards. As yet there has been no news of the progress on this front. With the budgetary allocation to account for, Mr. Prabhu will certainly make this his priority in the months to come.