New Delhi: Pawan Kumar Bansal diagnosed the problems correctly but failed to come up with solutions and stuck to a script which has been the hallmark of the last several railway budgets. While refusing to increase passenger fares which had been hiked in January 2013 for the first time after 10 years, Bansal announced a marginal increase in freight charges, supplementary charge, superfast charge, reservation charge, cancellation charge and Tatkal charge.
Beginning the Railway Budget speech, the first by a Congress minister in 17 years, by announcing that the time had come to make the organisation financially sustainable and claiming that the losses were mounting, Bansal said that the gigantic network must be in a better financial health for the benefit of the passengers and to ensure that the modernisation projects are on track. "The rail network needs to be expanded at a faster rate. The freight and passenger fares have to be based on economic realities. The growth of railways is linked to the growth of country," he said. The minister said that the estimated losses of the Railways stood at Rs 24,000 crore in 2012-13.
Expressing grief over the Allahabad railway station stampede, in which many Kumbh pilgrims lost their lives, Bansal said that government would take significant measures to prevent accidents. "Anti-collision devices will be put to rigorous trials, 10,797 unmanned level crossing will be eliminated and no new unmanned level crossings will be set up. Fire retardant materials will be used in coaches and a new SPART train, i.e. self-propellant accident relief train will be introduced," Bansal said.
In order to make the trains more technology- and user-friendly, Bansal said that free Wi-Fi facility would be provided in select trains. SMS alerts service will be rolled out in some time to intimate passengers about their reservation status. Bansal also said that the Railways would use Aadhar database for bookings and validation of passengers.
Bansal also announced the introduction of 27 new passenger trains and 67 Express trains, while adding that 58 trains will be extended. He also announced more trains to religious destinations. A single rail-bus ticket will be issued for Katra-Vaishnodevi pilgrims.
He said that special A/C coaches 'Anubhuti' will be introduced in select Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains to give "excellent ambience with commensurate fare".
With any eye to improving revenues and Railway tourism, the Railway Minister announced the 'Azadi Express' that will link all the places related to the freedom movement. The fares in the train will be concessional. Also the mountain rails will receive fresh attention and Bansal said they will be developed along the lines of trains in the Austrian and the Swiss Alps.
The Railways will also upgrade its website, said Bansal, as he admitted that it caused inordinate delays. Bansal said the Ministry will put in place a "next-generation e-ticketing system". In this system, up to 7,260 tickets can be issued per minute. The capacity of the present website is only 2,000 tickets per minute. Bansal also announced that Internet booking will be provided from 12.30 am to 11.30 pm now. Also a Centralized Catering Services Monitoring Cell will be set up with a toll free number - 1800 111 321.
Speaking on measures on women's safety, Bansal said that a helpline number will be introduced and Railway Protection Force (RPF) guards will be deployed in trains. He added that more women will be recruited to the RPF. He also said there will be ladies special trains in metros.
Regarding the almost poor levels of hygiene in trains, Bansal said that the government was looking to introduce food testing labs and ISO certification for the Railway kitchens. He, however, did not mention anything about toilets.
Bansal also said that the Railways will seek to fill 1.2 lakh vacancies in the network this year. "Around 47,000 vacancies for weaker sections and physically challenged will be filled up soon," he added.
The Railway Minister further announced new coach manufacturing and maintenance facilities in various places including Raebareli, Bhilwara, Sonepat, Kalahandi, Kolar, Palakkad and Pratapgarh. Announcing another milestone for Indian Railways, Bansal added that the Indian Railways was set to enter the 1 billion tonne freight club of China, Russia and US.
While the government was all praises for the Rail Budget presented by Pawan Kumar Bansal on Tuesday, the Opposition slammed it as an anti-BJP states Budget, with Gopinath Munde even going to the extent of calling it a "Rae Bareli budget". "There is nothing for Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Bihar in the Budget," said the BJP. The four states have BJP-led governments.
Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav called it "the worst and the most anti-people budget in many years". "I have no problems with Amethi-Rae Bareli getting anything, but why discriminate against other districts in the state. Not a single line in the Etawah, Mainpuri, Etah, Kannauj belt! They have been discriminatory. No other Rail Minister has unleashed such wrath on the floor of the House as this one."
The Congress, however, was quick to praise the Budget. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said Bansal had done a commendable job. "It is a reformist and forward looking Budget which presents a realistic picture of railway finances. I compliment him for his innovations in critical areas of railway infrastructure and paving the way for capacity expansion."
Union minister Kapil Sibal said, "I commend the Budget and the Railway Minister. It is a very practical budget."