New Delhi: Sparing fare and freight rate hikes, Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu on Thursday presented the rail budget for next fiscal with passenger amenities in focus, spanning ease of booking tickets and cancellations to actual travel comfort and cleanliness.
The minister possibly left a decision on fare and freight hikes to a later date, de-linking it from the budgetary exercise for the first time. The 68-minute speech mentioned the need for an independent watchdog for railways, alluding such matters could be dealt by it.
The minister 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 budget in the Lok Sabha.
A host of measures were also announced: 65,000 additional 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 e-catering services at 408 stations.
This apart, he said, the quota of lower berths for senior citizens will be hiked by 50 percent to an 120 such seats per train, more stations will come under special scheme for old and differently abled passengers, and 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 last budget, while 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."
Yet, he assured, the performance of Indian Railways will improve with the adoption of what he termed as three pillars of strategic thought process -- new ways of generating revenues, new norms for spending money and new structures for executive projects and programmes.
As per official data, India has the fourth largest railroad 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.