Lalu Prasad budgets for fare cuts, 43 new trains (Roundup)

February 13th, 2009 - 7:15 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Feb 13 (IANS) The estimated 14 million passengers who travel by trains in India daily had reasons to cheer Friday, as Railway Minister Lalu Prasad cut fares by 2 percent, introduced 43 new routes and hiked the planned expenditure for expansion, in spite of the economic downturn that saw lower freight revenues last quarter.

Presenting the interim rail budget for 2009-10 in parliament in his inimitable style, punctuated by light-hearted digs at members of the opposition, Lalu Prasad also announced the extension of 14 routes, an increase in the frequency of 14 trains and additional spending on safety.

He also earmarked a higher plan expenditure of Rs.37,905 crore (Rs.379.05 billion/$7.58 billion) towards expansion next fiscal, against revised estimates of Rs.36,773 crore (Rs.367.73 billion/$7.35 billion) for 2008-09, hoping for higher passenger and freight earnings since January.

The minister, who had presented all five previous rail budgets for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and earned worldwide repute for charting the dramatic turnaround of Indian Railways, also reported higher earnings on both passenger and freight segments, despite the economic slowdown.

“I have great pride that, in its journey of service to the nation, the Indian Railways have reached an important milestone,” said Lalu Prasad, hardly reflecting the fact that his measures were interim in nature, as convention in an election year demands that the regular budget is left to a new government to present.

“I can proudly say that Indian Railways scaled a new pinnacle every year and now stand at the zenith of success from where, without imposing any burden on the common man, the railways are set to establish the historic landmark of earning a cash surplus before dividend of more than Rs.90,000 crore (Rs.900 billion/$18 billion) in five years.”

The Indian Railways are the second largest railroad in the world under a single management, running more than 11,000 trains every day, 7,000 of which are for passengers.

The network comprises 108,706 km and ferries 14 million passengers daily from 6,853 stations across the length and breadth of the country. This is the reason why it is the only ministry that has a separate budget.

Indian industry by and large welcomed the measures announced, especially the decision to enhance the capacity of wagons and the push for dedicated freight corridors across the length and breadth of the country.

“Freight corridors, containers and improved passenger amenities announced in the budget will go a long way in making India’s railway network more modern and efficient,” said the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Assocham), though, said the budget could have lowered freight rates as well - an opinion shared by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

“The minister has refused to respond to the current slowdown by cutting freight rates and helping Indian industry and economy in the midst of a slowdown,” said FICCI president Harsh Pati Singhania.

During Lalu Prasad’s budget speech, the best part was undoubtedly reserved for passengers. He said among the 43 new trains, four would be his pet project, the “Garib Raths” - the fully air-conditioned trains aimed at economically weaker sections of society.

He did not disappoint other travellers either, recalling in his budget speech that he had reduced second-class fares of all mail and express trains by 5 percent for tickets costing more than rupees Rs.50 per passenger.

“Respecting the aspiration of long distance passengers, I have decided this year to reduce the second-class and sleeper class fares of all mail, express and ordinary passenger trains by 2 percent for tickets costing more than Rs.50 per passenger,” he said, announcing similar cuts in air-conditioned classes.

“Earlier, at the time of the railway budget, people were apprehensive about the possible increase in passenger fares. Now, on the other hand, on the eve of my budget, people appeared not only hopeful but sanguine about the likely reduction in passenger fares.”

The minister admitted that 2008 was a mixed year for Indian Railways. The first half showed a 9 percent increase in freight revenues and 14 percent jump in earnings from passengers.

“However, in October and November, the growth in freight loading was adversely impacted by the recession in the international markets,” he said, adding: “But we are not only hopeful but confident that the budget targets for passenger and goods earnings set for this fiscal will be surpassed.”

The minister, who has been guest lecturer at institutions like Harvard and the Indian Institutes of Management for the dramatic turnaround of the railways, also patted himself on the back for the achievements in the past five years. His eyes were clearly on the ensuing national elections.

He said the transformation of the country’s railway system was fundamentally different from the financial turnaround witnessed among private sector firms, that “resort to anti-people measures like increase in prices, retrenchment of employees and lockouts”.

“Railways have kept the human aspect as the central focus and achieved an extraordinary feat without putting any extra burden on the common man or the employees,” he said, adding that in the process safety of passengers had also not been compromised.

He said the number of accidents had come down to 194 in 2007-08, against 325 in 2003-04.

“This declining trend is continuing in 2008-09 also. The number of consequential train accidents during April to November in the current year decreased to 117 as compared to 138 during the corresponding period of the previous year.”

Lalu Prasad, who had recently visited Japan and rode the famous “bullet train”, also said that his ministry was examining the feasibility of running such trains on five sectors and commissioned a study for the Delhi-Patna sector.

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