What Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has in his kitty for Indian Railways will be known only on February 1 when he presents the budget for the financial year 2018-19. One thing appears certain that his focus would be on Railways. It was in 2017-18 budget presentation when the Finance Minister presented Railway Budget which has been clubbed with general budget. This year it is going to be for second time that Railway Budget will be part of the General Budget. This has been done in view of budget for Defence, Agriculture, Road Transport, Waterways, and Civil Aviation, have acquired equal importance with matching grants from the government.
Arun Jaitley is expected to lay emphasis on Passenger Safety, Improved Amenities, Cleanliness and Track Renewal. The budgetary support for the Railways would also have a fair amount for level crossing on broad gauge lines to end all unmanned crossing by 2020. The Supreme Court had in 2015 directed the Railways to end all unmanned level crossing. More than that 50,000 people lost their life due to accidents at level crossing in the past 25 years.
Develop Rail Network
It is a welcome step that the Railways are expanding rail network by laying new lines. This should be done on two fronts. First, new rail lines should be laid to link places where Railways have not touched its reach. Second, Railways will have to run its freight and passenger trains not on double line but on three-four lines. This will ease congestion on tracks and reduce journey time. There will be no complaint of training running late for hours. To achieve this, new rail lines should be laid. There should be separate tracks for goods train, special emergency tracks for armed forces and for rescue and relief trains. Running passenger trains carrying lakhs of people daily in addition to ferrying goods in hundreds of thousands of tonnes on up and down lines are increasingly becoming difficult and dangerous too. The Railways would have to raise resources to fund these projects of increasing lines on busy routes.
Regrettably, until 2014 only 3-4 kilometers of new lines were laid every day. According to the budget speech of Arun Jaitley last year, some 3,500 kilometers will be laid by the end of current financial year. During 2015-16, new rail tracks running to 2800 kilometers were laid. It is expected that the budget would allocate enhanced amount for new rail lines this year.
Lack of Work Culture
The problem with the Railways is that it has a laid back tendency so far work is concerned. This is when Prime Minister and his government want work to be done at faster pace and projects to be completed in time. The Railways should evolve new work culture to expedite work and complete all projects in time. Inefficient staff should be penalised and good working people should be rewarded. Modernisation of Railway Stations is going to get special attention in the budget. Lift and escalators should be installed at all railway stations so that aged passengers and physically challenged passengers don’t face difficulty during rail journey.
Bear Your Expenses
Railways are life line of Indians. It is linked to every citizen of the country. Indian Railways are world’s fifth largest network. Broadly, Railways should have two priorities. Security and Safety of passengers should be its first priority and financial viability to be the second priority since Railways have a work force of 13 lakhs. It should make profit and give better service to passengers. There has been some improvement in the Railway but much more is to be done in this regard. It should reduce its expenses. Also, one fails to understand why rail fare should not be increased. Fares should not be increased rapidly but it should be raised moderately according to financial need. The reason is operating cost of Railways is increasing by the day. In this situation why Railways should not increase fares.
Catering is one area where passengers have reason to protest. While there is limited choice of menu, quality of meals and snacks served are poor. Quality of meals is poor even in prestigious trains like Rajdhani and Shatabdi.
Women safety in Railways is another area of concern. In view of rising incidents of crime against women in trains, Railways should consider introducing separate coaches for women and increase the presence of women security staff on trains. There should be better amenities for senior citizens besides health care service on running trains.
Railways have to bear the brunt of Seventh Pay Commission. It has to give enhanced pay package to its 13 lakh employees besides increased pension to retired staff. There is additional burden of Rs 28,000 crores on Railways after implanting 7th Pay Commission recommendations. Passengers are not against increasing the fare but they want better amenities which are far behind a passenger pay for traveling in trains.
(The writer is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha)
By R K SINHA