It seems that, the one who has announced the Railway budget is not a politician, so this time we can trust what he has promised. In earlier Railway Budgets also same kinds of glossy promises were made but 70 per cent of the promises were never fulfilled. Suresh Prabhu refrained from announcing any new trains in his Railway Budget, because there are many trains announced by previous rail ministers but they have not been started yet. He also has not hiked the passenger fares.
As soon as BJP came to power, they increased the fare by 14.2 per cent, which none other governments had ever dared to do. So, not hiking the fares in budget does not mean that BJP led NDA is favouring the Railway passengers. Citizens were hoping for a good result, but whatever they received is merely an average expectation. The minister said Railways will spend Rs. 12,500 crore on providing more amenities to passengers from 2015-19.
Tickets can be booked 120 days ahead of travel date, instead of 60 days now. That is just not done; it’s very inconvenient for people to plan something in that advance. The railway minister also proposed an ‘Operation Five Minutes’ initiative in which passenger travelling in unreserved compartments could purchase a ticket within five minutes. Vending machines and ‘single destination teller’ windows will be used to reduce the purchase time. Railways will soon introduce a system through which people can check latest berth availability on running trains. However, he has not given any time limit for all his announcements.
SMS alert service is to be introduced for train arrivals and departures. The SMS service will inform passengers in advance the updated arrival/departure time of trains at starting or destination stations. Wi-Fi is to be available at 400 railway stations; right now the condition of Railways is poor. 90 per cent of the provided plugs and switches do not work; there is no maintenance work carried on it and no upgradations of switches take place.
The e-catering service will be expanded to more trains to provide freedom for passengers to select their meals from an array of choices. Food can be ordered through the IRCTC website at the time of booking of tickets. Water vending machines will be installed in many stations to ensure availability of clean drinking water at very low cost. Food that is provided in train needs a quality check; very poor quality food are being served in the trains without proper packaging. There are many trains which lacks pantry cars.
On-board entertainment system will be introduced on selected Shatabdi trains. Later, it will be extended to all Shatabdis, depending on the response. Mobile phone charging facilities would be provided in general class coaches and the number of charging facilities would be increased in sleeper class coaches. Air-conditioned suburban service and air-conditioned EMU service will be introduced on the Mumbai suburban sections. Leader had made tall promises, but the services need high maintenance. Crores of rupees are spent on facilities but lack of staff damages the facilities. There is no check on the control of usage.
An all-India 24X7 helpline number, 138, will attend to the problems of passengers on a real time basis. Passengers will be able to call up for complaints while on trains. It will be functional soon. However, the number 139 which is available now, makes us wait for an hour to be able to talk to an executive. And, there is no guarantee that the executive will satisfy you with the answers. Surveillance cameras are to be introduced in select trains and suburban trains for women’s safety, but privacy would be at stake. This surveillance can be misused.
Railways will accelerate the shift to the use of bio-toilets in coaches. So far, 17,388 bio toilets have been installed and this year another 17,000 toilets are planned to be put in place. The facility for online booking of disposable bedrolls at select stations is being extended to all passengers through the IRCTC portal on payment basis. Whatever modernisation may happen, but who will guarantee the cleanliness? As a user of these toilets, you know better than me about the cleanliness of these toilets.
The Railway Budget envisages an investment of Rs. 8.5 lakh crore in next five years. How is it going to be mobilised? The Minister suggested that the money could be raised from multiple sources – from multilateral development banks to pension funds. What is the action plan in the sphere of fund rising? Go in for partnership with key stakeholders – States, PSUs, partner with multilateral and bi-lateral organisations and other governments to gain access to long-term financing. Also, get technology from overseas. The private sector could be roped in to improve last-mile connectivity, expand fleet of rolling stock and modernise station infrastructure. The thrust will be on revamping management practices, systems, processes, and re-tooling of human resources. What is the proposal on capacity augmentation? De-congesting networks with basket of traffic-generating projects will be the priority.
Prabhu has promised many things but he has not specified about the projects. I wondered, for these projects how he will manage resources.