In a few hours from now Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will present the Union Budget 2018. Since he scrapped the age-old custom of presenting a separate Railway Budget last year-thus becoming the country's first finance minister to present a combined Budget-speculation is rife on what he has in store for the railways.
It is learnt that Jaitley will not spell out every detail of the allocation for the railways but read only operating parts that focus on major expenditure on various heads, revenue earnings and projected growth in goods and passenger sectors.
The Budget's focus is expected to be on safety, especially in light of the spike in the number of derailments in 2017, as well as improving passenger amenities. Moreover, this being the government's last full budget before general elections next year, a big investment in infrastructure is also on the cards.
In a major thrust to modernisation, the budget is likely to earmark Rs 95,000 crore for overall upgradation in the rail infrastructure including signalling automation, replacement of all old tracks and other assets.
A provision of around Rs 3,000 crore to install CCTV systems in all 11,000 trains, including premier and suburban services, and all the 8,500 stations in the Indian rail network is also expected. The construction of new lines, gauge conversion and doublings besides massive electrification will continue to be part of the infrastructure development plan.
There is also expected to be adequate provision for capacity enhancement of the railways to step up the growth momentum as investment in the sector is crucial to continue the country's growth trajectory. While borrowing was pegged at Rs 40,000 cr in the last budget, this time it will go up further to fund these plans.
Furthermore, on the cards are provisions for manufacturing of electric locomotives at Diesel Locomotive Works at Varanasi and Diesel Component Works at Patiala to cater to the growing demand of electric locos in the coming years.
Since the railways has decided on electrification of the entire rail route and phasing out of diesel locos in a gradual manner, there is a need for manufacturing of electric locos in large numbers. But let's not expect the government to loosen purse strings significantly-amid the rising global crude oil prices and dipping of the GST collections, Jaitley is expected to do a tightrope walk today.
The Budget is likely to witness an increase in the plan allocation from Rs 1.31 lakh crore to about Rs 1.46 lakh crore, while the gross budgetary support (GBS) is also expected to be around Rs 65,000 crore against Rs 55,000 crore in 2017-18.
However, as Railway Minister Piyush Goyal has repeatedly emphasised not to depend upon the GBS and instead generate enough funds from internal resources and the market, monetisation of transmission assets, commercial exploitation of surplus land and creation of new avenues for ad revenue are some of the measures being undertaken to maximise earnings.
Though the cross-subsidy for passenger service is more than Rs 30,000 crore a year now, the state-run transporter will still include many initiatives to upgrade amenities at rail premises, including Wi-Fi at all stations, SMS alerts for all trains and revamping of the ticketing website.
Aiming to provide better passenger amenities, the Budget is expected to make a provision for installing about 3,000 escalators and 1,000 lifts at all major urban and suburban stations across the country. A fare hike is unlikely to be announced and the Budget will essentially reflect a consolidation if all major initiatives over the last three years.