Less than eight months after taking over as railways minister, Mallikarjun Kharge presented the last Rail Budget of UPA 2 in Parliament on Wednesday. There were no big-bang announcements or populist measures but passenger fares and freight charges were left unchanged.
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In his speech, 71-year-old Kharge mentioned some of the steps he had taken over the past few months. For instance, the minister said that the dynamic pricing system, introduced on a premium air-conditioned special train on the busy Delhi -Mumbai route in December 2013, will now be considered for implementation on a larger scale. "Such dynamic pricing was widely appreciated by the users and gave increased earnings of about 48 per cent [to railways] as compared to Rajdhani services on the same sector."
A Lok Sabha member from Gulbarga constituency in Karnataka, Kharge announced that 73 new trains will be introduced during 2014/15 across premium, express and passenger train categories. He also proposed 19 surveys to be taken up in 2014/15 for new lines.
The minister highlighted that investment in railways is being stepped up in partnership with the private sector. "PPP projects related to rolling stock manufacturing units, modernisation of railway stations, multi-functional complexes, logistics parks, private freight terminal, freight train operations, and dedicated freight corridors are in the pipeline and offer excellent opportunities for private investment in the 12th Plan," he noted. A proposal to enable foreign direct investment (FDI) for creation of world class rail infrastructure is under consideration, he added.
Kharge also laid emphasis on improving the market share of railways. This could be done through improved use of assets, intensive monitoring and improvement in the condition of freight terminals and completion of various ongoing line capacity works on critical sections, according to the minister.
While praising some state governments for sharing cost burden in some projects, the minister said that an independent rail tariff authority, which is being set up to advise government on fares and freight, will bring in more transparency. "Determination of rates will no longer be an exercise behind veils where the railways and the users could only peep covertly at what was happening on the other side. It is expected that this would go a long way towards improving the financial health of the railways," he added.
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Sharing details of the high-speed train project between India and Japan, the minister said that a joint feasibility study for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed corridor will be completed in 18 months. Already, a business development study is being undertaken by French Railways which will be completed by April 2014. "After the studies, railways will decide on further course of action and modalities for implementation of the project," the minister said.
While industry body FICCI welcomed the budget, the response to Kharge's budget was mixed. Ramesh Maheshwari, Executive Vice Chairman of Texmaco Rail & Engineering said that not a great deal was expected from the budget. "The ground reality is that owing to numerous constraints, the implementation of the host of railway plans is tardy," he said.