Prime Minister Narendra Modi's imprint was unmistakable on Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu's maiden Budget presentation on Thursday as the latter made it a point to mention Swachh Bharat to Make in India, Digital India to Skill India and even yoga.
As part of the long-term vision, the Budget envisages an investment of Rs 8.5 lakh crore over five years. The amount will be mobilised from multiple sources to cater to funding through multilateral development banks and pension funds.
The Budget hikes the plan outlay for 2015-16 by 52 per cent (to Rs 100,011 crore) over the revised estimate for 2014-15. Passenger earnings growth has been pegged at 16.7 per cent and earnings target budgeted at Rs 50,175 crore.
Goods earnings is accordingly proposed at Rs 1,21,423 crore, which includes rationalisation of rates, commodity classification and distance slabs.
Other coaching and sundries are projected at Rs 4,612 crore and Rs 7,318 crore, respectively. Gross traffic receipts are estimated at Rs 1,83,578 crore, a growth of 15.3 per cent. Prabhu said the Railways would switch from its "business as usual" approach to mission mode to again become the prime mover of economy.
The freight hike, effective from April 1, will cover a wide range of items like cement, iron ore, food grain, urea, kerosene and LPG to rake in additional Rs 4,000 crore during the year.
While common salt has been left untouched, there will be a marginal reduction in freight adjustment in the case of diesel and limestone. Grain, pulses and urea will attract a 10 per cent hike in freight rates while coal will see a 6.3 per cent increase.
Breaking away from the populist tradition of announcing several new trains and projects based on political considerations, he instead focused on people-centric measures to make train travel more comfortable.
"We are directing our efforts to make travel on Indian Railways a happy experience, with a mix of various incentives," the minister told the Lok Sabha.
Fortified with Rs 40,000 crore from the Union Budget - a 30 per cent jump in allocation over 2013-14, Prabhu has spared passengers a fare hike but raised an additional Rs 4,000 crore by increasing the freight rates.
He unveiled 11 thrust areas for improving passenger facilities, including cleaner trains. "We will build toilets on 650 stations as compared to 120 stations last year…and bio-toilets are being fitted in coaches," he added. A new department would also be created for keeping stations and trains clean.
Prabhu also opted to pragmatically focus on fast-tracking existing projects to decongest the railway network and enable trains to run at higher speeds.
Prabhu said the quality of onboard housekeeping service in 500 trains was being screened to make it more effective. "We'll take simple steps to immediately address the concerns of our commuters," he said.
The railways will launch a programme to improve the quality and cleanliness of bed linen within six months. Prabhu said a pan-India 24x7 helpline number, 138, will become functional to attend to passengers' problems on real-time basis. The passengers can also lodge complaints from on board trains. "We intend to start this facility as a pilot project on Northern Railway from March 1," he added.
The minister said e-catering had been introduced on 108 trains since January to give passengers a wider choice and food could be ordered through the IRCTC website while booking tickets. "We are working to integrate the best food chains in the country. More base kitchens will also be set up for serving highquality food," he added.
To make it easier to travel at short notice, the Railways will put in place a special facility to buy a ticket within five minutes for travel in an unreserved compartment.
Automatic ticket vending machines and issuing unreserved tickets on smartphones are some other facilities likely to be introduced soon.
Paving the way for paperless ticketing, the Railways plans to provide ticket examiners handheld terminals to verify passengers and download charts. An SMS alert service to inform passengers about the updated arrival/departure timings of trains is likely to be introduced soon.
For providing better e-connectivity to passengers, 1052 stations have been identified for upgradation of amenities under the Adarsh station scheme. Wi-Fi is being provided at all A1 and A category stations, which will now extend to B1 category stations as well as part of the Digital India campaign, Prabhu said.
Yoga, which is Modi's personal favourite, would be taught to Railways' frontline staff, especially the Railway Protection Force personnel.
FULL COVERAGE:Union Budget 2015