Prabhu's Rail Budget puts people before populism: Railways to get Rs 8.5 lakh crore over five years, but no new trains     

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, Make in India, Digital India, 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. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh during the presentation of the Rail Budget 2015 in the Lok Sabha

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Rajnath Singh during the presentation of the Rail Budget 2015 in the Lok Sabha

Passenger earnings growth has been pegged at 16.7 per cent and earnings target budgeted at Rs 50,175 crore. 

Goods earnings are 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 become the prime mover of the economy again. 

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. 

Union Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu leaves the Rail Bhavan for Parliament

Union Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu leaves the Rail Bhavan for Parliament

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 the on-board 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 a 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 with 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. 

To provide better e-connectivity to passengers, 1052 stations have been identified to get upgraded 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, will be taught to Railways’ frontline staff, especially the Railway Protection Force personnel. 


Minister delivers express speech

By Amit Agnihotri in New Delhi 

Sporting a cream shirt and dark trousers, Suresh Prabhu looked confident, like someone who means business.

As he presented his maiden railway budget, the minister cracked jokes, and wondered how his long-term vision for the cash-strapped railways will be implemented. 

“Hey Prabhu… yeh kaise hoga…” he quipped as the members burst into laughter. 

But in the end, he came across as a refined communicator who navigated through the budget with élan. 

A professional chartered accountant by training, Prabhu was at ease with the financial part of the budget which he presented before the House in his hour-long speech. He was quite fast as he read out the proposals, and the members across the party lines heard him with rapt attention. 

From Prime Minister Narendra Modi, his own party members to Congress president Sonia Gandhi, everyone listened to each and every word that Prabhu uttered. There was not much disturbance from members who usually make several demands when the railway budget is presented every year. 

However, the lawmakers protested with a loud “No, No” in unison when the minister suggested that the parliamentarians contribute from their MPLADS (Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme) funds to improve passenger amenities at the railway stations. 

Unlike other ministers in the past who have been heard quoting from the poets, Prabhu did not sound poetic as such. However, to make a point, he referred to Shubhada Gogate’s Marathi novel ‘Khandalyachya Ghatasaathi’, which is a fictional account of the construction of India’s first railway line across the Sahyadri range. 

Prabhu also referred to Mahatma Gandhi conducting his travels across the country in the ‘Third Class’ of trains, which has been done away with. 

At one point Prabhu, 61, referred to him as a senior citizen while highlighting a proposal to give preference to the elderly in booking of berths in trains. 

The minister concluded his speech by quoting Swami Vivekananda on making ideas work. Besides the Lok Sabha, the visitors’ gallery and the media gallery were almost full in anticipation of the first fully-fledged rail budget of the NDA government. 

However, Prabhu failed to impress his critics, who dubbed the proposals as devoid of substance. 

“He came across as a refined communicator through his personal references and the way he cracked jokes. He was comfortable with the financial part due to his chartered accountant background,” Congress spokesperson Rajiv Gowda, a management expert, told Mail Today. 

“However, the trained chartered accountant has derailed the budget,” Gowda added, accusing Prabhu of selling dreams without a concrete roadmap. 

As the railway minister wrapped up his budget proposals, disappointment showed on the faces of lawmakers as no announcement of new trains came. 

“The speech was a great disappointment. The railway is about mobility of the common man and expectations of the poor,” is how another Congress spokesperson, Randeep Surjewala, reacted to Prabhu’s maiden speech.