Keeping passenger fares unchanged, India's railway minister Suresh Prabhu presented his maiden budget, promising to balance passenger needs and long-term interests of the organisation to benchmark it globally on quality, safety and reach.
Nine more high-speed trains, faster speed of existing trains, Wi-Fi in 400 stations, user-friendly ladders to mount upper berths, easier norms for unreserved tickets, 17,000 bio-toilets in trains, better connectivity in north-east, and cameras for safety of women travellers are among the other highlights of the budget.
"There will be no hike in passenger fares. We will focus on improving passenger amenities, including cleanliness," Prabhu said in a 66-minute speech in the Lok Sabha. Prabhu sought to hike goods rates on a host of items between 2.1 and 10 per cent to garner 13.5 per cent additional revenues on this count.
The minister also promised a vastly improved operating ratio, which spells out how much money is spent on day-to-day operations to earn revenues - an indication of the funds left for safety and expansion. He targeted to bring this down to 88.5 per cent, or the lowest in nine years, from an unsustainable level of 93.6 per cent in 2013-14 and 91.8 per cent for this fiscal. This is better than what the prime minister had asked the railways a few days ago. Globally, a 75-80 per cent or lower is seen as a healthy benchmark.
Prabhu also seemed to have ruled out the sale of surplus land and other assets of Indian Railways. "We will monetize our resources than sell them for finances," he said, adding: "Business as usual of asking for budgetary support from finance ministry is neither sustainable nor necessary."
The minister began with what ails Indian Railways. "Facilities have not improved substantially for the past few decades which is the result of under-investment that affects capacity, leading to poor morale. This fed into vicious cycle of chronic under-investment for a long time."
Emphasising that safety, quality of service, standards and efficiency all suffered due to poor financial resources available with the Indian Railways in recent decades, the minister said adding all this further fed into the cycle of poor investment.
"This must be put to an end," said the chartered accountant-turned-politician, while presenting the budget for one of the largest railway network in the world. "We have to make our Indian Railways a benchmark organisation in safety, security and infrastructure," he said.
Earlier the minister presented a white paper on Indian Railways, which he said would form a trilogy of what plans he had in mind for one of the largest such networks in the world along with his budget for 2015-16 and a Vision 2030 document to be presented later in the year.
Aims to invest $137 bn in next five years
Prabhu said that the government would make an investment of Rs 8.5 trillion ($137 billion) over the next five years. Prabhu said it would "set the direction of a long and difficult road of reform." Over the next year, investment in the railways will increase by about a half to 1 trillion rupees ($16.15 billion) including funds raised by market borrowing. To meet the five year target, investment will have to speed up more after that. Prabhu said he would raise funds from multi-lateral lenders, infrastructure and pension funds, as well as "monetising" railway assets.
"Over the next five years, the railways have to undergo a transformation," Prabhu said in a speech that was short on details. He said the share of rail revenue available for investments would rise to 11.5 per cent in the fiscal year starting on April 1, up from 8.2 per cent in the current fiscal year.
India has more funds available for investment thanks to a sharp drop in the price of diesel fuel that powers most Indian locomotives.