Friday, November 23, 2007

Rail Budget: high on populism

Rail Budget: high on populism
Syed Ali Mujtaba

There are three things that interest a common man about the annual Railway Budget: ticket rates, freight rates and new trains that may provide travel options. The Railway Budget 2007-08 has taken care of all the three anxieties and with so much of applause all around, no one has really gone to look deep into the pitfalls of the Budget. The fact remains, there are many aspects of the Railways that need attention but have not been seriously touched up in this Railway Budget.

Considering 18,000 kilometers of backlog for the track renewal work, the funds allocated for it seem inadequate. The Budget fails to take cognizance, how additional funds could be made available for the smooth functioning of the track renewal work.

Indian Railways have over one-lakh bridges in its system. More than fifty per cent of these bridges were built during the British rule. Railway safety committee recommended immediate rebuilding of at least 300 bridges that are in bad shape. The Railway Board some time back had announced the need of rehabilitation of weak bridges and in fact talked about engaging experts to thoroughly examine them and take up the rehabilitation work on top priority. What progress has been made in this direction, the Rail Budget maintains a stoic silence.

Then there is large number of unmanned level railway crossings that continues to be prone to accidents. The Budget has not talked about how much money it may allocate to close such unmanned crossing. The fact remains that every now and then we hear about rail accidents at the unmanned railway crossings does not move the railway authorities to take serious note of it.

The ten-year corporate safety plan prepared by the Railway Board appears to have been given a go-bye. The plan contained signaling and electrical works involving safety of signaling on single and multiple tracks.

No progress is reported in the Budget about the automatic electronic breaking system to prevent headlong collision between trains that was being developed by the RDSO.

In the cyber age, where speed matters and travel time counts a lot to the passengers, it seems the efforts to introduce high-speed trains have been given up. There is no talk of bullet trains in this Budget.

The Budget does not talk about what it has done with the relevant state government to ensure the safety of the passengers. Law and order problem continue to persist on the running trains. The Delhi bound Tamil Nadu Express and GT Express from Chennai some time witness Bajrang Dal activists boarding the train at Nagpur up to Bhopal and unnecessarily harassing the passengers.

Then there are biscuit gangs that operate in certain sections of the Southern Railway that decamp with the valuables after making friends with the passengers and offering them biscuits laced with sleeping pills. The Railway Budget has not talked about how many robberies and decoities have taken place in the calendar year in the trains. Its silent about the efforts the Railways have made to solve such cases.

It is glaring to the passengers travelling in train the amount of corruption that exists in the Railways. The ticket collectors and the TTs fleece the passengers that do not have reserved seats. One has to look at the ‘dowry rate’ of such jobs in order to understand the volume of ill-gotten wealth such persons make in such jobs. No wonder railway jobs are coveted ones and sometimes sold for a price. The Railway Budget does not talk about how many corrupt employees the organisation have nabbed in the calendar year and what safety mechanism it has developed to plug the growing corruption in the Railways.

It appears that more emphasis is given for introducing air-conditioned trains for common man in this Budget. Scores of new trains have been introduced without giving any careful thought about the availability of the fit coaches and back up rake maintenance facilities. No one knows whether there are sufficient engines available to run the new trains that have been announced.

Nothing much has been said about the upgrading of passenger facilities at the major railway stations, even though they continue to hog the limelight for the right or the wrong reasons. Why can’t the major railway stations to have airport kind of security to avoid any more bomb blasts in such places?

With the roads condition in India so appalling and the air travel so expensive the passengers have little choices other than to prefer travel by the Railways.

Indian Railways has total 63,465-route kilometres of track making it second largest railway system in the world after China. It has 7133 stations and operates 8,520 passenger trains. It transports 13 million passengers and carries 1.5 million tones of freight per day. It is the second biggest employer in the country after the defence forces with 15,45,300 people serving the Railways.

With a track record so impressive, an efficient and profitable railway system is mirror of the country’s economy. In achieving the laudable goals, the authorities should bear in mind that instead of populism, the safety related works should be top priority to maintain the perfect health of the Railways that’s India’s lifeline.

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