Modi government to present its 1st Rail Budget today, safety a top priority

 Facing its first challenge, the Narendra Modi will unveil its first Railway Budget on Tuesday. High-speed trains, world-class stations and safe journeys are likely to be the government's top priorities.

The high-profile Golden Quadri-lateral Rail Network-linking the four metro cities-might be important highlights of the budget. Running semi-high-speed trains on select routes is likely to be an item of immediate implementation.

Even before he presented his maiden budget, Railway Minister Sadanand Gowda made waves with a 14 per cent hike in passenger fares across the country. However, the government has passed the buck on its predecessor UPA government for the rail price hike.

"The earlier government made this plan of tackling the losses but they did not implement it. This was even calculated in the earlier budget and consulted with the former PM but later stayed the order. How can they come out and claim that this government is doing something wrong," Gowda questioned.

The government is also facing pressure from allies who are forcing a partial rollback but the freight fare hike of 6.5 per cent remains unchanged.

According to experts, the first big challenge for the railways is to ensure that a constant increase in freight fares does not take the loads off tracks. "Freights are becoming expensive. There has to be a balance between freight and passenger fares and get dedicated freight corridor in place soon," Former chairman of railway board JP Batra said.

There is also a collective voice that railways must control staff strength based on activity costs and needs and decentralise managerial control to railway zones and divisions. Experts also feel that there is a need to allocate budget for adequate asset renewal for safety needs. "There is a need to review the role of railway board, it's archaic," former additional member railway board Sumant Chak said.

With two major accidents within a month of the new government taking over, safety continues to be a major grey area. Passenger safety is caught between clash of technology, clash of interests and political lethargy.

Systems like anti collision devices are also in a limbo. Railway has spent Rs 50 crores to develop anti-collision devices since 2006. In December 2013, the former railway ministry told Parliament that a new improved software version had been developed by Konkan Railway which was under evaluation.

Another stalled project is a new train signalling system Train Protection Warning System (TPWS). The trial for the TPWS was completed in 2009 after three years of tests but in December 2013, railway minister told Parliament that trials for the system are in progress.

From a railway minister sacked for taking bribe to a railway board member sent to jail for paying bribe for a post, the Rail Bhawan has been in news for all the wrong reasons in the last two years of UPA II. Experts say the solution of all ailments that railway faces is within the systems is political willingness.

Railway Board Chairman Arunendra Kumar said that the basic facilities in the trains should essentially be taken care of. "The basic focus is that the common man should not be let down. We must take care of him in whatever way it is, whether it is amenity for the train, security for the train, safety for him and catering for him. But he should be the focus of the railways as far as future strategy is concerned," Kumar said.

He also added that the government is taking safety very seriously. "If you see the record of Indian railways it is the unmanned level crossing accidents where you have the maximum number of deaths and injuries. So the railway has been very proactive in eliminating these unmanned level crossings. In the last 5 years we have eliminated about 5000 of such crossings," he said.


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