New Delhi, India – India’s new railway budget will pave the way towards overhauling the world fourth largest train network, the Railways minister has said.
Suresh Prabhu, the country’s railway minister, told parliament on Thursday that the $137.49b budget will begin the “long and difficult road of reform”.
Prabhu said budget includes the installation 17000 bio toilets in trains this year, increasing track lengths by 20 percent and passenger carrying capacity from 21 to 30 million.
The new government outlay comes at a time when years of poor investment and highly subsidised passenger fares continue to cripple growth in the already cash-strapped railways.
India’s railways is one of the world’s largest railway networks which employ over a million workers and transports everyday some 13 million passengers.
India’s train network is among the world’s cheapest despite recent hikes in the fares. And not everyone is satisifed with the budget.
“Trains and lines need a serious revamp. Not only have the fares increased over the years, the service continues to remain poor,” Sanjay Tiwari, a passenger in Delhi, told Al Jazeera.
“I booked tickets some 15 days ago but my seat isn’t confirmed yet. This means I will have to stand outside the toilets throughout the journey.”
Others like Deepak Kumar Agarwal – bound for Gangapur, Rajasthan – insisted the network could do with more trains.
“Less number of trains means booking problems, long lines outside the ticket counters and no guarantee that you would get a seat,” he said. “And then catering and cleaning services…it hasn’t improved much.”
To frequent travellers and industry experts, however, railways play an important role in assimilating the country. Reconciling the commercial needs with the traditional role that the railway network has played in India is a difficult ask.
“There is a need to strike a balance,” said Babu Khan, senior director at India’s apex chamber the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).
Though the government said it would improve the speed of freight trains and hike its rates, many suggest the uneconomical lines should be closed and passenger fares increased.
“For a country which imports more than 70 percent of its fuel it is imperative for India to increase freight share of railways from the present 35 percent to at least 50 percent. The main challenge has been lower freight speeds, difficulty in dealing with part load or smalls and lack of last mile connectivity,” Khan told Al Jazeera.
“Uneconomical and un-remunerative lines should be closed instead. And only those trains should be announced when adequate capacity of maintenance, platforms and staff are made available,” M Raghaviah, general secretary of National Federation of Indian Railwaymen (NFIR), a key railway workers’ body, said.
“[The] railways should also discontinue paying $1.4bn dividend to the government. No other infrastructure ministry does. This money could be used to improve railway infrastructure instead,” he told Al Jazeera.
India needs massive finances to meet the needs of railways. To contain the chronic under-investment in the railway infrastructure. Minister Prabhu said: “Private-Public Partnership is one area of generating funds” and that the government will go to the market “to borrow funds”.
There was no mention of the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in his speech though leaving analysts wondering how the $137bn investment will be funded.
“In addition to public investment, railways will have to explore avenues of private investments both from within the country and abroad. Opening of railways for 100 percent FDI should be tried. We fully support it,” Babu Khan, official of the Confederation of Indian Industry told Al Jazeera.