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Nitish promises smoother train rides — New initiatives under way; fares, freight left unchanged

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The Railway Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, leaving Rail Bhavan to present the Interim Railway Budget in Parliament on Friday. -- Ramesh Sharma

New Delhi , Jan. 30

THE Railways has focussed itself on providing hassle-free services to passengers even as it is set to end 2003-04 with a revenue shortfall of Rs 890 crore. The Interim Budget presented by the Union Railways Minister, Mr Nitish Kumar, on Friday proposes to complete all pending railway projects in the next five years through a new scheme and has outlined several measures to augment passenger services.

Passengers will soon be able to book tickets through mobile phones and frequent travellers would get free rides while the concept of e-ticketing, borrowed from low-cost airlines, is to be adopted by the Railways.

New trains between Delhi and most State capitals will help the Railways cater to more passengers, while "emergency" travellers will be able to buy tickets for all trains in all classes under the `Tatkal' scheme, which is being integrated with the Passenger Reservation System (PRS). Earlier, the `Tatkal' scheme was available only in select trains that had a designated coach for such passengers.

The Railways continues to be in investment mode, with Mr Kumar announcing a new scheme - the Remote Area Rail Sampark Yojana — to take up pending projects worth nearly Rs 20,000 crore out of the total shelf of 230 projects worth about Rs 43,000 crore.

"Many of these projects may be financially unviable, but have tremendous social relevance. We have decided to club them under a new scheme and ensure that they are completed in the next five years," the Railway Board Chairman, Mr R.K. Singh, told Business Line.

Mr Singh said that the Railways had already taken the Finance Ministry's concurrence for the new scheme, which would be funded through a combination of additional budgetary support, multilateral funding and non-budgetary sources that include internal resources and contribution from State Governments.

The new scheme will translate into three lakh new jobs on an annual basis during the construction period and 18,000 new vacancies per year once all the projects, which include new lines, gauge conversion, doubling, electrification and metropolitan transport works, are completed.

While passenger and freight tariffs have been left untouched, this being "Interim Budget", the Minister announced a new series of super-fast trains named as `Sampark Kranti Express' connecting Delhi with 18 States. These trains will not have any commercial halts and will cater to point-to-point passengers. The first train in this series will be flagged off to Bangalore on February 8, while the others will be introduced in the next financial year.

On the operational side, the Railways slipped in its income projections on both passenger and freight earnings, despite higher volumes.

Passenger earnings for the current financial year are projected to be Rs 160 crore off the mark at Rs 13,460 crore as against the Budget estimate of Rs 13,620 crore. The shortfall in revenues comes even as the Railways hopes to carry 2.8 per cent more passengers in the current year. The Railways hopes to earn Rs 14,200 crore from business in the passenger segment alone in 2004-05.

Similarly, while the Railways has revised its freight loading target to 550 million tonnes in 2003-04 as compared to 540 million tonnes projected in the Budget, the revenues are projected to be off target by Rs 700 crore at Rs 27,115 crore.

The overall financial performance of the Railways, however, has witnessed an improvement, with ordinary working expenditure projected to be curtailed by Rs 1,490 crore that would make up for the shortfall in traffic earnings. The operating ratio, which denotes the amount of money spent by the Railways to earn every Rs 100, has improved to 92.6 per cent as compared to 94.1 per cent projected in the Budget.

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