In the last budget ahead of general elections, railway minister Mallikarjun Kharge on Wednesday announced 72 new trains, increased the frequency or destinations of six others and also refrained from increasing passenger or freight fares. The new trains included 17 premium and 38 express trains. Air conditioning of local trains too will start from this July.
Interestingly, unlike last year, when the then railway minister Pawan Bansal gifted Congress' most valued constituencies of Rae Bareill and Amethi seven trains in total, Kharge did not dole out any
largesse to the VVIP constituencies represented by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi.
Kharge left passenger and freight fares untouched. Kharge, who is just the second Congress railway minister in the last 17 years, has promised to create a surplus of Rs 8,000 crore by March this year, compared to Rs 2,500 crore that the ministry currently has in its kitty.
After presenting the budget in the Lok Sabha, Kharge said he tried to present a realistic budget so that the Indian Railway sustains itself and provides services to everybody. The last time an interim railway budget was presented was in 2009 by then railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. In that budget, Lalu had reduced fares by 2% ahead of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
Being a vote on account for four months, the interim budget lacked mega announcements. But Kharge made efforts to assuage passengers, especially the middle class category, who are disoriented with the Congress due to rampant corruption allegations. Kharge announced 17 premium trains in which passengers can get confirmed tickets on extra payment over tatkal charges. He mentioned bringing in foreign direct investment in railways, a note on which has already been sent to the Cabinet for approval. Kharge also called for more public-private partnerships in railway projects. The budget envisaged an investment of Rs 64,305 crore. The budgetary support from general revenues has been proposed at Rs 30,223 crore.
Kharge had to cut short his budget speech due to the din and spoke for about 20 minutes against the customary one hour. The remaining part of his speech was essentially a roundup of the current financial year's projects, such as the railways exploring options for increasing train speeds to 160-200 kmph on select routes like Delhi-Agra, Delhi-Chandigarh, etc, and introducing high-speed trains on various other sections. Kharge also highlighted the setting up of a rail tariff authority, which has already been approved by the Cabinet.