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Laloo dream gathers steam

New Delhi, Dec. 9: Laloo Prasad Yadav has rolled out a wagon carrying a gift-wrapped package that costs Rs 24,000 crore and promises to change the face as well as pace of Indian Railways.

It could be a coincidence that today is Sonia Gandhi's birthday and the Bihar elections are only a few months away.

But whether the grand plan can chug off the platform with the same flourish will depend on the Prime Minister's green flag. Laloo Prasad will present his blueprint ' which cobbles a few new ideas with some of the strategies that were formulated by his predecessors ' to Manmohan Singh next Thursday.

The plan provides for two semi-high-speed trains that will run at 150 km per hour (as against current train speeds of 70-100 kmph).

The first train will be between Delhi and Howrah via Patna and is expected to be on track by 2007-08.

The other train will be between Delhi and Chennai and is expected to be ready by 2009-10. Both projects will be completed at an estimated cost of Rs 2,672 crore.

The railway plans to raise part of the money for the revamp on its own.

Laloo Prasad also hopes to persuade the government to come up with an extra budgetary support of Rs 10,270 crore, which works out to around 42 per cent of the overall cost. This could be a tricky area as the finance ministry has been insisting that each department should find its own resources to fund new plans.

But economics has rarely stood in the way of politics. The Bihar strongman is expected to drive a hard bargain by pointing to the spin-off benefit from his grand announcement when the state goes to polls early next year.

Announcing the integrated railway modernisation plan, Laloo Prasad said: 'Our aim is to make Indian Railways the first in the world from its current position of third in terms of punctuality, safety, comfort and service.'

A separate scheme is planned to create a high-speed dedicated passenger track on which trains will run at speeds of 250 to 300 kmph. This is a project that was conceived by an erstwhile railway minister, Ram Vilas Paswan, who has emerged as Laloo Prasad's biggest bugbear in the run-up to the Bihar elections.

But Laloo Prasad has had no problems in latching on to a good idea ' even if it comes from a rival. The railway has already said the first high-speed train will run between Ahmedabad and Mumbai.

The railway also plans to run more Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains which run at 160 kmph.

These trains will come equipped with information technology facilities like web surfing and mobile telephony, environment friendly hi-tech toilets, large windows and longer coaches with capacity to seat more passengers. About 8,000 coaches with zero-discharge toilet system similar to that used in airlines will also be made during the next five years.

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