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Lalu goes on Euro rail odyssey

London, July 4: Lalu Prasad is enjoying going round Europe by train and, hopefully, the Indian railway minister will return home with a few good ideas.

In conversations with members of his delegation and others who have met him, Lalu Prasad (in digitally-modified picture right) has indicated that he is sold on the idea of “public/private partnerships” to help achieve modernisation and that he intends increasing investment in the railways in the year ending March 2007 to $4-5 billion, which will represent a substantial increase from last year.

Among key meetings was one he held in London with John Armitt, chief executive officer of Network Rail, which is responsible for all the static infrastructure on the British Railways ' track, signalling equipment, bridges (“everything that doesn’t move”).

A spokesman for British Rail said yesterday that Network Rail made a presentation to Lalu Prasad’s delegation and that he was interested, in particular, in how the British Railways has been reorganised and some of the technology used to enhance security.

Given the appalling safety record of the Indian Railways, he may have taken note of the NMT 'New Measurement Train ' which can travel at speeds of up to 125 mph, providing live pictures of the tracks.

The NMT also checks signalling equipment so that trains do not pass signals at red.

“The images allow us to prevent things before they are broken rather than mend them after they are broken,” the Network Rail spokesman explained. “The number of signals passed at red are the lowest ever.”

He added: “I cannot predict there will be a radical reorganisation of the Indian Railways but much of the railway system dates back to the colonial times. The minister was very interested in how British Rail is organised, with Network Rail being responsible for the infrastructure while more than 20 train companies operate the train services. This is now the European model adopted in Europe and which he will see when he travels in Paris and in Vienna.”

There is a suggestion that the Indian Railways will sign a memorandum of understanding for technology transfer with its British counterpart.

However, Network Rail has said the MoU could also be signed with ERTMS (European Rail Traffic Management System), of which Network Rail is a member.

It may have come across to Lalu Prasad that any accident in Britain, where there is loss of life, provokes a searching public inquiry and recommendations which are then implemented.

Ensuring passenger safety remains the highest priority, though this also costs billions of pounds.

Lalu Prasad’s delegation has also had a number of other meetings, including one with Ian Brown, managing director and chairman of London Rail, which is part of Transport for London.

Brown is responsible for overseeing major rail projects in London and implementing the mayor’s strategy to integrate National Rail services with London’s transport network. He was previously the chief executive of Docklands Light Railway, which operates in the new development areas in east London.

There have also been meetings with Adrian Shooter, managing director of Chiltern Railways, regarded as one of the most successful train operating companies in the UK, and with Mervyn Leah, chairman of Leighton Buzzard Railways.

At a reception at India House, the Indian minister took pride in the fact that not one of the 1.6 million employees on the Indian Railways had been made redundant and that employing 35,000 people at unmanned crossings had, in his opinion, improved security.

Just when people were starting to take him seriously, he revealed a scheme to shift excess coolies to security duty at these crossings.

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