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Rail fare reality on Adhir lips

Adhir Chowdhury in New Delhi on Monday. Picture by Ramakant Kushwaha

New Delhi, Oct. 29: Under the new watch, the railways have shed the blind aversion to raising fares – an insistence that became the hallmark of the Trinamul stint at the utility.

“Fares will not be increased for the sake of increasing fares. If fares will be increased, then it will be for providing better services to the passengers…. the improvement in services will have to be commensurate with the increase in fare,” new railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal said.

Adhir Chowdhury, the junior minister from Bengal, elaborated that a hike could be considered as prices of “all commodities and services are increasing day by day and the proposal to hike railway passenger fare should not be criticised for narrow political gain”.

Chowdhury took a dig at the Bengal government for not raising bus fares. “Common people will not oppose fare hike if better services are provided…. Take the case of the bus fare issue in Bengal, people are willing to pay more but the government is not ready to raise rates,” he said.

The passenger fare hike for non-AC class, proposed after eight years by then railway minister Dinesh Trivedi, cost him his job and Mukul Roy, who replaced him, rolled it back.

The rollback of the fare hike has cost the railways Rs 4,027 crore in projected earnings, throwing revenue calculations for this year out of gear.

The railways are also working on a tariff authority, which can de-politicise passenger fares by allowing them to move up and down like airfares in line with swings in costs.

Chowdhury said that “rail services have fallen in the past few years. There are increasing numbers of complaints. Safety and security is a big concern for the railways and I think these areas need attention.”

A safety committee had recommended the extent of the desired fare increase in a report. An increase through a cess — ranging from Rs 3 to Rs 50 per passenger — can help the railways raise Rs 5,000 crore for safety projects every year, the committee had said. The recommended cess for higher classes was more — Rs 3-10 for non-AC travellers and Rs 20-50 for AC passengers.

Chowdhury said that the change of guard at the railway ministry would not have any adverse impact on projects already sanctioned in Bengal. “We will try to work on the sanctioned projects in the state but we would not announce any new projects,” he said.

Facing a cash crunch, the railways have been curtailing allocations for several ongoing projects.

Bansal said: “We have to ensure that the vast infrastructure of the railways does not collapse and stop functioning. So, we have to increase fares and assure the public that if there will be any hike, the public will also appreciate it because we are going to improve the services.”

The operating ratio of railways, the money spent on ordinary expenses to earn every Rs 100, has risen from Rs 91 in 2004-05 to Rs 95 in 2011-12. This means that after meeting interest costs, the railways do not have enough surplus to plough back into investments.