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Rail tastes premium blood and likes it
Success prompts 17 more trains

New Delhi, Feb 12: Railway fares and freight were left untouched on Wednesday as the UPA government presented its four-month vote-on-account for the Indian Railways that was back-stopped with a government budgetary support of Rs 30,223 crore.

Mallikarjun Kharge — the rookie railway minister who assumed office barely eight months ago — presented a 14-minute, maiden interim budget speech that must rank as the shortest ever but was punctuated by a fiery outburst from agitated members of Andhra Pradesh protesting against the move to carve up their state.

The railways have asked for an 8 per cent increase in the budget for the next year to enable the cash-strapped enterprise to roll out another 72 trains, including 17 premium trains on high-density corridors. It also plans to introduce 38 more express trains, 10 passenger trains, four suburban trains and three inter-city trains.

The railways plan to use the budgetary support and market borrowings worth Rs 19,805 crore to finance plans to invest Rs 64,305 crore and create new lines and build infrastructure to buttress the world’s fourth largest railway system that sprawls 65,000km.

The premium train is a new concept of “non-stop” express trains for which tickets will be sold under a dynamic fare structure that mimics the one adopted by the airline industry and is a variation of the one that the railways have been experimenting with on the Mumbai Rajdhani route.

Dynamic fares are determined on the basis of demand and ticket prices tend to rise closer to the date of departure.

Officials said the base fares of the premium trains would be higher than the Tatkal rates of the Rajdhani service. Tickets for these trains can be bought a fortnight ahead of the date of journey and not two months ahead as in the case of other trains.

There will be a price cap, officials said, that was likely to be 100 per cent of the base fare.

A team of officials will monitor the prices of air ticket prices and ensure the premium train tickets remain lower than air fares.

The premium trains will have no waiting list, provide no ticket concessions and offer no refund unless the train itself is cancelled.

Several premium trains will operate in the eastern region. The routes include Howrah-Pune, Mumbai-Howrah, Sealdah-Jodhpur (all bi-weekly), Katra-Howrah, Kamakhya-New Delhi, and Kamakhya Chennai (all weekly). These trains would have only AC II tier and AC III tier coaches.

“We have identified 35 long distance routes that have waitlisted passengers throughout the year. As a first step we are introducing this premium service in 17 of them,” said Arunendra Kumar, chairman of the Railway Board.

The experiment with dynamic fares has been hugely successful with Kharge claiming that the earnings of the railways had increased by about 48 per cent on the Mumbai Rajdhani route compared with other Rajdhani services operating in the same sector. The railways intend to expand the scheme.

In line with the government’s strategic objective of linking far flung border areas, Kharge announced rail connectivity to Katra and Vaishnodevi in Jammu and Kashmir, and plans to establish rail links to Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh’s capital Itanagar in the Northeast.

The railways also announced plans to study and possibly run high-speed trains in collaboration with Japan on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route as well as semi-high speed projects on the Delhi-Agra and Delhi-Chandigarh sectors at up to 200km an hour.

Kharge also promised a new tariff-setting body — the Rail Tariff Authority — which will fix rail freight rates and passenger tariff, without having to contend with the populist pulls and pushes which a railway minister has to continually resist.

The Indian Railways is losing over Rs 4,700 crore on its passenger train services but Kharge chose not to raise fares ahead of the general election later this year. The last time prices were raised across the board was in January 2013, after a nine-year gap.

The railways are adopting more digital and mobile initiatives to ease the pain of long-distance train travel that include SMS alerts, ticketing on mobile phones in the unreserved segment, and online booking of meals in trains. “IT has revolutionised our customer interface over the last few years. We intend to continue the process,” he added.

The annual gross tariff receipts are projected to grow 14.4 per cent to Rs 160,775 crore in the next fiscal year, while working expenses are expected to rise 14 per cent to Rs 1,10,649 crore.

The railways have set a marginally higher freight loading target at 1,101 million tonnes, only 49.7 million tonnes higher than the revised target in the current fiscal.

Kharge said three new rail factories in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bengal have already been commissioned — a wheel plant at Chhapra, a coach factory in Rae Bareli and a diesel component factory at Dankuni.

To make trains safer, Kharge proposed the use of induction cookers in train pantries, instead of the more flammable cooking gas, and adding portable fire extinguishers in coaches. Other measures include the use of fire retardant material inside coaches and multi-tier protection for electric circuits.