New Delhi, Feb. 26: A symbol of sullen suffering for years, the train passenger has finally made the 153-year-old Indian Railways realise that it is a public utility, not an oversized bully that can behave as it pleases.
The railway budget today went beyond a string of fare concessions to recognise the need to treat paying passengers — aged, poor or infirm — with dignity and offer them the little comforts that might encourage them to take a train in an age of competition.
Like the previous years, Lalu Prasad refused to raise fares in any class and slashed upper class charges. But he also broke new ground in the battle with the airlines by tying his discounts to a concept borrowed from the rival: busy and lean seasons.
During the busy seasons (April 16 to July 14 and September 16 to January 14), AC class I fares now become cheaper by 3 per cent and in the lean periods (January 15 to April 15 and July 15 to September 15), by 6 per cent. For AC two-tier, the slash is two and four per cent.
The fare cuts in the other classes are confined to new coaches with more seats that are to be introduced.
The concession is four and eight per cent during busy and lean seasons in the new AC three-tier (81 seats, up from 64) and AC chair car (102 seats) coaches. In the new class II sleepers with 84 seats instead of 72, the slash will be four per cent through the year.
Finally, the superfast charge on class II tickets is down from Rs 10 to Rs 8, while class II travellers in non-suburban passenger trains and non-superfast mails and expresses get a token Re 1 relief.
But it’s the token of respect they have earned that the occupants of the crammed “cattle class” may appreciate more. Long denied dignity or comfort, they will now be sitting in cushioned seats — just like everybody else — instead of the earlier wooden ones.
Nor will the elderly be left at the mercy of booking clerks or co-passengers if they want a comfortable journey. More lower berths will now be earmarked for women above 45 and male senior citizens.
If the old need for “populism” ahead of a key election — in Uttar Pradesh — partly explains the new-found concern for passenger convenience, many would argue that the pressure of economic reforms played no small a part.
Liberalisation has unleashed the highly competitive private airlines on the arena, forcing a 19th-century state-run behemoth to try and clean up its act. Powered by the Rs 20,000-crore cash surplus before dividend that Lalu Prasad claimed, the changes are a sure sign that the fruits of the high growth rates are now rubbing off on the railways.
“The over 9 per cent growth rate of the economy during 2006-07 has been a boon for the railways,” a senior official acknowledged.
The higher incomes generated by a booming economy bring in more passengers. The rise in goods production creates a higher demand for transporting raw material, such as coal and iron ore, and finished goods such as steel. Freight accounts for over two-thirds of the railways’ earnings.
Lalu Prasad has cut freight for petrol and diesel and for minerals such as iron ore and limestone, used for making steel and cement.
Relief from queues
In keeping with the times, train tickets will now be sold at post offices, and e-tickets at petrol pumps and bank ATMs. Railway call centres will book tickets as well as hotel rooms. The smartening up includes a common phone number for railway enquiries nationwide: 139.
Among the sops for the poor are eight garib raths among the 32 pairs of new trains, six instead of four unreserved compartments in all the new trains, and 800 more coaches in the “popular” existing trains.
Safe & clean
Safety gets its due a week after the Samjhauta Express blasts, with CCTVs, video cameras and sniffer dogs promised at “sensitive” stations, backed up by bomb detectors and hand-held metal detectors. Some 8,000 vacancies are to be filled in the Railway Protection Force.
An old stain could be removed if the action matches words on the cleanliness campaign at stations, trains and tracks. Lalu Prasad has declared 2007 as “cleanliness year”.