Farewell populism, hello aspiration: Why is the rail budget all about bullet trains and wifi

The NDA government's first rail budget has been hailed as finally putting the brakes on populism and showing some much needed fiscal pragmatism. Newspaper headlines from major publications, the Times of India to Indian Express to Hindustan Times are praising this break from the past.

The Hindustan Times echoed the conventional wisdom, when it declared, "The move signals Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s resolve to curb populism and make tough decisions on politically sensitive issues, such as reforming the railways, and his choice of investment model to build some of his signature infrastructure projects."

Gowda had said in his speech quoting someone, "It is unheard of — a business that has a monopoly, that has a nearly 125 crore customer base, that has 100 per cent sale on advance payment, but (is) still starved of funds." He added that it was only when he took over the books that he realised why the Railways was in such a state.

Gowda said, "An organization of this magnitude vested with varied responsibilities, is expected to earn like a commercial enterprise but serve like a welfare organization. These two objectives are like two rails of the railway track, which though travel together but never meet." He also pointed out that of the 99 projects taken up in 10 years costing Rs 60,000 crore, only one was completed. According to Gowda investments had been “misdirected” and the “tariff policy adopted lacked rational approach”.

The Railways minister had putting the writing on the wall: populist measures would no longer do the trick.

 Farewell populism, hello aspiration: Why is the rail budget all about bullet trains and wifi

Gowda has proposed a revamp of the Indian Railways. Reuters

But this isn't a budget just about saying goodbye to the past, it is also slickly packaged as an aspirational budget for the future.  Gowda has been careful to include measures that will generate attention and enthusiasm from Narendra Modi's favourite constituency: the upwardly mobile middle class.

Internet, e-ticketing:: IRCTC continues to remain a source of woe and the butt of jokes across the country. Perhaps this is why the Minister announced, "Reservation system will be revamped and ticket-booking through mobile phones and post offices popularised."

He added that the e-ticketing service would be improved and would be able to take 7200 tickets per minutes as against the current capacity of 2000 tickets. It will allow 1,20,000 simultaneous users to book tickets. This should reduce the amount of time users have to spend on IRCTC in trying to book just one ticket, especially in peak hours.

Gowda also announced that all A1 and A category stations would get a WiFi facility as would some trains. WiFi on trains was first announced by former railways minister in the UPA 2 Pawan Kumar Bansal in 2013. He also said that a mobile navigation system would be allowed on some stations. Users will also be sent SMSes on time of departure, arrival etc.

The list of sops also included the following: A facility of coin operated automatic ticket vending machines will be tested. Efforts will also be made to provide facility of buying platform tickets and unreserved tickets over internet. And most importantly perhaps parking-cum-platform combo tickets will be introduced to help save their time.

Cleanliness and Hygiene For most travellers, the railway stations are a terrible sight to behold (and smell) as are the loos in the trains. The aspirational middle class' growing squeamishness with public filth  has led many to opt for the relatively clean planes and airports, irrespective of the greater expense.

"I have substantially increased budget allocation for cleanliness in the current year, which is a 40% increase over the previous year," said Gowda in the budget speech. He added that cleaning activities at 50 major stations will be outsourced to professional agencies. A separate housekeeping wing will also be set up to will  maintain cleanliness and sanitation at stations. He added that CCTVs at Stations will be used to monitor littering and spitting. It's not clear whether traveller will soon end up paying fines, as well.

As regard to toilets, the minister also said that "Bio-toilets will be increased in sufficient numbers in trains in order to mitigate the problem of direct discharge of human waste on the tracks and platform aprons at stations." For most middle-class travellers, this could be a godsend on long distance trains.

The minister also proposed that on-board housekeeping services, which currently operate on 400 trains, will be extended to all the key trains. . Also the bedrolls that AC compartment travellers get in overnight trains, might just get more hygienic as the minister has proposed mechanised laundries for their cleaning.

The public-private partnership will continue in the cleanliness department as well as "reputed and willing NGOs, charitable institutions and corporate houses will be encouraged to adopt and maintain stations for better cleanliness," according to the minister.

Water and food: If you're travelling in a long distance train or even a Shatabdi, chances are travelers have to pack a tiffin. Even with mineral water bottles available on most trains, food and water continue to be a source of problem for travellers at stations.

The Railway budget proposed RO drinking water units at stations and in trains on an experimental basis. Again it remains to be seen how many stations will end up getting this . Where food is concerned, you could soon seen pre-cooked (Ready-to-eat) meals of reputed brands on trains. This will take place in a phased manner. There's also going to be a new audit system for the catering services. The budget proposes Quality Assurance Mechanism through Third Party Audit by NABCB certified agencies for effective feedback. Customers could also soon give their own feedback and if the food is bad, action will taken against the vendors, including cancellation of the contract.

Also stations could soon get food courts. Now while it's not clear whether these will be similar to the shopping mall variety, but they will offer more choices to the middle class consumer. A pilot project will be started shortly between New Delhi-Amritsar and New Delhi-Jammu Tawi sections to allow customers to order regional cuisine via emails, SMS, etc, while on the train.

Bullet trains: Gowda announced that work will begin on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train corridor, for which a token Rs 100 crore has been allocated. This is part of the “Diamond Quadrilateral” of high-speed trains. The total investment required for one corridor is estimated to be about Rs 62,000 crore. He added that bullet trains will take time and require considerable investment.

For now speed of trains in some sectors will be amped up to (160-200 kmph). The nine routes are Delhi-Agra, Delhi-Chandigarh, Delhi-Kanpur, Nagpur-Bilaspur, Mysore-Bengaluru-Chennai, Mumbai-Goa, Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Chennai-Hyderabad ,Nagpur-Secunderabad.

Faster trains that reduce travel time are aimed at wooing travellers who choose to fly, even short distances due to time considerations. Whether these users give up their low-cost flights for trains remains to be seen.

Office on Wheels: Again this is aimed at wooing corporate travellers.  Workstations will be provided in select trains on a payment basis. This is a pilot project. It's not clear what facilities the Office-on-Wheels will provide but we're assuming this will have ample work space, Internet, and perhaps a printing facility as well.

In conclusion, the facilities proposed in the budget are ambitious and have a strong focus on the middle class. Hygiene, speed, office-on-wheels, better food. But whether any of this will be enough to bring back the middle class, who might choose a cheaper AirAsia or Indigo's two hours flight to a 24-hour journey (no matter how comfortable) is a big question.

Take, for instance, bullet and express trains which require huge investments, but to remain profitable will have to charge high tarrifs. The average middle class consumer may indeed opt for one in certain corridors -- Ahmedabad-Mumbai, for instance -- where taking a fast train may be more efficient than taking a flight, when you factor in airport commute, waiting time etc. But long distance express trains will serve no one if they are unaffordable for the less affluent and time-consuming for those who can afford them.

Then there's the Office-on-wheels, which may seem cool, but the smart phone offers sufficient access on vacation. And anyone travelling on work will opt for the plane. And when it comes to aspiration, planes will always trump trains. If Modi government wants to make the middle class happy, it may be better off deregulating the airline industry to bring ticket prices down. And as for those who truly need to take the train -- the lower middle and poor classes -- do they really want overpriced trains that let them browse on their iPad? We're guessing not.

 

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Updated Date: Jul 09, 2014 11:42:35 IST