Will the Railway Minister bite the bullet on fare hike? This is the big question ahead of Mr. Pawan Kumar Bansal presenting his maiden Railway Budget in the Lok Sabha at noon.
The hike becomes a necessity, thanks to the recent hike in diesel prices, but then Mr. Bansal may as well resort to other measures to mobilise resources to offset this burden.
The Railways had targeted to mop up an additional revenue of Rs 6,600 crore for the current financial year (2012-13), but the fuel price hike wiped out Rs 3,300 crore of it, according to an assessment by the Railway Minister himself.
Last time the Railways went for a price hike was on January 22, when passenger fares were increased across the board. This hike was attributed largely to fact that the Railways is staring at a loss of Rs 25,000 crore in the passenger segment for the current financial year.
Mr. Bansal has held several rounds of discussions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and the Planning Commission regarding the Rail Budget where he is understood to have discussed the possibility of a fare hike.
Reports suggest that Mr. Bansal could have also discussed the issue with Congress president Sonia Gandhi.
However, sources said a section of the Congress is not inclined towards effecting another round of fare hike as general elections are not far.
Fare hike apart, Mr. Bansal is expected to announce a slew of passenger-friendly measures on better catering services, cleanliness at railway stations and introduction of Braille stickers in coaches for visually-challenged passengers.
While there is a possibility of a slight hike in freight rates despite stiff resistance from the industry, some new schemes to attract more loadings may be in the offing to balance out the burden.
With Mr. Bansal as the top boss at the Rail Bhavan and the key ministry back with the Congress after almost 15 years, speculation is rife that about 100 new trains, including AC double deckers, will be announced.
Although the Congress is opposing the Trinamool government in West Bengal, minister of state for railways, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, might have his say with likely provisions for new trains, including Berhampur-Sealdah passenger, the direct train for New Jalpaiguri from the capital and pantry cars for Bengal-bound trains.
While the focus of the Budget is on providing more amenities to rail users, Mr. Bansal is likely to initiate certain steps to earn more revenue from the alternative sources such as commercial utilisation of surplus railway land, advertising and other sundry business.
Since high-speed train is the latest buzz in Railway Ministry, there could be a few proposals for it in the Budget.
Aiming to put rescue and restoration work on fast track, the Rail Budget 2013-14 is likely to announce procurement of two high-speed self-propelled accident relief trains (SPART). With a speed of 160 km/hr, the SPART will enable rescue equipment to reach the accident site faster and help speedy rescue and restoration work.
The Ministry could also go ahead with the proposal for setting up Rs 1,000 crore MEMU (Mainline Electric Multiple Unit) coach factory in Rajasthan to cater to the growing demand of faster local and suburban service.
The Railways is likely to miss the revenue target of Rs 1.35 lakh crore for the current fiscal year as the total earning for the 10 months from April, 2012, to January, 2013, has been Rs 1,01,223 crore, which means it needs to earn Rs 34,000 crore in the next two months to meet the target.
Despite the freight hike in March 2012, the Railways is set to miss its freight earning target of Rs 89,339 crore this fiscal year as the total goods earnings for the last 10 months from April to January is Rs 70,067.36 crore.
Even the freight loading target of 1,025 million tonnes (MT) is likely to fall short by 15 MT as the Railways could transport only 927.90 MT during the last 10 months. The total passenger earnings for the period of 10 months have been Rs 25,924 crore, whereas the target for the current fiscal year is Rs 36,000 crore.
The Railways, which had got Rs 24,000 crore as general budgetary support (GBS) in the last budget, sought Rs 38,000 crore from the government. It is likely to get about Rs 28,000 crore as GBS in the Rail Budget 2013-14.
The annual plan size of the Railways was slashed down to Rs 52,000 crore from Rs 61,000 crore for the year 2012-13 due to the overall cut in the expenditure. The annual plan size may touch Rs 65,000 crore in the next fiscal year.
With inputs from PTI