2014 saw Prabhu's push to put Railways back on track

New Delhi: Reeling under cash and staff crunch, Railways saw reform-oriented Suresh Prabhu taking over charge of the ministry at the fag end of the year and seeking innovate ideas and futuristic vision to bail out the ailing PSU behemoth.

Rising number of deaths on railway tracks, fall in passenger bookings, unhygienic platforms and tracks and poor standard of food are some other issues which kept railways in the news.

The national transporter is also mulling a hike in passenger fares in the Rail Budget next year to tide over the loss in passenger sector.

During the year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off the inaugural train from Katra in Jammu, the base camp for Vaishnodevi shrine.

Expressing serious concern over the Railways' financial health, Prabhu said it is "too close for comfort" and highlighted the urgent need for massive investment to the tune of Rs 6-8 lakh crore to complete ongoing projects for meeting the safety requirement and upgrade in the overburdened rail infrastructure.

Former Karnataka Chief Minister Sadananda Gowda, who had assumed charge as Modi government's first Railway Minister, however, failed to make the right start though remaining at the seat for six months, necessitating a replacement at the crucial ministry.

While the cross-subsidisation in passenger sector is hovering around Rs 26,000 crore, there is a fall in passenger bookings, causing concern for railway financial management.

Passenger bookings came down during April-November by 1.43 per cent as compared to the corresponding period last year.

The fuel adjustment component-linked tariff revision due in December will be now effected in the Rail Budget in February and there is a need for upward revision as energy cost has gone up by over 4 per cent in the recent months.

Hinting at the possibility of raising train fares to meet the growing expenses, Prabhu has maintained "passenger service should be improved before increasing the fares. Safety cannot be compromised. There is a need for big investment.

Some burden has to be shared by people". Right from the word go, Prabhu set the ball rolling for bringing transparency in the system and decided that no tendering-related files will come to him and delegated those powers to general managers and officers below them. He also announced reward for railway officers for showing results.

Aiming at attracting investment, Prabhu called for investors' meet and decided for holding rail roadshows in the US, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, France and Belgium, a first in the railway sector. These events will be showcasing opportunities for investment in the rail sector here.

With the death of five children this month at an unmanned level crossing in Mau in Uttar Pradesh, the number of such deaths this year across the country rose to 94 raising question mark over the slow pace of work of putting an effective mechanism to prevent these mishaps.

According to data prepared by safety wing of the national transporter, railway tracks have claimed 18,735 lives till October. At present, Railways have 11,563 unmanned level crossings.

Though Railways have decided to eliminate all unmanned level crossing in a phased manner by constructing rail overbridges and underbridges, the process of closure is not as fast as expected.

Currently, the posts of Member (Electrical), Member (Mechanical) and also four General Managers at zonal railways are vacant. Since these posts are cutting edge positions in Railways, vacancy at these levels are considered as not a good sign for the public behemoth.

Railways is awaiting the recommendation of Debroy Committee, constituted for suggesting restructuring in Railway Board.

Besides Sreedharan Committee and Mittal Committee have been formed to suggest transparency in tendering process and to recommend ways to improve finances in Railways. Continuing with the dream of running bullet trains, pre-feasibility study is being undertaken between Mumbai and Ahmedabad section by Japan, while China is being given to study the Delhi-Chennai route.

The semi-high speed train between Delhi-Agra is likely to be launched next month.

Railways earned Rs 1,00,622 crore during April-November as compared to Rs 89,341.26 crore during the same period last year, registering an increase of 12.63 per cent.

It carried 713.11 million tonnes (MT) of freight traffic during April-November, registering an increase of 5.24 per cent from last year.

Beginning October 2, cleanliness drive was launched by Railways across the country. The Railways selected 50 stations to be outsourced for cleanliness drive. These include New Delhi, Varanasi, Howrah, Sealdah, Mumbai Central, Bhubaneswar and Patna. Integrated cleaning contract will be awarded through tendering process.

Stepping up efforts to improve passenger amenities, Railways will set up about 70 base kitchens to provide better catering service at rail premises. As many as 5670 complaints were received by Railways from passengers regarding unhygienic conditions, cockroaches, non-functioning of lights, fans and other electrical equipment and catering services including substandard food during April 2012-October 2014.

In order to prevent malpractices in Railway examinations, Prabhu decided that railway recruitment exams will henceforth will be online. The government has opened up 100 per cent FDI in more areas in rail sector to woo investment. Besides, high speed trains, dedicated freight corridors and suburban trains, FDI was opened in trail cleanliness, setting up laundry service and installing bio-toilets also.

Bio-toilets remain a focused area for Railways with more and more coaches having this environment-friendly toilets. Railways recently introduced Wi-Fi service at New Delhi station to provide hassle free connectivity. The facility is to be launched on a trial basis at Agra, Ahmedabad and Varanasi soon and also at Howrah, Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus and Secunderabad.

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