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High expectations ahead of India's railway budget

The new Indian government's recent fare hikes has raised expectations of big improvements to the country's dilapidated railway system. Analysts are expecting bold policy decisions in the upcoming railway budget, while commuters hope for better services.

NEW DELHI: The new Indian government's recent fare hikes for rail passengers and freight has raised expectations of big improvements to the country's dilapidated railway system.

Analysts are expecting some bold policy decisions in the government's maiden Union Railway Budget.

The decision to raise fares by 14.2 per cent last month was a bitter pill to swallow for many commuters. But they are expecting better services in return.

Passenger Ramnath said: "We see ourselves as a developing nation but the facilities are very poor. It is very important that it must be taken care of."

Sudhanshu Banerjee, also a rail passenger, said: "We want cleanliness and good maintenance of the trains as government has increased the fares."

But political observers pointed out that more than the fare hike, the 6.5-per cent hike in freight charges is a cause of greater concern because it is bound to increase inflation. It is one of the major issues Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to contain during his election campaign.

Some of the major sectors that are likely to be most affected include food, infrastructure and real estate, as considerable portion of the raw materials used by these industries are transported through the railways.

Arvinder Singh, New Delhi unit chief for Congress, said: "The manner in which the railway fares have been increased will affect the poor since the increase will lead to a hike in the rates of vegetables, coal, electricity and much more. The people of the country were hoping that the new government would reduce inflation."

But while detractors feel the government is already failing in delivering its election campaign promises, the federal government has assured it would justify the steep hike.

Apart from promising bullet trains to connect with other high speed trains in major cities, analysts are expecting a major chunk of funds will most likely be allocated to improving railway safety and security which has of late, emerged as a major concern.

J P Batra, former chief of Railway Board, said: "Safety is going to receive the top most attention. The railway minister (Sadanand Gowda) has already spoken about it.

“I would like to see a scheme on the lines of safety surcharge to be levied with commitment from central government of certain amount of funds… to ensure that we reach a near-zero level of accidents on the important track routes."

Based on the government's short track record, it is not likely to shy away from making some tough budgeting decisions across many sectors, including a comprehensive overhaul of India's rail network.  

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