FE Editorial : Off the beaten track

Much has been written about the need to hike railway passenger fares, and they should be raised given how India's passenger fare-to-freight ratio is amongst the lowest in the world (0.3:1 compared to 1.3:1 for China). But while the new railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal will do well to try and raise rates, it's important to keep some perspective since, for the sake of argument, a 20% hike in passenger fares will yield just R5,000 crore. As compared to this, the Railways need to invest around Rs 8,39,000 crore in the next 5 years, compared to around Rs 84,000 crore in the 10th Plan and Rs 2,03,000 in the 11th Plan. It's important to keep in mind that over Rs 1 lakh crore of this is vital safety expenditure since the Anil Kakodkar panel on safety (http://goo.gl/opmBo) pointed out very major safety issues in both the rail tracks as well as wagons. Apart from the fact that the Railways needs a lot more than R5,000 crore a year to meet its internal resources generation target, keep in mind the fact that as per this plan, the Railways needs to generate another R2,29,000 crore from PPP projects.

Given that it has been after several years that the Congress has got its own man in the Railways, it is important the party put things on track in this vital ministry. This is not just from the point of view of what improving the efficiency of the Railways will do for the economy; Rs 2,29,000 crore of PPP projects can completely change the complexion of the current investment mood in the country. Most important, in most cases, there are no complicated environment and other clearances to be sought. A modern four-storey Delhi railway station, complete with shopping malls, restaurants and hotels, for instance, will do more for Delhi's economy than the new airport did. The Railways, similarly, have around 1 lakh acres of surplus land—1,504 hectares of this have just been shortlisted for leasing—that can be leased to industry without virtually any delays. Raising passenger fares is important, but the railway minister has a lot more that needs to be done.

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