Fare slashed, freight untouched: Lalu's populist rail moves on

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New Delhi, Feb 26 (UNI) Cast in the shadow of impending general elections, Railway Minister Lalu Prasad today presented a highly populist budget, announcing a five per cent across the board reduction in passenger fares, leaving freight rates unchanged, and rolling out a slew of measures to improve passenger services and amenities.

The fifth consecutive budget of Mr Prasad and the last of the UPA government also had measures for improving the welfare of railwaymen.

Yet the budget did not lose sight of the imperatives of modernisation and had announcements relating to model stations and dedicated freight corridors, escalators at 50 per cent of major stations, replacement of old signalling equipment and bringing a huge number of unmanned crossings into the manned ones.

The bonanza for passengers includes introduction of ten new Garib Raths, 53 pairs of new trains and increase in frequency of 11 pairs.

The five per cent discount in fares pertains to non-suburban second class for both ordinary and mail and express trains, whose fare is more than Rs 50. Where the fare is less than Rs 50, a Re one reduction has been carried out.

In an unusually long speech running into two hours, the minister slashed the fares of AC I class by a hefty seven per cent and of AC two tier by 4 per cent.

In effect, the relative index of fares of AC I class has been reduced from 1150 to 1000 and of AC two class from 850 to 600.

Carrying forward the logic of higher volumes based on low fares, Mr Prasad said there would be an increase in discount for travel in new design high-capacity reserved coaches.

While keeping the overall freight structure intact, the minister announced a five per cent reduction in freight rates for petrol and diesel to provide succour to the public reeling under high prices of these two commodities.

Besides, highest class 210 category of freight is to be reduced to 200 as part of the rationalisation process.

Of the 19 stations which are to be developed as models, the minister gave the name of four such stations to be developed during 2008-09. These are: New Delhi, Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CTS), Mumbai, Patna and Secunderabad.

Using the PPP model, these world class stations are to attract private investment to the tune of Rs 15000 crore.

The presentation of the budget, which began with humour and wit, got lost in the din and walkout as opposition members were disappointed that little had been done for the areas they belong.

Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee time and again cajoled the members to permit the minister to make his statement and at times threatened that he would ask Mr Prasad to lay his speech on the table of the House.

The minister chided the opposition for disrupting the proceedings and described his budget as the ''historic'' one, which caters to the need of 'aam aadmi', the aged, women and the underprivileged.

The BJP and other opposition slammed the budget, accusing the minister of letting down the people and said Mr Prasad was quick at announcing new schemes and measures but poor at implementation.

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