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Rail Budget: Narendra Modi faces uphill task to put India's railways on track

Jul 08 2014, 09:53 IST
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PM Narendra Modi has promised to modernise India's railways and build high-speed engines befitting Asia's third-largest economy. Reuters PM Narendra Modi has promised to modernise India's railways and build high-speed engines befitting Asia's third-largest economy. Reuters
SummaryPM Narendra Modi, who started out selling tea outside a train station, has promised to modernise railways...

Departing Platform One at New Delhi station last week was India's fastest train: the test run of the Delhi-Agra express - dubbed "semi-high speed" by local media - topped a record-breaking 160 kilometres per hour on its way to the Taj Mahal.

But the velocity, though triple the 50 kilometres average clocked on trips across the country, is barely one-third of the top-speed of China's fastest train, showing the extent to which India's expansive but under-funded train network has failed to keep pace.

"The capacity of the track is almost saturated," Anurag Sachan, divisional railway manager for Delhi, said in his office next to New Delhi's giant station. "We could go as high as 200 km but we would need to have a completely new track for higher speeds."

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who started out selling tea outside a train station, has promised to modernise India's railways and build high-speed engines befitting Asia's third-largest economy.

On Tuesday, his new government will unveil its maiden railways budget, with expectations high that he will offer bold plans to improve the service - a lifeline for 23 million Indians every day.

Among the goals is bringing much more private money into one of the country's largest state-controlled industries. At present, there's small private involvement in suburban services and locomotive manufacturing.

In a speech last week, Modi hinted at how much of a revamp he believed the railways needed, telling an audience in Kashmir that he wanted an upgrade of stations, many of which look much as they did under the British.

"Why do our railway stations need to be so old, why can't they be better than our airports?" he said, after waving a green flag to inaugurate services on a stretch of track in the mountain state.

PARTNERSHIPS NEEDED

Modi's government will announce plans for public-private partnerships in railway infrastructure, the Economic Times reported on Monday, citing government sources, and he is expected to update the country on plans for a high-speed rail between the financial capital Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

"If the railways are to fully benefit the climate, the economy, society, the government needs to bring in more money... including from private and foreign investment" said G. Raghuram, professor at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and co-author of a report about railway modernisation.

Raghuram said allowing private money into freight was a simple and relatively easy shift that would boost the economy. Railways' share of freight has fallen from 90

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