Indian rail budget promises high-speed trains

Filed on February 24, 2010

NEW DELHI - India’s rail minister announced Wednesday plans for high-speed trains for Asia’s largest rail network as she kept fares unchanged — underscoring the government’s focus on ‘inclusive growth’.

‘I am committed to the common man,’ Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee told parliament as she unveiled the railway’s budget for the fiscal year to March 2011.

The railway plan is traditionally seen as setting the tone for the federal budget, which is to be unveiled Friday and is expected to push a populist agenda.

‘Our objective is inclusive growth for all, and our goal is to unite the country with connectivity,’ Banerjee said.

Passenger and freight fares were left unchanged for a network that is still the main form of long-distance travel in the country of 1.2 billion people, despite fierce competition from new private airlines.

Banerjee unveiled plans for a series of dedicated passenger corridors for high-speed trains — to be known as the ‘Golden Rail Corridor’ — similar to an existing network devoted to freight.

The service will be set up under a special National High Speed Rail Authority and serve as a catalyst for economic growth and spur development of satellite towns, she said without going into more detail.

India’s neighbour and rival China has already embarked on an ambitious plan to build 13,000 kilometres (8,000 miles) of high-speed track by 2012 as it seeks to sustain its rapid economic growth.

Indian Railways boasts a network of 109,000 kilometers (67,730 miles) that transports some 18.5 million people daily on 14,000 passenger and freight trains.

Banerjee also promised better safety conditions on the rail network, where accidents are common. Trains will be equipped with new anti-collision devices and there will be better traffic signalling.

She said the railways — built by India’s former British colonial rulers — would not be privatised, saying she preferred ‘social responsibility to economic responsibility’.

But the minister appealed to industry to join hands with the left-leaning government to develop ‘business models’ to boost earnings and fund expansion, and said there was a need to make policies ‘investment friendly’.

She said she wanted to enlist the private sector’s help to develop dilapidated infrastructure and promised a special task force to clear investment proposals in 100 days, where they can currently take many months or even years.

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