Chandigarh, Feb 25 (IANS) Ahead of his maiden rail budget Tuesday, Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal has promised a 24X7 helpline for women that will be tracked real time, with top priority accorded to safety of passengers, especially women.
"The safety and security of passengers, especially women, is top priority of the Indian Railways," Bansal told IANS in an exclusive interview. "It's not possible to deploy women constables in each of the 51,000 coaches. But soon there would be round-the-clock toll-free helpline for women and this will be tracked on real-time basis."
To ensure the security of women in trains, especially to end chain- and purse-snatching incidents, the railways would ensure that no male passenger travels in all-women coaches, he said.
In the exclusive conversation with IANS on board the Shatabdi Express to his hometown Chandigarh, Bansal said most suggestions for women's safety have come from the public.
His comments come at a time when the safety of women commuting on public transport has come under a spotlight after a young woman in the national capital was gang-raped on a bus Dec 16.
Among the railways' priorities will be launching over 100 new trains, especially on some religious tourism sections, speeding up derailed projects, cleanliness of stations, improving catering and, of course, setting finances in order, ministry sources said.
"You all have to wait until the budget is presented," said Bansal, the administrator of the world's third largest rail network under a single management, when asked about the further hike in rail fare to counter the increase in the fuel bill by over Rs.3,000 crore due to recent diesel price hike.
"If we have money, then we will be in a position to provide better facilities. As per my feedback, the passengers are saying, 'You provide us facilities, the marginal hike will not affect us'," the minister said.
Bansal, however, did not categorically deny that there would be no further hike in train fares, especially in executive classes, to raise revenues for the cash-strapped Indian Railways.
Fares of all classes were increased last month to net an additional annual revenue of Rs.1,200 crore by the end this fiscal alone. The budget may see some further hike in freight charges in the wake of the economic recession.
"Economic slowdown has reduced our earnings from freight. There is a decline in steel and cement transportation. During Lalu's (Prasad) tenure, there was increase in the load capacity. But the extra load capacity is not repaying us right now. It's a matter of concern."
The railways have to go for public-private partnership to mop up additional resources for projects like setting up high-speed corridors.
The railways had initially selected the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed rail project, which alone needs more than Rs.60,000 crore, he said.
For improving catering, which is valued at Rs.2,000 crore, Bansal said: "Our emphasis is now on setting up state-of-the-art base kitchens at most railway stations."
Ceanliness will also be high on the agenda. For this, he said, 100 railway stations have been shortlisted.
"Depositing human excreta at the railway stations is a problem. We have got suggestions to close toilets (when the train is parked at the station) but a final call on this is yet to be taken."
The forthcoming budget is expected to have special outlay on safety and modernisation of trains.
"If we have money, then we will be in a position to man issues of passenger safety and facilities in a better way," the minister added.
(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)