New Delhi: For some, Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi is the right man in the wrong party. He of the reformist kind, his party Trinamool Congress more Marxist than her predecessors-the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-in the Writers' Building.
   
For far too long, the railway budget has been its minister's exercise in self or the party's aggrandisement, political that is.
   
So, as he gets ready to present his maiden Railway Budget in the Lok Sabha
Wednesday, Trivedi will have to choose between chugging along the beaten track doggedly followed by his party supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee or charting an entirely new course that sets the Indian railways on path to modernisation.
   
In Mamata's eyes, Trivedi would have done a great job if he does more of the same--doesn't raise passenger fares, announces launch of new trains connecting West Bengal, decides to have more halts of existing trains at stations, extends a train's route and gives freebies to important constituencies.
   
But railways would be well served if Mamata's wish is not Trivedi's guiding light. A small hope in the heart does see Trivedi deviating from his boss's rusted track. In the past, the suave Bengal-based Gujarati has shown glimpses of the ability to do so. He has assiduously talked about the need to hike fares, the most difficult act to execute for any railway minister.
   
Given the hype and sensitivities over inflation, many railway ministers have smartly kept freight rate hikes out of the budget, only to do it, almost on the sly, at a less eventful period of the year. While it's nobody's suggestion as to when a hike should happen, a hike as he did this time on Mar 7--days ahead of the budget--indicates Trivedi's astuteness. The railways increased freight rates by a sharp 20-25 pc on that day. But one swallow doesn't a summer make.
   
In the first eleven months of the current financial year (Apr-Mar), the railways carried 875.60 mln tn of revenue-earning freight traffic, up 5.1 pc on year. During the same time, it booked 7.58 bln passengers and earned revenues of 258.58 bln rupees from them, higher by 9.6 pc from last year's period.
   
But this is where statistics hide more than they reveal. The railways' operating ratio--the amount spent for every rupee earned--rose to 92.3 pc in 2010-11 from 75.9 pc in 2008-09.
   
Keeping in mind Trivedi's own assertion that safety of passengers was his priority, modernisation of the railways' signalling, IT and communication systems and elimination of all level-crossings should top his agenda for the budget.
   
A hike in passenger fares, gauge conversion, beefing up of online ticket booking, weeding out touts and improvement in hygiene and passenger amenities should be focus areas too. Introduction of high-speed trains and completion of work on dedicated freight corridors are another.
   
New locomotive and coach manufacturing facilities, announced as far back as 2007, are yet to see the light of day and a mention by Trivedi of them would be welcome.
   
In a country where road network still has a long way to go and air travel is for the privileged few, the Indian railways remains the backbone of transportation of men and goods. Quite naturally, then, it boasts of staggering statistics.
   
The Indian railways is the third largest rail network in the world with 7,083 stations, 1,31,205 bridges, 9,000 locomotives, 51,030 passenger coaches, 2,19,931 freight cars and 63,974 route kilometres.
   
The railways operates 19,000 trains every day--12,000 passenger and 7,000 freight. It currently has 1.36 mln employees and an annual revenue base of 1.06 trln rupees as projected for the current financial year ending Mar 31.
   
"The country presently suffers from a severe and chronic under-investment in railway infrastructure. The resultant disproportionate diversion of freight and passenger traffic to roads while causing substantial loss in revenue to the railways also imposes a heavy burden on the country which is measurable in terms of a much larger freight cost to GDP ratio and higher environmental cost per route kilometre of freight and passenger traffic than in other countries," an expert group for modernisation of the railways said in its February report.

Modernisation plan proposed by the expert group requires 5.60 trln rupees over five years.
   
Another report by a separate high-level safety review committee and also presented last month, pegged the amount needed to improve the railways' safety systems at 1 trln rupees.
   
This report went so far as to "strongly recommend" against introduction of new trains without commensurate inputs to the infrastructure.
   
If one leaves aside the perks that come with every ministerial posting, Trivedi doesn't have an enviable job. The railways is in a mess. And it desperately needs a rescue act before the situation becomes irredeemable.
   
How true Trivedi manages to stay to his vision will decide how uneasy lies the crown that he wears. By Wednesday evening, Mamata would have decided how uneasy it should get.

(Agencies)