The in-principle approval given by the Union cabinet for the setting up a railway tariff authority is a step in the right direction to improve the finances of the railways and to enable it to meet the demands made on it. The idea has been discussed widely and had even been announced but it has not taken shape till now. Even now it is only the first step because there is need for clarity on the powers of the proposed authority. The decision is to set up the authority through an executive order and give it legislative support in due course. This is because legislative procedures might involve delay in the present circumstances. If this shows a sense of urgency in bringing about reforms in the railways’ fare and freight structure it is welcome.
The railways’ finances have steadily deteriorated through resort to populism and patronage. It is losing thousands of crores of rupees just to stay on the tracks. Cosmetic changes in fares and irrational freight revisions have not helped. It needs more funds to modernise, provide safety, security and comfort to its users and to expand its operations. More investment is needed to improve the rolling stock, to lay more lines and to keep pace with the growing needs of the economy. The proposed authority should have the power and expertise to determine the passenger fare and freight rates periodically and to get them enforced. It should be a regulatory body with a legal mandate. The present situation may not improve if it is only an advisory body.
Only a financially strong railways will be able to respect its responsibilities to its users. Ensuring the safety and security of the passengers’ lives and possessions is the first responsibility. The recent judgment of the apex consumer disputes redressal forum that the railways should give a compensation of about Rs 2 lakh to a passenger whose luggage was stolen from a reserved compartment is important in this respect. The railways’ contention that it was not responsible for theft in compartments was rejected by the forum. If the railways have to put in place effective arrangements to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers it should have the financial means for that. The tariff authority with adequate powers should be set up at the earliest.