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Last Updated: Monday, 25 February 2008, 16:16 GMT
India prepares for railway expansion
By Shilpa Kannan
Business reporter, BBC World, Delhi

Indian train
India's railways tie together the vast nation

In a country where hundreds of millions of people still live on less than one dollar a day, the trains provide a lifeline, both as a means of transport and because the railways are the largest employer in India.

India has the world's largest railway network. There are more than five billion passenger journeys on the railways each year.

But although the system is big already, the Indian government is expected to increase India's rail routes while keeping ticket prices intact as it announces the railway budget on Tuesday.

The cost of the restructuring programme is set to reach $56bn (28.5bn) over the next five years.

Union Railway minister Lalu Prasad Yadav has long been trying to spare passengers by tapping into other sources of revenue within the railway system.

At the same time, he has brought about a dramatic financial turnaround, increasing freight revenue by beginning the construction of dedicated routes between the major cities in the country.

But whereas last year freight was the focus of the railway budget, this year Mr Yadav is expected to focus on using the large land bank the railways owns to make money.

Difficult journeys

With more than 7,000 stations, it is estimated that India's railways has more than 45,000 hectares of land that could be developed.

We can afford only rail tickets so we travel by train
Aleem Khan

Take New Delhi station, in the heart of the city's business district.

With more than 350,000 people using it every day, the New Delhi station is in desperate need of a makeover.

Open sewerage, leaking pipes, and overflowing dustbins are a common sight.

Passengers have to wade through platforms teeming with passengers to get to their trains.

One of them is Aleem Khan, 45, who along with his wife and two small children is trying to catch the Kashi Vishwanath Express between New Delhi and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh.

As Mr Khan haggles with a porter to carry his bags, his wife Rabia Begum holds on tightly to their two children, four-year-old Maria and 10-year-old Ramsha.

The Khans are going back to their village in Uttar Pradesh after a holiday in Delhi.

Though the tickets are relatively cheap, the eight-hour journey is not easy, says Mr Khan.

"For long distance travellers like us, there is no other option," he says.

"We can afford only rail tickets so we travel by train.

"But the toilets are not clean and usually there are people travelling in these toilets too so my wife and daughters cannot use them. We have to pay money for drinking water and we cannot afford that. I wish the facilities were better."

Prime real estate

Four new platforms are being constructed to ease the congestion, and the railway authorities have invited private companies to modernise the Delhi station in partnership with the public sector.

Ram Kishen
Airports are for rich people. Railway stations are for people like me who are poor
Ram Kishen, porter

Major construction firms - including GMR, DLF and Reliance - are queuing up as there is plenty of prime real estate up for grabs.

British firm Terry Farrell and Partners has been hired by the railway ministry to re-design the station.

Stefan Krummeck, its main architect, says that the station is spread over 86 hectares of land, which they hope to integrate back into the city.

The plan is to separate arrivals and departures areas on different levels, the way it is done at airports, with additional levels for waiting areas. Escalators will be provided to connect all the levels to the platforms.

"One side of the station is more like a transport base, again like an airport, where you have all the transport facilities, the taxis, the cars and buses and a very big drop off area," explains Mr Krummeck.

"The other side is more a property-dominated side where you have the shopping areas, some office buildings, hotels and so on."

The renovation of Delhi station marks the start of government efforts to upgrade both the nation's railway stations and its routes.

Stefan Krummeck
Mr Krummeck says new stations will offer many benefits

Tracks will be widened, enabling a switch to faster and bigger trains that can speed up the passenger flow.

But it is neither cheap nor easy to upgrade stations which are used by more than 14 million passengers every day.

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India says the railway minister should scale up commercial operations at 100 additional railway stations to help generate the money.

Winner and losers

But although many will gain as the stations are kitted out with food plazas, escalators and shopping malls, others stand to lose.

Ram Kishen, 45, has been working in the Delhi railway station for over ten years.
Railway in India
India's railways are the country's largest employer

He and 35,000 other porters across India carry people and parcels to the trains.

According to the new plan, all the parcels will be brought on conveyor belts via an underground channel.

"How can they make this like an airport?" he says.

"Airports are for rich people. Railway stations are for people like me who are poor.

"Poor people can't afford all those fancy new facilities. They can only afford porters like us - we charge very little money."

But as Mr Kishen is worried about his future, passengers like the Khans are looking forward to a more comfortable journey.

And with a surplus of more than $11bn in its kitty, the Indian railways are on the fast track to modernisation.

Perhaps one day, crowded platforms will be a thing of the past.

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