India to rename railway 'coolies' in modernisation drive

Commuters travel in a local train in Mumbai, India.
Commuters travel in a local train in Mumbai, India.PHOTO: EPA

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India on Thursday (Feb 25) said it will roll out Wi-Fi to hundreds of stations, install 17,000 high-tech toilets on trains and professionalise its unskilled porters, or "coolies", under a drive to modernise its creaking railways.

Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu steered away from introducing contentious passenger fare hikes or freight rate increases as he presented the 2016-17 rail budget in parliament.

Railways are a lifeline for India's 1.2 billion people and the main form of long-distance travel, with about 23 million people travelling by train every day.

But Asia's oldest rail network is creaking from decades of neglect and chronic underinvestment, and last year the government announced a US$137-billion (S$192,195) five-year modernisation plan.

"For ensuring delivery of quality services to its customers, Indian Railways needs to be equipped with modern and cutting edge technology," Prabhu said presenting the rail budget.

He cited a landmark deal with Japan in December to build India's first bullet train, which will slash journey times between the cities of Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

Indian Railways would "collaborate with the best in the world" to modernise its trains and rail infrastructure, he said.

A partnership with Google will see it extend free Wi-Fi to 400 more stations within two years after the service hits 100 stations this year, the minister said.

The railway operator will also install on trains 17,000 additional "bio-toilets" by the end of this financial year, Prabhu said.

Bio-toilets are more sanitary, using bacteria to convert waste to water and gas, instead of releasing it directly onto the tracks like conventional toilets.

Station baggage carriers, known by the derogatory name "coolies" after the indentured labourers who served in the British imperial era, would be given uniforms and training in soft skills, he said.

The porters would henceforth be known as "sahayaks", which translates as "helpers" in Hindi "in line with the evolving image of Indian Railways", he said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said he plans to revamp Asia's oldest rail network and make it the "backbone" of India's economic development.

In addition to the bullet train deal with Japan, India also sighed multi-billion dollar contracts last year with French company Alstom and General Electric for hundreds of new locomotives.

Prabhu on Thursday outlined plans to electrify 2,000km of train tracks in the next financial year and said bidding was under way to set up new locomotive factories.

India's trains are among the world's cheapest and a steep fare hike in 2014 was a break from the past, in which successive governments shied away from hiking tariffs for fear of alienating voters.

The network has a dreadful safety record with a government report in 2012 putting the number of deaths each year at nearly 15,000.