India to hike rail fares for first time in decade

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India announced its first across-the-board rise in rail fares for a decade on Wednesday to fund improvements in safety on the overburdened network.

The proposed increase across various tiers of the national rail system come 10 months after an earlier plan to raise fares had to be scrapped following fierce opposition from a then partner in the Congress-led coalition government.

Railways Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal said he expected annual losses in 2012-2013 to climb to 250 billion rupees (S$5.6 million), adding: "This in fact points to the imperative of... a reasonable fare hike immediately."

"We, after all the deliberations, careful consideration of all the issues, have decided to effect an increase in the fare... with effect from 21st of this month," Mr Bansal told reporters.

He said he would not increase prices again next month when he is due to present the annual railway budget in parliament.

The dilapidated railways, still the main form of long-distance travel in India despite fierce competition from airlines, run thousands of passenger and freight trains and carry millions of people daily.

The proposed hike would see the 1,400-km Mumbai to Delhi fare rising by 84 rupees (S$1.90), or 21 per cent, for bottom-rung sleeper-class customers.

Furious protests by a regional ally of the government over a suggested fare increase last year saw the then railway minister resign and led to a reversal of the policy. In the end, only first-class fares were raised.

Mr Bansal said last year's rollback had forced cuts in "necessary programmes that we have to have for the safety, for the cleanliness, for the upgradation of the railway stations".

India's colonial-era train system has a notoriously bad accident record, with a recent official report revealing that almost 15,000 people are killed a year crossing rail tracks - a figure the government described as a "massacre".

Derailments, collisions and other accidents are also common.

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