In its first Railway budget, the BJP-led NDA government had focussed on passenger amenities and inviting private participation in the modernisation of infrastructure. While putting Meghalaya on the Railway map recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spelt out a scheme to privatise and modernise railway stations. He said 10 to 12 stations will be taken up under the programme to significantly upgrade passenger amenities and make them akin to airport terminal buildings. The thought is not new, nor is the attempt to upgrade major stations. Similarly, the plan to leverage the extensive extent of railway land available has been talked about for years, without much progress being made. Commercial utilisation of railway land could be very profitable, but needs to be done with caution to prevent exploitation or corruption. Now that the government has decided to allow 100 per cent FDI in Railway projects, the Ministry, now under a new Minister, the reform-minded Suresh Prabhu, should work on the details to roll out the programme. The first step will have to be the identification of stations across the country, deciding on what exactly the private sector or partner can do, and the sensitive issue of levying user charges. In any scheme of privatising public space, the question of user charges comes in, and it needs to be addressed in conjunction with the extent of investment and the kind of facilities provided in these stations.
When Mr. Modi spoke of trains running underground and commercial buildings coming on top of that space, the reference must be to the metro rail and stations in major metropolitan centres. What is more pressing is raising standards and facilities at existing railway stations in key cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, Ahmedabad, Allahabad and Patna, to name a few centres. These are the stations that are old and call for urgent modernisation. In a limited way, the zonal railways have been enhancing amenities such as display boards, seating arrangements and catering facilities, providing in some stations even Wi-Fi. There is so much scope for a significant leap forward in the matter of amenities: these should include retiring rooms, waiting rooms, toilets, electric cars and wheel chairs for the aged and physically challenged, and, above all, maintaining cleanliness. Even where the Indian Railways has tried to provide some of these facilities, there is just no upkeep or maintenance. The area of cleanliness and maintenance is one to which the Railways need to pay immediate attention. The earlier the Railways start finalising this scheme and implementing it, the better. It should not be allowed to go the way of earlier plans.