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India pledges more comfort on creaking rail network

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

India on Tuesday pledged better catering, comfort and cleanliness as part a $11.7-billion budget for Asia's oldest rail network along with steps to help stop trains mowing down people and elephants.

Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal hiked freight rates by five percent in his budget for the sprawling state-run network, India's main form of long-distance transport despite competition from airlines and roads.

For the first time, the cost of shipping goods will be linked to fuel prices, Bansal added, in a move highlighting the Congress-led government's resolve to rein-in deficit-ballooning subsidies for publicly owned companies.

He held fares steady after hiking them last month for the millions of train passengers who travel daily but said they would have to rise in future and insisted the troubled service must be made "financially sustainable".

The annual budget for one of the world's largest rail networks is presented separately due to huge freight and passenger volumes.

It will be followed Friday by the national budget that economists expect to feature the most belt-tightening in years in a bid to close a widening deficit gap and boost investor confidence.

Bansal, presenting his maiden rail budget for the financial year to March 2014, promised to improve catering, comfort, cleanliness and safety aboard trains as well as to build more lines and introduce new trains.

"A plan investment of 633.63 billion rupees is proposed for 2013-14," Bansal told parliament.

The Victorian-era railways -- built by India's former British colonial rulers -- bills itself as the "lifeline to the nation" because of its vast reach but it has become decrepit and accident-prone through lack of investment.

Bansal promised to significantly reduce the number of unmanned crossings which claim the lives of around 15,000 people annually, according to recent figures -- a number the government describes as a "massacre".

"We will strive to work towards a zero accident situation," he said.

For India's estimated 26,000 wild elephants, he also pledged "special measures" to "safeguard the lives of these gentle giants" which are sometimes hit at railway crossings in forested areas.

In December, a passenger train killed five elephants crossing tracks in eastern India.

The government has said it is considering imposing speed restrictions on trains at major elephant crossing points to reduce the number of fatalities.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130226/india-pledges-more-comfort-creaking-rail-network