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India on Tuesday pledged better catering, comfort and cleanliness as part of a $11.7-billion budget for Asia's oldest rail network along with steps to help stop trains mowing down people and elephants.
At the same time, Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal -- setting the stage for what is expected to be a belt-tightening national budget on Friday -- hiked rail freight rates by around five percent.
He also reduced the annual rate of increase in federal spending on the railway to eight percent from the previous year's 20 percent rise and insisted that the sprawling network must be made "financially sustainable".
"Austerity and economy in expenditure will be observed," Bansal promised in presenting the railway budget to March 2014.
The budget for the railways -- India's main long-distance transport despite competition from roads and airlines -- is presented separately due to big freight and passenger volumes and is seen as a harbinger of the national budget's tone.
For the first time, the cost of shipping goods by rail will be linked to fuel prices, Bansal said, in a move indicating the Congress-led government's desire to curtail deficit-ballooning energy subsidies.
Bansal held passenger fares steady after hiking them last month for the first time in a decade.
But he warned the 23 million Indians who travel daily on the trains they would have to pay higher fares down the line as the railway is losing 246 billion rupees a year on subsidised passenger services alone.
Bansal pledged to improve food, comfort, cleanliness and safety aboard trains as well as to build more lines and introduce new trains.
"A plan investment of 633.63 billion ($11.7 billion) rupees is proposed for 2013-14," up 5.3 percent from the previous year, Bansal said.
The implication for the national budget is that "government spending will likely rise at a slower pace", said Nomura economist Sonal Varma, who added the government will still be wary of a "backlash ahead of elections" due in 2014.
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 because of underinvestment.
Bansal promised to significantly reduce the number of unmanned crossings which claim the lives of around 15,000 people annually, 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 train killed five elephants crossing tracks in eastern India.
The government has said it is considering imposing speed restrictions on trains at elephant crossing points to reduce the number of fatalities.
Experts praised the budget's emphasis on safety but said it did not contain the radical overhaul needed to put the rail service on a sound financial track.