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A tribune investigation Punjab Public Transport - 5
Silence of the lambs
Inter-city rail links have been inexplicably delayed yet the state MPs donít yell
Punjab Bureau

Chandigarh, September 30
After years of public pressure, the Union Ministry of Railways finally scheduled a non-stop train linking Chandigarh with Amritsar earlier this year. But even as it complied with the popular demand, it introduced one of the slowest of its Duronto trains. The train takes four hours to traverse the 270 kms, just half an hour less than what a non-stop bus would take. The Shatabdi from Chandigarh to Delhi takes 3 hours and 15 minutes for covering almost the same distance despite several stops on the way.

Passengers from Amritsar and Chandigarh are not complaining as the journey is far more comfortable and cheaper than luxury buses. The fare including food is Rs 355 as compared to luxury buses that charge Rs 350 (without food). The private bus transport lobby is obviously not too happy with what they see as a major competitor for their services.

There are complaints that the powerful bus transport lobby has ensured that there are great delays in introduction of rail links between major cities and towns in Punjab. For the past 20 years, the Railways has struggled to establish a rail link between Chandigarh and Ludhiana, a distance of just 100 kms. Started in late 1990, the project has been progressing at a snailís pace with deadlines constantly getting extended.

While the Chandigarh-Morinda segment is complete, work on the vital Morinda-Sahnawal - a 50 km stretch - has been pending for many years. Work is also still on between Sahnawal and Ludhiana section - the third and final part of the rail link. The deadline for the Chandigarh-Ludhiana connection was to be March 31, 2010. But it has been inexplicably extended to March 31, 2013.

The other important missing rail links are between Bathinda and Amritsar, Amritsar and Anandpur Sahib, Barnala-Mansa and Sardulgarh, Gurdaspur to Derababa Nanak and Samrala-Rahon, to name just a few. Work on the Abohar- Fazilka rail link was to have been completed by March 31, 2007 and the train was to be introduced on April 1, 2010.

The rail links are ready but the train service has still not started. The Railways claims that they have been testing the track safety ó but thatís now over a year already. In the absence of rail links between major population centres, people in Punjab have no choice but to travel by road transport.

What has been most intriguing is the comparative silence of the normally vocal elected representatives from Punjab in the two Houses of Parliament. A study done by The Tribune of the current Lok Sabha, constituted in 2009, reveals just how lackadaisical Punjab politicians have been on the subject of rail links in the state. Punjab CPI leader Joginder Dyal holds the strong road transport lobby, with the backing of political bigwigs of the state, responsible for what he calls ďa conspiracy of silenceĒ in Parliament.

While Dyal may be seeing too many demons in the conduct of Punjab Parliamentarians with regard to the non-existent rail links in the state, it is a fact that they have surprisingly not made much noise about it. The Tribune study showed that some of the sitting Punjab MPs, including Congress spokesman Manish Tewari and his party colleagues Vijay Inder Singla, Santosh Chaudhary, Mohinder Singh Kaypee and Sukhdev Singh Libra have not even asked a single question pertaining to the Ministry of Railways since 2009.

Incidentally, Manish Tewari, otherwise, tops the list as he had raised 194 questions to his credit followed by 130 by Partap Singh Bajwa, also of the Congress till the end of the Budget session of Parliament this year. Partap Bajwa, however, raised four questions on Railways besides participating in the summing-up debate on Railway Budget this year but didnít make any reference to Punjab.

Harsimrat Badal, wife of Deputy CM of Punjab Sukhbir Singh Badal, who tops the list among Opposition members from Punjab and raised 106 questions, also did not ask too many questions about the Railwaysí apparent apathy towards Punjab. There are only two questions on Railways to her credit so far.

It is only the Youth Congress chief Ravneet Singh Bittu, who has been frequently raising queries about new train services, including the Duronto train in Parliament. Of the 100 questions raised by him, he asked 10 questions so far related to the railway services to the state. Rattan Singh Ajnala of Shiromani Akali Dal has also been active, raising eight questions about rail links in the state out of a total of 55 questions raised by him. Interestingly, none of the Punjab MPs has during the current session asked a single question about one of the oldest and prestigious projects - Chandigarh-Ludhiana rail link.

Rail links for Punjab would be a boon for the common man, especially those from the weaker sections, apart from boosting trade between states and also with Pakistan. Apart from it being a lot safer, it is also economical compared to bus travel and can be far more comfortable. According to Raghu Dayal, a rail expert and former chairman and managing director of Container Corporation of India, the second class mail/express fare was 23.1 paise per km in 2000-01. It remained at 23.2 paise even in 2008-09. The ordinary second class fare has remained low at 14.9 paise per km and suburban travel even lower at 12.9 paise per km. On the other hand, the fare on Punjab state road transport services in 2008-09 averaged 48.37 paise per km which has now gone up to 70 paise per km.

Even if the Railway Ministry raises its fares, which is heavily subsidised for the common man, it will be far cheaper than travel by bus and more environment friendly. Good rail connectivity would also reduce the high fatality rates on Punjabís highways, said to be one of the highest in the country today. Why such rail links have not been established in the past 45 years is the question that Punjab politicians, who control much of the bus transport business, need to answer.

(Prabhjot Singh with inputs from Sushil Goyal, Kulwinder Sandhu, Gurdeep Mann, Megha Mann, Kulwinder Sandhu, Kusum Arora, Puneet Pal Singh Gill, Ravi Dhaliwal, Neeraj Bagga and Pawan Kumar Jaiswar).

For earlier parts of the series  Click here

Delayed Rail links

Amritsar-Chandigarh Duronto Train (was originally scheduled to be introduced from April 1, 2010). Finally started in August 2011

Abohar-Fazilka (project was origially scheduled to be completed on March 31,2007). Train yet to start

Chandigarh-Ludhiana rail link: Started in 1990. Work at snailís pace although distance is just 100 km. Project is delayed much beyond its revised deadline of March 31, 2010. Now scheduled for completion on March 31, 2013.

Rail links needed but nowhere in sight

Bathinda-Amritsar

Barnala-Mansa-Sardulgarh-Sirsa

Patti-Makhu

Gurdaspur-Dera Baba Nanak

Samrala-Rahon

Amritsar - Anandpur Sahib

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