On 25 February 2016, Suresh Prabhu became the last railway minister to present a Railway Budget - separate from the Union Budget - and on February 1, 2017, Arun Jaitley became the first Finance Minister to present a combined railway and general budget. This marked the end of an era in rail budget-making; a long cherished 92-year-old history of separate rail and general budgets came to an end.
The merger of Union Budget with Railway Budget had its genesis in NITI Aayog in the year 2015 as a committee headed by economist Bibek Debroy recommended disbanding the practice of having a separate Railway Budget.
Here's a summary of key railway announcements in the Union Budget since the merger of Railway Budget:
In 2017, then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley presented the first combined budget, which proved to be a watershed moment for the Railways. Mr Jaitley immediately laid to rest apprehensions that the combined budget will dilute focus on the national transporter by announcing the largest allocation of Rs 1.3 lakh crore to Indian Railways in its history.
In Budget 2017, Mr Jaitley highlighted four major areas of passenger safety, capital and development works, cleanliness and finance and accounting reforms.
In an unprecedented move, the finance minister proposed the listing of railway subsidiaries, IRCTC, IRCON and IRFC on the bourses. He also brought a big cheer to the railway passengers by doing away with service charges for booking tickets through IRCTC. And he announced a major initiative in passenger safety by way of creating the Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh with a corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore spread over a period of five years.
The good work continued into Budget 2018 as the finance minister increased the outlay for Railways to a record Rs 1.48 lakh crore.
From the Railways perspective, Budget 2018 focused on capital expenditure. The capital outlay predominantly catered to capacity creation, including track renewal and doubling, gauge conversion and modernisation of 600 railway stations.
The government announced the development of world-class trains, equipped with state-of-the-art amenities, such as Train 18 and Train 20. It also unveiled technological initiatives such as passenger security, Wifi, CCTVs across stations and trains nationwide, and 'Fog Safe' and 'Train Protection and Warning System.'
Things got still better for the Railways in Budget 2019 as it received the highest ever outlay of Rs 1.6 lakh crore. Passenger amenities became a priority as the government sought to make the train journey comfortable for one and all. Passenger safety also received attention, with the establishment of the Nirbhaya Fund for an Integrated Emergency Response Management System (IERM).
India has become the first country in the world today to completely electrify its railways and is building the first high-speed, bullet train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai.
In probably the most far-reaching railway reform till date, the current Railway Minister Piyush Goyal announced the downsizing of Railway Board from eight to five members, and this will include the chairman, and members for operation, business development, infrastructure and finance. He also proposed the merger of eight services into one cadre viz. Indian Railway Service.
In 2015, the Bibek Debroy Committee on Indian Railways had recommended restructuring of the Railway Board on the ground that the centralised structure and departmentalisation of the Railways adversely affected the Railways' work culture and narrowed its approach to department-specific goals.
And with Nirmala Sitharaman unveiling Rs 102 lakh crore of infra projects for the next 5 years, of which railways would be a significant component, the Railways are set to see better times ahead.