APPROVED by the Lok Sabha on March 11, the Indian Railways budget for 2006-07 includes funding to plan a network of high-capacity freight corridors. Having completed a pre-feasibility study, Rites has been commissioned to draw up more detailed proposals by the end of this year for two routes costing Rs220bn to build.

In his budget speech, Railway Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav said Phase I of the Eastern Corridor would link Ludhiana in Punjab with Sonnagar in Bihar via Tundla and Allahabad, although he later agreed that it should be extended from Sonnagar to Kolkata. The Western Corridor will run from the Jawaharlal Neru Port near Mumbai through Vadodara, Ahmedabad and Jaipur to meet the Eastern line at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, near the New Delhi capital region.

IR's share of the freight market has fallen by a third over the past decade, and the freight corridors are seen as the answer to a further loss of market share projected by international consultants unless axleloads and vertical clearances are increased. As an alternative to upgrading existing tracks, the new lines are being planned to take 25 or 30 tonne axleloads and double-stack container trains. Some existing lines would still have to be upgraded as feeders to the high-axleload trunk routes.

Instead of duplicating existing routes in the north, the consultants recommended that a new route linking the northern cities to the deep-water port at Tuticorin in the southeast should be considered a priority. The port could become a regional hub for the post-Panamax ships now using Colombo in Sri Lanka.

Laloo is pressing ahead with plans to open up rail container services to competition. 'Eligible applicants' are to be authorised to run trains from the end of March, although a model contract is not expected until the end of the year. So far 14 firms have applied for operating rights, including a joint venture of Neptune Orient Lines and Hindustani Infrastructure Projects & Engineering. NOL said on March 10 that it had received approval 'in principle' for a Category 1 licence giving it access to the IR network for 20 years, with an optional 10-year extension.