In a country where the rail system is not only a major industry but also plays a crucial role in political fortunes, India has been heavily investing in new trains while neglecting the safety of its existing rail network. The consequences of this approach were tragically evident in the aftermath of a devastating train wreck Friday that claimed the lives of at least 275 people in eastern India. Investigators are focusing on the possibility that signal failure caused the three-train crash, making it the deadliest rail accident in years.
Upgrades, but at what costs?
India has made significant efforts to upgrade its long-neglected infrastructure in recent years, with the railways receiving substantial funding as a key beneficiary. The government allocated nearly $30 billion to the rail system during the previous fiscal year, a 15 per cent increase from the year before. However, while funds have been directed towards improving speed and comfort, the allocation for basic track maintenance and safety measures has been decreasing. A report by India’s auditor general last year revealed that insufficient funds were allocated for track renewal work, and officials did not fully utilise the budgeted amount.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been keen on enhancing the rail system, but his focus has primarily been on initiatives aimed at improving speed and comfort rather than addressing fundamental safety issues. He has championed higher-fare electric Vande Bharat trains that connect major cities and prioritized the development of a Japanese-style bullet train, which does little to benefit ordinary passengers. The government claims these investments are intended to elevate India’s railways to a world-class standard and attract foreign investment.
Unfortunately, spending on safety improvements for India’s fleet of over 13,000 older trains has been shrinking in proportion to the total budget. Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research, highlights the importance of signalling in particular, emphasizing that it needs more attention, especially as the country moves toward higher-speed trains.
Although the recent train crash was devastating, rail travel in India has become safer overall. In the past, derailments were frequent, averaging 475 per year from 1980 to the turn of the century. However, in the decade leading up to 2021, this number dropped to just over 50 annually. The number of serious train accidents has also significantly decreased, with 22 reported in the 2020 fiscal year compared to over 300 two decades ago. The Modi government celebrated a milestone in 2020 when there were no passenger deaths in rail accidents for two consecutive years, a significant improvement compared to the previous annual average of over 100 deaths.
Throw money at the problem
Under Modi’s leadership, India has increased government spending toward long-term goals, hoping to attract private companies to invest in the economy. The World Bank reported in April that India’s rate of government spending on transportation, including railroads, has increased relative to pre-pandemic levels. The government aims to transform the railways as part of its campaign for rapid development in the 21st century.
However, the focus on development should not come at the expense of safety. Three months ago, India’s railway minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, showcased a collision-avoidance system called Kavach, which automatically applies brakes to prevent train collisions. While the system was successfully demonstrated on a small scale, it has only been installed on a fraction of India’s trains, covering about 900 miles out of a total route exceeding 40,000 miles. Tragically, the trains involved in the recent crash were not equipped with the Kavach system.
The safety crisis in India’s rail system underscores the urgent need to prioritise safety alongside development. As the country invests in infrastructure and pursues rapid growth, ensuring the safety of passengers must be at the forefront of decision-making. It is essential to allocate adequate resources to track maintenance, signalling, and other safety measures. Only through a comprehensive approach that combines development and safety can India truly transform its railways into a world-class system that serves the needs of its people while safeguarding their lives.