Since the start of the year 2017, India has seen at least 9 major derailments of trains across the country, raising questions about the country’s archaic rail infrastructure. In fact, on September 7, there were 3 major derailments that happened within a span of just 24 hours.
Over 60 people have lost their lives in these train accidents in the past 9 months and a few hundred have been left injured. The country’s Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu was replaced 2 weeks ago as public pressure and criticism started mounting over these accidents.
The questions over the quality of infrastructure on the Indian Railways network assume special significance as India moves towards adopting high-speed trains.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe officially flagged off the construction of India’s first high-speed bullet train on September 13 in the city of Ahmedabad. The project, estimated to be completed by 2022, is being built at a cost of INR 1.09 trillion (USD 17bn).
Against the contrast of these rail accidents, the inauguration of the bullet train project has made many people wonder: Is Indian infrastructure ready for it?
With 115,000 km of rail tracks, the Indian railway network is the 3rd largest in the world behind the United States and China. Moreover, with a population of over 1.2bn people combined with large-scale urban migration, a majority of the people use the railways as their basic form of transport.
A report submitted by the Indian Parliamentary Committee on Railways found that the annual number of train accidents had actually reduced to 106 in the year 2015 as compared to 325 in the year 2005. The same report also said that about 60% of the accidents were to be blamed on faulty rail infrastructure.
The main reason for this, according to the report, is the slow pace of track repair work around the country. According to Indian Railway safety norms, about 4500 kilometers of rail tracks must be replaced around the country every year to account for daily wear and tear. However, the Parliamentary Committee found out that only half of this target had been met last year.
The other major reason for railway accidents is the presence of unattended railway crossings around the country. Unlike the West, these aren’t connected with signals, and therefore, do not always open or shut down depending on an approaching train. Many of these are just railway tracks passing through populated areas where a person needs to manually look on both sides before crossing. According to data obtained from the Indian Railways, about 15,000 such crossings currently exist around the country.
Change of Guard
In the aftermath of these accidents, the Indian Government seems to have finally taken note of the urgent crisis on its hands. On September 4, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi reshuffled his cabinet and replaced the Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu. The new Minister Piyush Goyal, was previously in charge of the Energy Ministry and is seen as a hands-on, tough-talking and efficient administrator.
Immediately after taking charge, Mr. Goyal announced a new 5-point action plan to improve the safety standards of Indian Railways. The main highlight of this action plan is that it promises to fix all unattended railway crossings around India within the next year. His plan also promises faster track replacement, improvement in the quality of rolling stock, and safety measures like anti-fog lights on train to help curb the number of accidents.
The Indian Railway network carries about 8.42 billion passengers every year. Moreover, the Indian Ministry of Tourism data says that over 9 million foreign tourists visit the country every year. Of these, over 50% tend to be budget backpackers and use the train network extensively mainly for its reach and it’s extremely affordable cost.
There have been murmurs of railway privatization after a report circulated by the NITI Aayog, which is the Indian government’s think-tank, hinted towards this. However, the government has dismissed these as rumors and has stated that rail transport infrastructure in the country will continue to be state-run.
As India hurtles towards introducing high-speed trains, Mr. Goyal seems to have his task cut out for him. With the railways being the backbone of transportation in India, the government has a lot riding on their safety and quality.