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Fire highlights India’s need to upgrade its railways

Various government committees have, over the years, emphasised the urgent need for an injection of funds into the Indian Railways. One report, for instance, recommended an expenditure of 9 trillion rupees (Dh533.73 billion) over five years to bring the network up to modern standards.

NEW DELHI // India’s rail network carries more than nine billion passengers every year, but its creaking, often outdated infrastructure is prone to accidents, as shown by the fire aboard the Nanded Express on Saturday.

The Indian Railways, a state-owned company, is one of the oldest and largest in the world. Over the past 160 years, its track length has expanded to more than 114,000 kilometres, running through 7,500 stations.

But the Indian government has struggled to modernise the network and minimise accidents. “There’s only darkness at the end of the tunnel,” Akhileshwar Sahay, an infrastructure analyst who worked previously for the Indian Railways, told The National.

The fire aboard the Nanded Express was the sixth major train accident in 2013. The most severe of these occurred in August, when an express train ran over and killed 37 people walking along the tracks at a station in the state of Bihar.

Various government committees have, over the years, emphasised the urgent need for an injection of funds into the Indian Railways. One report, for instance, released last year, recommended an expenditure of 9 trillion rupees (Dh533.7 billion) over five years to bring the network up to modern standards.

But the money is hard to find. Last year, when the railway ministry requested a one-time grant of even 280 billion rupees, supplementary to its main budget, it was rebuffed.

Although revenues are high — 1.04 trillion rupees in 2011-12 — losses continue to mount. According to a government estimate, 90 per cent of the Indian Railways’ revenues are used to buy fuel and to pay its 1.4 million employees.

This leaves little money for upgrades. S Ramnarayan, a professor of organisational behaviour at the Indian School of Business in Hyderabad, pointed out that raising ticket prices to generate more income was a politically unpopular move.

“The primary misgiving comes from the fact that there is a large customer base that relies on the Indian Railways to transport them from one place to another in a reasonably inexpensive and safe manner,” Mr Ramnarayan said. “So the thinking then becomes: What will happen to this poor majority if the Indian Railways becomes profit-orientated?”

At the same time, the network needs new capacity and equipment as it buckles under the pressure of transporting 18 million people per day. Much of the Indian Railways’ current capacity dates back to the British era. Tracks are often unsafe: fewer than half of India’s level crossings are manned, so between January 2009 and June 2012, more than 50,000 people were killed while they were dashing across the tracks, according to government figures.

The trains are frequently dilapidated. Electric short circuits start fires, as happened aboard the Tamil Nadu Express in July 2012. Most trains lack comprehensive fire detection systems and effective anti-collision devices. Tracks are old and worn, leading to derailments — more than 270 of them since 2008.

“At the topmost level, a larger vision for the organisation is needed,” Mr Ramnarayan said. “And if that aspiration is not there, then the thinking becomes small. They only try to do the best that they can and run the operations from day to day.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae