Analysts say India funds new trains before safety improvements

In a country where major industries and political fortunes are often tied to a vast, interwoven rail system, India has splurged on new trains, but its wallets have tightened. much more when it comes to ensuring the safety of those already running along. its traces.

Those decisions loomed over Sunday in the aftermath of a devastating train accident killed at least 275 people in eastern India. Investigators said they were focusing on the possibility that the damaged signal could have led to Friday’s collision between three trains, the worst rail crash in the country in years.

The accident, which also injured more than 1,100 people, happened as a passenger train headed south about 80 miles per hour toward the city of Chennai went the wrong way and crashed into a parked freight train, the authorities said. The derailed carriages of the first train then collided with the second passenger train approaching it. leaving behind a scene of carnage.

Over the years, India has improved its ramshackle infrastructure like never before, and its railways, which are at the heart of the world’s fifth-largest economy, have benefited. main. The government spent nearly $30 billion on the rail system in the last financial year, up 15% from the previous year.

However, the amount spent on basic rail maintenance and other safety measures has decreased. ONE report last year, the auditor general of India, an independent office, found that less money was allocated to the work of renovating the tracks and that officials did not even spend all the money set aside.

With more than 20 million train passengers in India every day, many of them migrant workers, a politician can’t go wrong with splashing money on the system, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done it. that’s not ostentatious. The budget for the train system, one of the largest in the world, is five times larger this year than when he took office.

But most of Mr. Modi’s initiatives are not aimed at the basic steps needed to get a train from Point A to Point B without problems, but at improving speed and comfort. He lauded the new Vande Bharat trams connecting various cities and a Japanese-style bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, even though they may not do much to improve his daily life. ordinary workers.

The government says the investment is part of an effort to elevate India’s rail travel experience to world-class standards and attract investment from abroad.

Spending on programs dedicated to improving safety for India’s fleet of over 13,000 older trains has shrunk, however, as a part of total and even in absolute terms. , according to the most recently published budget.

Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior fellow at the Center for Policy Studies, an institution in New Delhi, outlined a specific need. “The signaling function could get more attention,” he said. “Strategically, signaling is a soft capacity addition and as we move to more high-speed trains, it will become more important.”

As devastating as Friday’s crash was, rail travel in India is safer than ever.

Derailments used to be frequent, with an average of 475 per year between 1980 and early this century. In the decade before 2021, that number drops to just over 50, according to an article railway officials present at the World Congress on Disaster Management.

Overall, railway safety in India has also improved, with the number of serious train accidents steadily decreasing: to 22 in fiscal 2020 from more than 300 annually two decades ago. By 2020, for the second year in a row, India has recorded zero passenger deaths in railway accidents – a milestone hailed by the Modi government. Until 2017, more than 100 passengers were killed each year.

Under Mr. Modi, India has ramped up spending, with the Finance Ministry and World Bank hoping that private companies will follow the government’s lead and pour more money into the economy. The World Bank noted in an April report that the proportion of government spending on India’s long-term goals “has increased from pre-pandemic levels”. Transportation, including rail, played a key role in that increase in spending.

“In the 21st century, for the country to develop rapidly, growth and railway reform are essential,” Mr. Modi said at the dedication of a railway line last year. “A nationwide campaign is underway to transform the railroad.”

Auguste Tano Kouamé, the World Bank’s country director for India, said high rates of public spending on electricity distribution, new highways and railways would “attract” companies to spend more to finance pursue long-term interests.

Three months ago, with the intention of promoting safety technology in the country, Indian Railways Minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw, make a program about placing yourself and the Chairman of the Railroad Board on two trains that are colliding. The idea was to demonstrate the new system, called Kavach, or armor.

Two trains rush towards each other on a track. At a distance of 400 meters – about 440 yards – the new system automatically applies the brakes.

But the Kavach system is installed on only a tiny fraction of India’s trains, covering about 900 miles of the total route, more than 40,000 miles. It was not used by the trains that crashed on Friday, and an opposition politician, Mamata Banerjee, a former railways minister, captured that.

She told reporters: “If this device had been on board, this would not have happened.

Dr Mukhopadhyay, a member of the study, said that if the crash was caused by a signal failure, “something like Kavach could be useful.”

Mr Vaishnaw, the railways minister – who has been asked to step down for a number of quarters – rejected the proposal.

“This accident was not related to the collision avoidance system,” he said.

Sameer Yasir Contribution reports from Balasore, India, and Mujib Mashal And Suhasini Raj from New Delhi.


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