India’s railways need a facelift

An accident in Kanpur this week highlights the problems with India’s railways

Rescue works continue at the site of an accident where coaches of an Indore-Patna Express train derailed off the tracks in Kanpur, India. Ritesh Shukla / EPA
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Train accidents in India are depressingly common, but this week has brought a particularly bad one. A derailment just outside the city of Kanpur in northern India has left at least 100 dead and around twice that number injured.

India’s rail network is vast, the fourth largest in the world. Every day, it carries 23 million people the length and breadth of the subcontinent. Yet it has been sadly neglected, at considerable cost, both in terms of lives lost and in terms of lost potential. Given India’s size, rail remains the best way of moving people and products over vast distances, to a regular timetable. But the network needs much more investment.

For the five years to 2019, India intends to spend US$132 billion on rail infrastructure – a vast sum, but it comes after years, even decades, of underinvestment, and at a time when that other Asian behemoth China is already far ahead. Take one example: just this month, India’s prime minister agreed a deal with Japan to build a bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. Yet China already has thousands of miles of high-speed rail and more than a thousand high-speed trains running every day. In India, critics have pointed out the total cost will be more than the entire health budget for three years. This at a time when many remote areas are not connected to the creaking rail system at all.

This lack of an adequate transport network hinders the development of the economy. At its most basic, it means people cannot easily get around for work, or that it takes too long. But there are other elements too: with rail an inefficient mechanism of moving goods, roads get clogged up. Raw materials can’t be easily transported. Insurance rates for companies go up, making their products more expensive and less competitive. Overall, the country becomes less competitive.

The rail accident this week is a tragedy. But farther down the pyramid there are daily struggles with India’s rail infrastructure that add up to a significant drain on the country’s potential.