With the death toll now at 300 and over 1,000 injured, the tragic accident in Balasore, eastern Odisha has once again focused attention on the issue of railway safety in India.
The crash was one of the country's deadliest train accidents in decades, and occurred at a time when the government has been trying to make rail travel a pleasurable, and, more importantly, safe experience.
Such crashes are far from unprecedented in India. In 1999, a collision between two trains in West Bengal killed 285 people, and in 2010, 145 died in the same state when a passenger train derailed and was hit by a cargo train. More recently, in 2016, 160 people died when a passenger train traveling between the cities of Indore and Patna slipped off its tracks.
For the last few years, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been trying to stimulate its rail modernization push by introducing high-speed, automated trains in one of the largest and busiest rail networks in the world. This includes a plan to have 100% electrification of the railways by 2024 and make the network carbon-neutral by 2030.
Earlier this year, German engineering giant Siemens received a huge order to manufacture 1,200 electric trains, while Japanese expertise has been commissioned to provide technology and finance to assist in the construction of the first bullet train, a 508-kilometer (316-mile) link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad.
Derailments responsible for around 75% of accidents in India
But experts have blamed crumbling infrastructure for causing numerous train accidents, raising questions about the money spent on train maintenance and track renewal.
Indian Railways, considered to be the lifeline of the nation with between 1.3 to 1.4 million employees, and carries around 23 million passengers and 3 million tons of freight every day. Over 21,000 trains work on a broad-gauge network of some 68,000 kilometers (42,000 miles).
However, according to an assessment by the government's comptroller and auditor general, 163 of the 217 "consequential train accidents" from 2017 to 2018 and 2020 to 2021 were caused by derailments, accounting for around 75% of accidents.
The report, submitted to parliament last December, said a major factor in these accidents was the lack of maintenance on railway tracks. Funds for track renewal had declined, the report said, and, in many cases, were not being fully utilized.
Fires, accidents at unmanned level crossings and collisions were the other causes of accidents cited by the report. What is more, concerns have been flagged on the acute shortage of manpower, especially in track safety, with many posts lying vacant in departments across the network.
Though the cause of the Odisha accident is still being investigated, officials have hinted that the likely reason was a signaling error that led the Chennai-bound Coromandel Express to fatally change tracks, causing it to ram into a stationary freight train.
"From the nature of the accident, it was caused by an error in the electronic signaling system that led a train to wrongly change tracks," a senior railway official, requesting anonymity, told DW. "The passenger train entered another loop line and crashed into a goods train."
"There was no anti-collision device on the train, as far as I know," Mamata Banerjee, West Bengal chief minister and a former railway minister, told the Indian media. "Had the device been on the train, this would not have happened."
Modernization at the cost of safety?
The new anti-train collision system, named Kavach, causes trains to brake automatically, but it has only been operational on 2% of the vast rail network.
The Kavach system is designed to help train operators avoid signal passing and overspeeding while also providing support for train operations during adverse weather conditions such as dense fog. By automatically applying brakes when necessary, the system ensures better control over train speed.
"If the Modi government has effected a quantum increase in modernization and expansion of the rail network, with an unprecedented increase in capital expenditure, has investment in safety increased proportionately?" said M K Venu, an economic analyst, speaking with DW.
The initial development of Kavach began in 2012 and was completed last year. But less than 5 billion Indian rupees (€56.5 million/$605 million) was allocated to install the system last year, when estimates suggested that a trillion rupees would have been necessary to cover the entire railway network. This year's budget has brought a windfall for railways, with $29 billion allocated for railway development, the highest ever.
Apparently realizing that the railways have a huge multiplier effect on the economy, the government is now planning to double lines more quickly, convert nearly the entire network to broad-gauge, introduce high-powered locomotives and complete electrification projects. All of these measures are expected to increase Indian Railways' line capacity.
India has also rolled out the high-speed, automated Vande Bharat trains, equipped with state-of-the-art passenger amenities that provide a faster and more convenient travel experience.
The government intends to introduce nearly 400 Vande Bharat trains during the next five years and manufacture hydrogen-powered, eco-friendly Vande Metro trains to replace old trains designed in the 1950s and '60s.
A lot more still needs to be done to upgrade the 65,000 kilometers (more than 40,300 miles) of tracks and install modern signaling equipment on the network. For now, the train accident in eastern Odisha is a stark reminder of the obstacles facing the government in delivering on its promise to make the railways more efficient, and safer.
Edited by: Ben Knight
Correction, June 4, 2023: This article was updated to correct the length of India's railway network and number of employees.