Therefore, a few hundred Rajdhanis, Shatabdis, Jan Shatabdis and now Vande Bharat trains do not really provide a realistic picture of rail transport in the country or to the health of Indian Railways. Over the past 20 years, rail transport has consistently lost market share in both freight and passenger traffic to evidently far more expensive air and road transportation. It requires far more investment to buildhighways and air networks. Not more than 2–4 per cent of the population, it is estimated, can afford private vehicles or air travel. And yet, this is the direction in which we see a shift. Why?
Another worrying sign is that despite trains being the lifeline for 90 per cent of our people, passenger traffic has been declining. From an annual growth of 4–5 per cent between 2000 and 2015, it first stagnated around 2016, and then began to fall.
To successfully compete with air and road transportation, though, Indian Railways needs to improve safety and ensure a quantum jump in speed. But in the past 20 years, we haven’t achieved an appreciable improvement in either of the two.
Even as the railway budget has increased in recent years, resources are arguably being utilised not for improving competitiveness, safety or punctuality but on more cosmetic changes like ‘world-class railway stations’ and fancier inter-city trains like Vande Bharat or the bullet train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Meanwhile, Mission Raftaar— aiming to double the average speed of freight trains and increase that of passenger trains by 25 kmph—has been a dismal failure, confirms a recent report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG).
The Balasore accident is a warning sign for a railways in decline. Recurring accidents point to systemic failures that need urgent attention. The commissioner of railway safety (CRS) will hopefully look into systemic deficiencies, as was done for the newly constructed Lumding–Silchar line on the Northeast Frontier Railway in 2015. The CRS safety inspection there had found that inadequate ground surveys and investigations at the planning stage had ignored high landslide risks on the line. The CRS will hopefully look at the following aspects as well:
• If the Balasore tragedy was caused by negligence, what caused the negligence? Was constant pressure to keep trains running propelling the staff towards shortcuts, as happened in the case of the Khatauli accident in 2017, in which 23 passengers were killed?
• The impact of overcrowding on fatalities, rescue and relief.
• Why did the first coaches to capsize fall on the adjacent track? Was the track geometry, the resilience of the ballast bed and the suspension system of the coaches as should be?
• Finally, the effects of running late and whether any of them are pertinent to the particular collision in Balasore.