This week, the Indian government is set to roll out plans to overhaul the country’s sprawling railway system, dubbed the “lifeline of the nation,” which analysts say needs hundreds of billions of dollars of investment to address the multiple problems plaguing it.
Two days before Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nascent administration presents its first budget, a separate railway finance bill is to be presented to parliament on Tuesday, following a controversial fare hike imposed recently.
India’s railway system is one of the biggest in the world, stretching from the foothills of the Himalayas to the country’s southern beaches, but observers say it has been neglected by successive governments over the past three decades of rapid economic growth during which car ownership has surged and low-cost airlines have mushroomed.
Yet despite the rise of these two forms of transport, the primary form of long-distance travel for most of India’s 1.2 billion people is still the train, with approximately 23 million people using the network every day.
This imposing volume of traffic means that some services are booked up for weeks in advance and overcrowding — especially in the lower-class carriages that lack air-conditioning — often makes rail travel a miserable experience.
Compounding the problems is the rail system’s dreadful safety record, as seen in a 2012 government report that put the number of deaths that occur on the network each year at nearly 15,000.
Many of these fatalities are caused by people falling off overcrowded trains or crossing the tracks, while others are passengers perched on carriage roofs being charred to death by high-voltage electricity coursing through overhead wires.
As for freight, endemic delays sometimes make it impossible for businesses to predict when their goods will arrive.
“I’m very glad the government is addressing the chronic logistics problem,” KPMG infrastructure specialist Arvind Mahajan said. “It has a lot of work to cover.”
Under the previous center-left coalition in New Delhi, the main ruling National Congress of India party was happy to leave the Indian Ministry of Railways in the hands of a junior partner that showed little inclination to push for reforms.
While ticket fares remained low, the ministry’s losses grew ever higher and it was hemorrhaging about US$150 million a month by the time that Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party trounced Congress in May’s general election.
In a speech last month outlining the government’s priorities, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee said “modernization and revamping of railways is on top of the infrastructure agenda.”
Echoing similar pledges in the Bharatiya Janata Party manifesto, Mukherjee’s speech included promises to improve safety, expand services in the remote northeast and build a network of freight corridors to transport farm produce.
The government then hiked passenger fares by 14.2 percent and freight rates by 6.5 percent — the steepest rise in 15 years.
Although there was a subsequent partial climbdown, Indian Minister of Finance Arun Jaitley said India “must decide whether it wants a world-class railway or a ramshackle one.”
Mahajan said that reducing government subsidies on the railways would help it meet inflation reduction targets.
“The government now needs to educate people ... that subsidies will not help bring prices down, but rather shoot them up,” he said.