Earlier this month a colleague at the Financial Times found himself lying bruised at a railway station in India as a moving train tore into his leg.
By Abhishek Parajuli
Earlier this month a colleague at the Financial Times found himself lying bruised at a railway station in India as a moving train tore into his leg. He was waiting for a train at a busy station in Mumbai when, in the frenetic frenzy to board his evening train, he was punched in the right eye, lost his balance and found his left leg lodged under the oncoming train. Luckily, he survived. Last Saturday, 23 others were not as lucky. They died when their train was derailed about 80 km north of Delhi. 156 others were injured.
India’s railway is the most deadly in the world with 27,581 deaths in 2014 alone. That is about 530 people dying every single week. In the US that same year, 16 people died in railway accidents every week. In the UK the number was less than seven. Why do so many Indians perish on train tracks and what can be done to fix the problem? The answer is surprising: Subsidies, meant to keep the railways accessible to the poor, may be a key culprit.
Some of the biggest drivers of death on India’s railways are derailments, people falling off overcrowded trains and others being run over as they cross railway tracks. The common thread linking these myriad causes is a lack of sufficient investments in a rail network that transports more than 23 million passengers a day – that’s the equivalent of moving the entire population of Australia every single day. The government’s decision to heavily subsidise rail fares has left it with insufficient funds to invest in its railways.
Overcrowded trains are the clearest symptom of the problem. Artificially low fares attract millions of Indians to take trains over other forms of transport. The same subsidies also burn a hole in railways balance sheets leading to under-investment in new trains and routes. The result is dangerous overcrowding. Many take extraordinary risks on their daily commutes by hanging out the doors and windows and riding atop moving trains.
Derailments happen when tracks are old and prone to fatigue fractures; one report found this is more likely when tracks are over-utilised. In India, 40% of the line-sections are run at above 100% of their capacity. With so many trains running so closely together, there is less time for engineers to inspect the tracks to make sure they remain safe. Yet again, lack of investment has created a serious safety problem by increasing demand for train travel while simultaneously limiting supply of critical safety features.
Casinos are illegal in most of India but if you want to see risk taking behaviour you don’t have to go much further than a railway crossing. The absence of road-over and road-under bridges means many people are forced to cross railway tracks on level crossings. In fact, 40% of all train accidents in India happen at these deadly crossings. But given removing each level crossing costs about Rs 4 crore, it’s unlikely the cash-strapped railway will be able to deal with this problem any time soon.
It’s easy to see why railway subsidies have been so popular and hard to remove. For all the talk of India’s growing stature, GDP per capita is still only 3% that of the US. When you factor in the high income inequality, you begin to see why subsidised travel is a near necessity for many Indians.
And yet, what is equally clear is that the poor pay with their lives when safety is compromised by underinvestment. The government needs to invest more in railways and given there is no magic money tree – India also has one of the lowest tax penetration rates in the world with only about 2% of Indians paying income tax– it may have to take another look at removing some railway subsidies.
Many urgent changes like the introduction of fire safety devices, anti-collision technologies and track monitoring systems have been delayed as the railway struggles to fund itself. While poor Indians will require support for travel, the current levels of subsidies are unsustainable unless India is willing to live with high fatalities or able to find new sources of funding. Continuing to allow more than 75 Indians to die on its railway tracks every single day seems like an unsustainable proposition.
Times of India, August 26, 2017