WHILE last month’s General Election in India did not produce the resounding victory that prime minister, Mr Narendra Modi, was hoping for, he remains in power at the head of a new coalition and will continue to drive economic policy over the next five years.

This is set to include a significant investment in rail: Rs 10-12 trillion ($US 120-144bn), according to the Modi 3.0 Mega Plan for Railways. Among the priorities are the rollout of three types of locally-produced Vande Bharat EMUs; completion of the Mumbai - Ahmedabad high-speed line, which is scheduled for 2029; the conclusion of feasibility studies for three further high-speed lines; upgrades to 1300 stations; further expansion of metro networks; and the construction of more standard-gauge Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) networks in major cities.

This is a bold agenda. But is it universally well-received? I asked IRJ’s India correspondent, Srinand Jha, who has covered Indian Railways (IR) for more than 30 years, for his take. He says the prevailing view is that IR’s current priorities are misplaced.

IR has traditionally acted as a public service that provides affordable transport for the poor. More than 90% of IR’s 24 million daily passengers - equivalent to populations of Australia and New Zealand combined - travel in its general class. IR’s investment agenda traditionally focused on improving services for these passengers: it has introduced ever longer trains of up to 26 coaches and built larger stations with longer platforms to provide more capacity. Yet Jha says there has been a shift in the last decade to focusing on prestige projects, including the Mumbai - Ahmedabad high-speed line and RRTS.

This has come at the expense of IR’s social commitments and improving the general condition of the mainline network. Indeed, some suburban services have been withdrawn, while the new trains that have been introduced, including the Vande Bharat, consist of only eight or 12 cars. This reduction in capacity is forcing some passengers to use air or road instead of rail.

IR’s modernisation drive is nevertheless welcome and Jha says there is an acceptance that the focus on major projects will continue. The success of the Dedicated Freight Corridors emphasises the transformative affect they can have (p20). However, the need to improve conditions for the majority of passengers as well as the safety and performance of the mainline network remains clear and is arguably being overlooked.

This was brought into focus by the tragic accident at Balasore in Odisha state in June 2023. India’s worst rail accident for more than two decades left 296 dead and more than 1200 injured. Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. Accidents and passenger fatalities are too regular an occurrence in India. And while it is unlikely that the domestically-developed Kavach train protection system - equivalent to ETCS Level 2 - could have prevented the collision at Balasore, it did bring to light the slow pace of rolling out the system - Kavach is fitted to just 2000km of IR’s 70,000 route-km network.

Jha says more than 500 upgrade projects are pending, including some that have been on the slate for over a decade. Money generally isn’t a problem for IR - since the railways budget was merged with the general budget in 2017, its annual allocation has tripled from Rs 800bn to Rs 2.5 trillion in 2024. It is under pressure to spend but is facing an apparent impasse on many of its projects due to difficulties in securing environmental clearance, engineering challenges, and political instability.

While there have been efforts to address these problems, notably through freezing unviable projects and in some cases circumventing the environmental approval process, Jha suggests several further remedies:

  • firming up joint ventures with state governments to improve the stability of funding
  • encouraging private investment in new facilities such as logistics parks
  • consulting with all stakeholders when developing railway-related policy
  • introducing a mechanism that prevents a change in government from hindering agreed projects
  • redefining the role of the Commissioner of Railway Safety (CRS)
  • establishing a Rail Development Authority to settle disputes between the Ministry of Railways and the private sector, and
  • exploring and encouraging international financing opportunities with attractive rates of interest.

More general improvements and changes to IR’s management and organisational culture are also considered essential if the railway is to successfully modernise, including improving its current unsatisfactory approach to safety.

Another tragic accident involving a Kanchenjunga Express service on June 17 emphasised these problems. As former railway board member for engineering, Mr Subodh Jain, told IRJ, the frequency of these accidents exposes the regularity that fundamental safety rules are being broken. Yet he says that rather than addressing this issue, IR tends to pin the blame on driver error. The railway also encourages a culture of managing rather than preventing or even eliminating accidents.

“IR needs a more intense response to safety-related issues and to instil safety as a central part of its organisational culture,” Jain says. “It is difficult to visualise a system using heavier and faster freight trains and state-of-the-art bullet trains with its prevailing organisational structure and culture.”

This kind of change is likewise considered essential to encourage wider involvement of the international railway supply industry in the Indian market, a government objective.

The Make in India initiative to develop local production is beginning to have an impact - Larsen & Toubro’s participation in the Mumbai - Ahmedabad high-speed project is a success story while IR’s Integral Coach Factory (ICF) has been commissioned to develop an indigenous high-speed train for the new line. However, international expertise is still sought, both to provide the latest technology and to help drive up local quality standards.

India’s vast market potential is exciting some key suppliers. However, others are cautious because of the perceived difficulty and risk of working in India.

Limiting the pool of available expertise will make it even more difficult to deliver projects on the scale envisaged by Modi. The ambition is laudable. Yet fundamental changes are needed if the country is to have any chance of realising the vision within the next five years.