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Indian government pushes for rail upgrades as deadly train crash raises safety questions

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had planned to inaugurate electric semi-high-speed trains equipped with safety features – another step in modernizing the antiquated railways that are the lifeline of the world’s most populous country.

Rescuers work at the scene of a passenger train accident in Balasore district of Odisha state, east India, June 3, 2023.
Rescuers work at the scene of a passenger train accident in Balasore district of Odisha state, east India, June 3, 2023.

Instead, Modi traveled to east Odisha on Saturday to deal with one of the country’s worst train accidents, which killed more than 280 people and injured hundreds more. The massive derailment involving two passenger trains on Friday night was a stark reminder of safety concerns that continue to challenge the sprawling rail system that carries nearly 22 million passengers a day.

India, a country of 1.42 billion people, has one of the world’s most extensive and complex railways built during the British colonial era: more than 64,000 kilometers of tracks, 14,000 passenger trains, and 8,000 stations. It stretches across the country, from the Himalayas in the north to the beaches in the south, and is also a system fragile from decades of mismanagement and neglect. Despite efforts to improve safety, hundreds of accidents occur each year.

According to the 2022 report released by the National Crime Records Bureau, from 2017 to 2021, more than 100,000 people were killed by trains in India. That figure includes people falling off trains, crashes, and people being killed by speeding trains on the tracks.

Official figures also show that derailments are the most common form of railway accidents in India but have been declining in recent years.

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According to statistics from the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India, from 2017 to 2021, a total of 2,017 accidents occurred on Indian Railways, and derailment accidents accounted for 69%, resulting in 293 deaths.

The report found a combination of track defects, maintenance issues, outdated signaling equipment, and human error as the main causes of derailments. It also said lack of funding or failure to use available funds for track repairs contributed to 26 percent of accidents.

Dozens of people were killed, and hundreds injured despite improvements in India’s railway safety compared to earlier years. Severe crashes and accidents were more frequent near unattended railway crossings in earlier years.

In 2016, a passenger train slid off the tracks between the cities of Indore and Patna, killing 146 people. A year later, a derailment in southern India killed at least 36 passengers.

The Modi government, which has been in power for nine years, has spent tens of billions of dollars on railways. The money has been used to refurbish or replace old tracks laid by the British in the 19th century, bring in new trains, and remove thousands of unmanned railway crossings.

Modi’s train was due to launch on Saturday was India’s 19th Vande Bharat Express, linking the western city of Mumbai with the southern state of Goa.

Modern trains are designed to reduce the risk of crashes and derailments. They will be integrated with the nationwide Automatic Train Collision Protection System, a technology that will make travel safer, according to Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw.

But the system has not yet been installed on the track where Friday’s crash occurred. It is not yet known what caused the train to derail and an investigation has been launched.

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Experts suggest that India’s railway system needs to prioritize safe tracks and collision protection.

“Over the years, India has had some success in making train travel safer, but there is still much work to be done. The whole system needs to be realigned and developed and decentralized. We cannot just focus on modern trains and have unsafe tracks, “Said Calg, a former official of the Indian Railways Bureau of Mechanical Engineers.

Calgary said the train accident should “shock the entire rail system” and prompt authorities to look at a “lax safety culture”.

I don’t think the authorities will solve the problem quickly. The Indian railway system is huge and it will take time to make it safer. But there needs to be will,” he said.

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