The story behind the Indian rail disaster

When three trains collided in eastern India on Friday night, killing at least 260 people and injuring hundreds more,  the sense of shock that spread across the country was not solely down to  the scale of the casualties. It was also that such tragedies are no longer quite the commonplace occurrence that they have been for much of the network’s history.
The disaster was by far the worst railway accident in India this century but until Friday the safety record on the sub continent’s rail network had been steadily improving thanks to modernisation and public outrage at its poor safety record, at least according to official figures.
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent yesterday visiting the site of the crash in Odisha state but he had been scheduled to start the inaugural journey of a new high speed express train between Goa and Mumbai, fitted with new safety features designed to reduce the risk of crashes and derailments.
His government has invested tens of billions of dollars in the railways during its nine years in power, much of it spent on introducing new trains, replacing unmanned railway crossings and renovating or replacing old tracks laid by the British in the nineteenth century.
Between 2017 and 2021 the number of annual “consequential train accidents” in India fell from 104 to 22, with no passengers at all killed in the final two years of the period, the Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw informed parliament last year.
Those figures contrast sharply with the more than 100,000 train-related deaths over the same period logged in a 2022 report published by the National Crime Records Bureau, which also counted passengers falling from crowded  trains and people struck by speeding locomotives while on the tracks.
That staggering toll reflects the vital role that trains play in so many aspects of Indian life.
Unlike in many countries where railways, particular passenger services, have become a marginal form of transport, or even been shut down altogether, India’s network remains the key form of transport for many of its 1.42 billion people. Domestic flights are increasing and a fledgeling motorway network is emerging – on which the occasional cow can still be found roaming- but every day millions of Indians board   over 14,000 passenger trains that trundle along more than 40,000 miles of track, reaching parts of the country that remain poorly served by roads and inaccessible by air.
These rail passengers are an important political constituency and their fares are kept low, for politically expedient reasons, thanks to cross subsidy from the profitable rail freight sector.
There is no country in the world where the history of the nation and that of its railway are so entwined. The first railway was built in 1853 , a little suburban 15 mile line between Mumbai and Thane, now part of the vast network serving the city. After the Indian rebellion of 1857 the British increased the pace of expansion, realising that railways would help to move troops around the country in the event of another insurrection.
That colonial legacy is at the heart of one of the many fascinating paradoxes about Indian railways. They were one of the most important legacies of British  rule and have served the nation well but they were not built out to serve the interests of the Indian people.
Instead British companies, funded by the City of London, invested to gain access to India’s enormous natural resources and to despatch goods manufactured in the UK to the interior.
The companies that built these original lines did not initially expect Indians to use the service to any great extent but then realised that there were huge profits to be made by providing very basic services in third class to the population which hitherto could only travel by painstakingly slow oxcarts or on foot.
This Western invention soon established its own very Indian identity. Travel by train became routine for Indians, and a strong emotional attachment developed between the people and their railway network. Yes, it was controlled by the British, but its character, as witnessed today by anyone standing on a local platform waiting for an ‘express’ will see, was very much Indian.
It is a unique network used far more intensively than any other and maintained to standards that befit the country – it may seem shambolic and rudimentary but by and large the trains run according to the timetable.
As the network grew, it also forged new nationwide connections among Indians.
Paul Theroux summed up their role brilliantly:’The railway was the bloodstream of the Raj and it affected nearly every one.It linked the centres of population, and the cities which had until then been identified by their temples and their forts. became identified with their railway stations – Howrah with Calcutta, Victoria with Bombay, Egmore and Madras Central with Madras.’ Theroux concluded,with some accuracy, that India only functioned because of its railway system.
There is no doubt that the railways brought enormous benefits to the Indian population. They allowed markets to develop, greatly reducing food prices and making famines less likely, they  took millions of pilgrims to their sacred shrines, provided secure jobs to vast numbers of Indians and stimulated the development of a trade union movement.
However, there were missed opportunities, too, as the best jobs, such as engine drivers, were reserved for Europeans and Indians were not allowed to build the locomotives that actually powered the trains. Nehru changed all that at independence in 1947 creating new factories to produce trains, building new lines and investing heavily in the network.
Despite this rich history and India’s long love affair with the iron road, the railways face multiple threats.
While the politicians speak fondly of the system, their money is being spread around.
In 2019, the government launched a huge $275bn investment programme into the nation’s nascent highway system. In February this year, the government sanctioned the purchase by Air india, owned by the Tata Group, of 470 planes, mostly for domestic use which at $70bn was the world’s biggest ever aviation order.
While investment in the rail network is also at record levels, much of this is focussed on new high speed lines and upgraded services on crucial routes, rather than on services through impoverished tribal areas such as Odisha  .
When I travelled there in 2016, the busy station where I got on the train only had one platform for the two tracks which necessitated walking on the ballast to reach the Kolkota bound service. That type of basic service remains the norm on much of the network.

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