A railway accident in the Indian state of Odisha has killed at least 280 people and injured more than 800 on Friday — the latest such tragedy to occur in a nation where trains are widely used but often lack up-to-date infrastructure.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to Odisha Saturday and offered consolation for the victims and their families via Twitter on Friday, saying, “Distressed by the train accident in Odisha. In this hour of grief, my thoughts are with the bereaved families. May the injured recover soon.” Upon his arrival at the accident site, Modi promised that the government would leave “no stone unturned for the treatment of those injured” and vowed that those responsible would be “punished stringently.”
Early reports indicate that a passenger train headed to Chennai from Kolkata collided with a stopped commercial train in Balasore district; another passenger train, the Howrah Superfast Express, then hit the wreckage, though the exact sequence of events has been disputed, the BBC reports. The incident is still being investigated, and rescue operations have ceased as of Saturday, with those seriously injured taken to the state’s largest hospital in Cuttack, a three-hour drive away. People searching for missing or injured relatives have reported confusion and a lack of information about their status and whereabouts, highlighting some of the country’s many infrastructure challenges.
India’s railway system was constructed in the 19th century, when the country was a British colony, and serves millions of people each day. Though it’s an important part of the country’s transit system, it’s long suffered from underinvestment, and deadly, destructive accidents are not uncommon. Friday’s accident has been referred to as the worst in the 21st century thus far.
Modi’s government has recently announced major spending on the transit and railway systems, including high-speed, indigenously produced trains between major transit corridors. But many such upgrades are years away, require mountains of outside investment, and must wind through a labyrinthine government bureaucracy to take effect.
India’s train system is one of the deadliest in the world
India’s railway system is in some ways a marvel, in that it connects a massive country together, is an affordable mode of transportation that serves 13 million people each day according to state-run Indian Railways, and connects India’s large rural population to its urban areas.
The railway system also spurred economic growth after it was first introduced in 1853, because it could move commodities both internally and internationally far more quickly than traditional transportation. The economy still depends on rail transportation, to an extent, though increased roadways and a large auto industry have increased Indians’ auto-ownership from 115 million in 2009 to 295.8 million in 2019, according to a report from the Ministry of Road Transport and Highway Transport.
Still, people all over the country depend on old, overcrowded trains for all aspects of life, despite the massive number of accidents and deaths that occur on India’s more than 40,000 miles of railway.
In October 2018, a commuter train slammed through a crowd gathering to celebrate the Hindu festival of Dussehra in Amritsar, leaving at least 59 dead and injuring at least 57. Some blamed the festival goers for gathering on the tracks; others, the guest of honor for his late arrival and the railways for not stopping the train. Train derailments caused serious incidents in 2005, 2011, 2016, and 2017, according to Reuters, and India’s deadliest train accident occurred in 1981, when a cyclone blew seven overcrowded coaches on a passenger train into a river in the northeastern state of Bihar.
According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, there were around 100,000 railway-related deaths in the country between 2017 and 2021. About 69 percent of India’s 2,017 train accidents during that time period were due to derailments caused by old signaling equipment, poorly-maintained infrastructure, track defects, and human error, according to a 2021 report from India’s Comptroller and Auditor General. A lack of funding or refusal to use funding to fix railroad tracks also contributed to those accidents.
Indian Railways, the government-owned railway enterprise, has long given subsidies to help keep fare prices low; according to Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw, the government subsidy amounted to about 53 percent for each person traveling in the fiscal year 2019-2020. An announcement that the government would raise the price of tickets by 14.2 percent in 2014 spurred protests across the country, with people occupying rail stations and demonstrating in the streets to try to block the move.
Railways, which under Modi are improving, are still a popular transit option, and the government’s upgrades aim to make it even more so in order to counterweight India’s burgeoning reliance on automobile transportation. But while India’s economy is growing, that doesn’t necessarily translate to the average person, who still needs a low-cost, safe option to get where they want to go.
What will the government do to improve the train system?
Instead of visiting Odisha, Modi was supposed to be at the unveiling of a new Vande Bharat Express line from Goa to Mumbai, part of his announced investments in the transportation sector. The service initially launched in 2019, and Modi’s government plans to inaugurate 500 new such lines in the next three years, the Economist reports.
The high-speed railway system is just part of Modi’s transportation boom; his government is also building 10,000 kilometers of highway each year and has nearly doubled the length of the country’s rural road network since he was elected in 2014. Those efforts, along with increased domestic energy generation and improved broadband activity, all aim to boost India’s economic growth and turn it into a $5 trillion economy by 2026.
Though the extent to which the railway system was responsible for India’s economic growth in the 19th and early 20th centuries is debatable according to some scholars, Modi’s plans to shore up the aging system follow the generally accepted logic that improved transport will dramatically change the economy.
While infrastructure upgrades are clearly necessary, Friday’s deadly collision shows how much there is left to be done — and how critical the focus on passenger safety must be.
“India has achieved some success in making train journeys safer over the years, but a lot more needs to be done,” Swapnil Garg, a former officer of the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers, told the Associated Press. “The entire system needs a realignment and distributed development. We can’t just focus on modern trains and have tracks that aren’t safe.”
In the meantime, the government is offering cash payouts for victims of the crash and their loved ones. On Friday, Vaishnaw tweeted that victims were entitled to 1 million Indian rupees for a dead relative, Rs 200,000 in case of “grievous” injury, and Rs 50,000 for minor ones — about $12,000, $2,400, and $600 respectively.