On Saturday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to videolink the first departure of a new Vande Bharat (“Salute to India”) express train service connecting the western state of Goa to the commercial capital of Mumbai.
However, the launch was called off after India’s worst train disaster in decades, a three-train accident that killed at least 275 people and injured hundreds more in the eastern state of Odisha on Friday.
The Goa-Mumbai Express, the 19th in a prestigious fleet of Vande Bharat services with maximum speeds of 160 km/h, is a sign of increasing investment and improving standards in the world’s largest rail system since Modi took office in 2014.
But as rescuers in Odisha pulled the dead and injured from mutilated carriages, Friday’s disaster evoked the dark past of a system previously plagued by underinvestment in infrastructure, maintenance and rolling stock.
The length of electrified rail lines in India has more than doubled since 2014, from 21,000 km to more than 50,000 km by 2022. The share of electrified lines reached 65.8 percent in 2021, higher than France’s 60.3 percent and 38 percent in the UK.
Ashwini Vaishnaw, the Minister of Railways and a modal known for handing out miniature models of Vande Bharat trains at meetings, was to attend the inauguration of the new express at Madgaon station in Goa. Instead, he traveled to the scene of the disaster on Friday night to oversee rescue efforts.
Vaishnaw said on Sunday that the government’s early findings suggested the Odisha accident was the result of a signal error caused by a malfunction of the “electronic interlocking system” which helps regulate the movement of trains between the tracks.
He called on India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, the country’s top law enforcement agency, to open a criminal investigation into the accident.
The disaster was India’s deadliest railway accident since 1999, when nearly 300 people died in an accident in West Bengal.
Government safety data shows that India has reduced the number of train accidents since 1980. The number of accidents per million kilometers traveled fell to 0.05 in 2019, compared to 2.2 in 1980 and 5.5 in 1961.
But Modi’s opponents seized on the disaster to accuse the government of diverting attention from its failure to invest in security mechanisms.
Mallikarjun Kharge, president of the Indian National Congress, the largest opposition party, wrote to Modi on Monday claiming that “those responsible – your good self and Railways Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw – do not want to admit that there are problems”.
“The CBI, or any other law enforcement agency, cannot determine responsibility for technical, institutional and political failures,” he added.
Official data shows that since Modi took office, India has invested record amounts in its rail network, including in the field of safety.
“Since the 1990s and 2000s, when the Indian economy grew steadily, Indian budgets looked much healthier and there was more money to spend on railways,” says Partha Mukhopadhyay, senior fellow at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.
India’s budget for fiscal year 2023-24 has earmarked Rs 2.4 trillion ($29 billion) for rail capital investment, 50 percent more than last year.
However, experts have in some cases questioned whether New Delhi is investing in the right places and have suggested that the improvement in railway staff capacity has not kept pace.
Capital investment data shows a large and persistent gap between what India spends on new lines and rolling stock and what it invests in maintaining existing lines and renewing tracks.
A new safety system to avoid collisions, launched last year, had not yet been implemented at the scene of Friday’s accident.
The total number of rail-related deaths in the world’s most populous country remains staggering. In 2021, according to data from Indian states and territories, more than 16,000 people died in falls from trains, rail accidents or other causes – although only about 100 of them died in derailments or collisions.
Swapnil Garg, a former railway official who now works at the Indian Institute of Management in Indore, said Friday’s accident revealed defects that remained embedded in India’s railway system despite the government’s investment in infrastructure and technology.
One of the biggest concerns, he said, was that many railway workers responsible for safety were chronically overworked, underqualified and disillusioned.
“This is a transitional phase for Indian Railways,” Garg said. “As fast as we move on the tech side — spend money, build new infrastructure — we’re lacking on the human resource side.”