West Bengal Train Accident Highlights Need for a Thorough Review of Misplaced Priorities of Past Two Decades in Indian Railways

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West Bengal Train Accident Highlights Need for a Thorough Review of Misplaced Priorities of Past Two Decades in Indian Railways Blog Image

Why in News?

  • The recent collision near Siliguri in West Bengal, which resulted in nine fatalities and over 40 injuries, underscores the chronic problems plaguing this essential transport system.
  • Despite its significance in a densely populated and developing country, Indian Railways has seen seven major accidents since 1995, claiming over 1,600 lives.
  • Indian Railways, a critical lifeline for millions, is grappling with severe systemic issues that threaten its viability and safety and these tragedies highlight the urgent need for a comprehensive overhaul of the railway system.

An Analysis of Declining Performance, Market Share and Other Systematic Issues of Indian Railways

  • Stagnation in Freight and Passenger Volumes
    • Since 2010-12, the total volume of both freight and passenger traffic has either stagnated or declined.
    • This stagnation is particularly stark when compared to the growth rates of road and air transport, which have seen annual increases of 6-12%.
    • Between 2014-15 and 2019-20, passenger traffic decreased from 995 billion pass-km to 914 billion pass-km.
    • During the same period, freight traffic remained between 682 and 739 billion net tonne-km.
    • These figures highlight a failure to attract new business and retain existing customers, undermining the railways' role as a major transport provider.
  • Loss of Competitiveness to Road and Air Transport
    • The stagnation in railway traffic volumes stands in sharp contrast to the dynamic growth seen in road and air transport.
    • The road transport sector has benefited from significant investments in highway infrastructure, leading to improved connectivity and reduced travel times.
    • Similarly, the aviation sector has expanded rapidly, with new airports, increased flight frequencies, and competitive pricing making air travel more accessible to the masses.
    • As a result, both passengers and freight shippers are increasingly opting for road and air transport over rail, which they perceive as more reliable, faster, and often more cost-effective.
    • The shift to road and air transport is also a reflection of broader economic and demographic changes.
    • As incomes rise and urbanisation accelerates, there is greater demand for faster and more convenient travel options.
    • Indian Railways has struggled to keep pace with these changing preferences, resulting in a significant loss of market share.
  • Failure to Meet Modernisation and Efficiency Targets
    • Indian Railways' inability to modernise and improve efficiency has further exacerbated its declining performance.
    • Despite numerous announcements and plans to increase train speeds and improve safety, tangible progress has been minimal.
    • The average speed of mail and express trains has remained stagnant at 50-51 kmph, far below the ambitious target of 75 kmph set under various initiatives like Mission Raftar.
    • This failure to increase speeds not only affects passenger satisfaction but also impacts the efficiency of freight operations.
  • Major Punctuality Issues
    • The railways have struggled with chronic punctuality issues, with trains frequently running late.
    • This lack of reliability is a major deterrent for both passengers and freight shippers who require timely delivery of goods.
    • The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India's report on speed and punctuality highlights these deficiencies, noting that there has been no significant improvement in train speeds or punctuality over the past several years.

Highlights of CAG Report on Indian Railways and Other Administrative Failures

  • Inconsistent Policies and Lack of Strategic Direction
    • Over the past two decades, the Railway Board, the highest administrative body of Indian Railways, has been characterised by abrupt changes in policies and a lack of coherent strategic direction.
    • This inconsistency has led to a fragmented approach to modernisation and improvement efforts.
    • Frequent leadership changes and shifting priorities have prevented the implementation of long-term plans that are essential for sustainable development.
    • For instance, initiatives to increase train speeds and enhance safety have been announced multiple times but have failed to materialise effectively.
    • The Mission Raftar project, aimed at increasing the average speed of trains to 75 kmph, has been reintroduced in various forms since 2005.
  • Inefficiencies in Operational Management
    • Operational inefficiencies further exacerbate the administrative failures within Indian Railways.
    • The punctuality of trains remains a major issue, with delays being a common occurrence.
    • This lack of reliability undermines public confidence and reduces the attractiveness of rail travel compared to road and air alternatives.
    • The inability to adhere to schedules disrupts both passenger and freight services, leading to economic losses and inconvenience.
    • Despite acquiring advanced technology to build faster coaches and locomotives, Indian Railways has failed to operationalise these capabilities effectively.
    • The continued reliance on outdated infrastructure and practices hampers efforts to improve overall efficiency and service quality.
  • Persistent Safety Issues
    • The high incidence of accidents, including derailments and collisions, highlights serious flaws in safety management and infrastructure maintenance.
    • The recent collision near Siliguri and the tragic multiple train collision in Balasore are stark reminders of the ongoing safety issues.
    • The CAG's report on accidents reveals that while there has been some reduction in the number of accidents due to the manning of unmanned railroad crossings, the rate of derailments and collisions remains high.
    • These accidents are often caused by asset failures such as signal malfunctions and rail fractures.
    • The Balasore collision, for instance, was attributed to a signal failure, illustrating the severe consequences of inadequate maintenance and monitoring.

Required Reforms to Revitalise Indian Railways

  • Prioritising Safety
    • Improving safety should be the foremost priority and this involves significant investment in track upgrades, modern signalling systems, and robust maintenance protocols.
    • Regular safety audits, adherence to international safety standards, and continuous training for railway staff are essential components of a comprehensive safety strategy.
  • Enhancing Efficiency and Reliability
    • Increasing the average speed of trains, improving punctuality, and reducing delays are critical for enhancing the efficiency and reliability of the rail network.
    • This can be achieved through targeted investments in infrastructure upgrades, such as replacing outdated tracks and enhancing station facilities.
    • Implementing advanced traffic management systems can also optimise train operations and reduce bottlenecks.
  • Innovation and Modernisation
    • While high-profile projects like bullet trains and semi-high-speed services have their place, innovation should extend to the entire network.
    • Introducing more efficient locomotives, adopting green technologies, and leveraging data analytics for predictive maintenance can drive modernisation across the rail system.
    • These efforts should be integrated with a broader strategy to improve the core network's performance.


  • The current state of Indian Railways reflects the consequences of misplaced priorities and the urgent need for comprehensive reforms.
  • By focusing on safety, efficiency, and modernisation, Indian Railways can reverse its decline and reclaim its position as a vital component of India's transportation infrastructure.

This requires a strategic shift away from high-profile, costly projects towards targeted investments in core infrastructure and operations. 

Q) What are the primary sources of revenue for Indian Railways?

The primary sources of revenue for Indian Railways include passenger fares, freight charges, and ancillary services. Passenger fares account for a significant portion of the revenue, generated from the sale of tickets across various classes and train services. Freight charges, which come from the transportation of goods such as coal, iron ore, cement, and agricultural products, constitute the largest share of the revenue. Additionally, Indian Railways earns income from ancillary services like catering, parcel services, leasing of railway properties, and advertising.

Q) What is the significance of the Indian Railways network in India?

Indian Railways is one of the largest railway networks in the world, playing a crucial role in the transportation infrastructure of India. It connects remote regions with major cities, facilitating the movement of passengers and goods across the country. Indian Railways is also a major employer, providing jobs to millions of people, and contributes significantly to the Indian economy.

Source:The Indian Express