In all likelihood, Indian Railways will get the first of its semi high-speed trains running between Delhi and Agra in a month or so, the first step towards launching full-fledged high speed passenger services. These trains, running at more than 300 kilometres per hour, much like the Chinese and Japanese bullet trains, are expected to mark the beginning of a reformed era in the 150 year-old behemoth.
And yet, at least for now, the entire idea is more frightening than exciting. Why?
The fastest train in India at present is the Bhopal Shatabdi that on “some” occasions manages to touch speeds of 150 kmph. What do we require to make sure that the jump from 150 kmph to 300 kmph is a smooth one? Is the current state of rail infrastructure in India ready for the speed demons headed our way? Most importantly, how sure are we that this high speed won’t come with high accidents? After all, Indian trains invariably invoke, largely, the impression of dusty coaches rattling along rusty rails carrying an undisciplined mass of people.
But opinions are better when not based on impressions. I decided to look at the cold numbers to understand whether Indian Railways has become more prone to accidents in the recent past, or less. Indian Railways measures its performance on the safety front through the number of accidents per million kilometres covered by its trains. I downloaded and went through two reports covering key statistics of Indian Railways.
The reports showed Accidents per Million Train Kilometre stood at 0.29 in 2004-05 and has declined consistently since then to 0.10 in the financial year ended March 2014. Wow! The rail ministry’s focus on installing best in class safety equipment and technology seemed to have borne fruit.
This may be the best time to leapfrog to high-speed, I thought. And then, I looked at the track record in the current financial year (April-September), and my high-speed enthusiasm went out of the window. The accident rate averaged 0.14, a three-year high!
Adding to the fear is the government’s move to take help from the Chinese, not just in preparing pre-feasibility reports for high speed trains but technology, too. The story of frequent breakdowns and low efficiency of cheaper Chinese machines installed in Indian power plants is already well known. I was reminded also of a rare picture of an accident involving a Chinese bullet train that had fallen off a bridge in the middle of the night. The picture was rare not because accidents on Chinese bullet trains are rare but because such pictures seldom get out to the Chinese media. I want to believe the new government, and the new Railways Minister Suresh Prabhu, perform sound due diligence before rolling out high speed trains. Nothing is more valuable than human lives, after all.
(Sudheer Pal Singh covers Railways for Business Standard)