India rail infrastructure modernisation takes big step forward

NEW DELHI, 31 Dec 2022:

India yesterday inaugurated a new line of its semi-high-speed train, Vande Bharat Express, in its focus to modernise its outdated rail network – which witnesses thousands of accidents every year.

“For the rapid development of India in the 21st century, rapid development of Indian Railways, rapid improvement in Indian Railways are equally important,” prime minister Narendra Modi said at the inauguration of the line – which he attended virtually due to the death of his mother earlier in the day.

The new route will connect the towns of Howrah and New Jalpaiguri, in eastern India, covering a distance of 564km (350 miles) in less than eight hours – more than three hours faster than the previous route.

This will be the seventh line of India’s modern semi-high-speed train, Vande Bharat Express, the first of which was launched in 2019.

The project is a step forward for India in its goal of modernising its outdated rail network, which, with some 68,000km of tracks, is the fourth largest in the world – behind the US, Russia and China.

However, only 20% of this vast network was built after the country’s independence from the British Empire in 1947 – resulting in much of its infrastructure being outdated and often in poor condition, making it prone to accidents.

In 2021 alone, India recorded 17,993 train accidents – in which 16,431 people died and 1,852 were injured – according to National Crime Records Bureau data.

Fencing is absent along most parts of the tracks, which pass through urban centres and have numerous level crossings – which, as a result, slows down the average speed of trains and also makes it prone to accidents.

Although modern trains such as the Vande Bharat Express can reach speeds of up to 180kph, they have to stay within the speed limit of about 130kph in practice, while their average speed does not exceed 100kph.

One of the measures to increase the average speed of travel was the construction of several corridors dedicated exclusively to freight trains.

Freight trains are fairly long, sometimes reaching up to 2km and travel at a lower speed – often interrupting passenger rail traffic.

The construction of these corridors began more than a decade ago, and continues to be a priority of the Indian authorities as it seeks to continue improving its railway network.

Around 23 million people travel everyday on the Indian Railways, which runs some 12,500 trains and employs about 1.3 million people.