Like its widespread network, most things associated with Indian Railways is huge. It is not just the country's largest employer, every year, it also moves the equivalent of the world's population. For its large size, the allocation that it gets in the Union Budget is equally gargantuan. The finance ministry allocated 131,000 crore for railway development for FY18. A special rail safety fund of 100,000 crore was also created to be used over five years, with 20,000 crore allocated for the current fiscal. In the previous year too, the government had proposed 121,000 crore for Railway Budget. It may be the world's fourth largest network but it is surely not the safest and the high number of train derailments over the past 10 years suggests that more money has not translated into higher passenger safety.
The slew of train derailments has increased from 49 in FY13 to 78 in FY17. These accidents, hardly intermittent, peaked alarmingly between 2016-17. Only recently, the Kalinga-Utkal Express derailed, followed by the derailment of the Mumbai-Nagpur Duronto Express in a span of a week. The cause of these accidents are, primarily, track failure caused by overworked railway tracks and under-investment in their maintenance. Take for instance the target track renewal of 4,500 km of track length each year, the actual number was 2,700 km in FY16. While new trains have been launched over the last few years to take on the increase in passenger load, it has resulted in railway lines becoming congested and the busy, overused tracks leave less time for their maintenance.
Given that 40% of these overused railway tracks have led to fatal accidents lately, little has been done to increase the track lengths, or can be, given the space constraints. Nevertheless, the government has commissioned the construction of 3,500 km of railway line and allocated 9,961 crore for track renewal in FY18 compared with the 6,740 crore in FY17. The recent cabinet reshuffle has seen Piyush Goyal replacing Suresh Prabhu but the incoming minister has a tall task on his hands. While the government continues to create a patina of progress in the form of bullet trains and solar trains, unless it addresses the problem of track maintenance and circumvents the challenge of limited track space, passenger safety is far from guaranteed.