Of the 20 million people who travel daily on the world's fourth largest rail network, a large chunk arrives at their destinations several hours, sometimes even days, late. Yet, a big concern is to reach safely -- if not speedily -- on a decrepit network.
The 2015 railway budget presented by minister Suresh Prabhu unveiled some new steps to improve safety, among them a "five-year corporate safety plan" by June 2015. Prabhu said the plan would have yearly "quantifiable targets".
India's most popular mode of mass transport is also one of the deadliest. According to railway data, collisions, derailments, fires and unprotected crossings have taken more than 2000 lives in nearly 800 accidents in the past seven years alone. Decades of under-investment is a key reason why the network continues to be one mishap-prone.
Much of the Modi government's dreams of transforming India into an economic powerhouse depend on how efficiently people and goods can move around on the mammoth rail network. Successive governments have tended to focus on keeping fares low and adding new routes to please voters, rather than overhauling the 64,000-km network.
Rising accidents have forced authorities to take safety seriously lately, but the pace of overhaul remains slow. Prabhu pledged to finish reviewing pending recommendations of high-level Dr. Kakodkar safety review committee by April this year.
The budget also plans to eliminate 3,438 so-called level crossings and has set aside Rs. 6,581 crore for this. Along with it, the railways plan to rope in the Indian Space Research Organisation and the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur for installing geo-spatial and radio-based audio-visual warnings to road users at unmanned level crossings.
The network, which employs roughly 1.3 million people, continues to clatter along a ramshackle network that relies on a British-era signaling system. The budget aims at timely complete installation of two key devices -- "Train Protection Warning System" and "Train Collision Avoidance System to be installed on select routes at the earliest".
It's not just passengers who put up with a burdened network. Crucial freight, such as raw materials, coal headed for factories and goods meant for markets, have to make way for faster trains because there aren't enough tracks, costing millions in lost revenue.
According to a government-commissioned report, a modern rail system could potentially add up to 2% to the country's GDP and create new jobs, just as it did for China, whose fast growth was prompted partly by heavy investments in the railways.
Yet, the contrast with the Communist neighbour - a constant benchmark for India - could be starker. China's fastest train runs at a breezy 300 km per hour; India's top speed has stagnated at 151 km per hour.
But none of this will help improve safety records phenomenally without investment, a crying need.
According to the consultancy McKinsey, India will have to invest, at a minimum, Rs 20,000 crore consultancy McKinsey until 2020 to make the railways efficient and safe. Prabhu said the share of revenue obtainable for investments would rise to 11.5% in the next financial year, up from 8.2% now.
Prabhu also said the railways would cut down reliance on budgetary support for new investments to 59% from 66% now, a move to be enabled by greater private investments. Part of the confidence stems from a sharp drop on diesel prices.