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India should focus more on its railway network

With increased investment the railways could become more cost effective, but unlike roads, they do not have a powerful, independent lobby free to use any methods to push for investment.

columns Updated: Jul 28, 2018 17:31 IST
Last year, 17,000 km of road projects were awarded in India. But in many countries, the policy is to get as much traffic as possible off the roads and onto railways.(AFP)

Earlier this month, the ministry of road transport and highways announced what amounts to a surrender to India’s road lobby, the contractors who build the roads as well as the transporters who use them. It’s also an admission that the police can’t control India’s highways. The decision allows trucks to carry loads up to 25% heavier than the present legal limit. Larger and heavier trucks are to be allowed to carry those loads.

This decision could well increase the already horrifying death toll on Indian roads. Every year nearly 1.5 lakh people are killed in traffic accidents and five lakh are injured. Seventy per cent of the deaths occur on state or national highways where the new heavier trucks will travel. Simply upgrading or widening these roads won’t necessarily help. Experience from India and elsewhere suggests that this leads to faster driving and more traffic, hence accidents often increase and are more severe. Obviously the heavier the truck is the more likely it is that any accident it’s involved in will be more serious.

A senior government official explaining the reason for increasing axle loads quoted a recent survey as showing that 50% of the trucks travelling on highways are overloaded. So the government is just facing reality and accepting the ineffectiveness of the police. When the bigger and heavier trucks come on the road who is to see they will not be loaded beyond the new limit. Not the police apparently.

The lack of effective policing allows bad driving, which is one of the main causes of accidents. Overloaded trucks ignore the rule that slower traffic should take the left-hand lane. Speeding buses zigzag hazardously overtaking trucks from the left as well as the right. It is common to see vehicles being driven not just in the wrong lane but in the wrong direction on highways. Driving from Hazaribagh to Ranchi earlier this year in the dark, I came within inches of death when my driver swerved at the last minute to avoid a truck which had broken down in the middle of the highway and left there without lights or any other warning.

The government’s decision on axle loads is evidence of the influence exercised by the road lobby. One report suggests that road constructors are licking their lips at the prospect of 20% top-line growth over the next few years. Last year, 17,000 km of road projects were awarded. But in many countries, the policy is to get as much traffic as possible off the roads and onto the railways. The railways are safer and far more environmentally friendly: think how many truck loads one railway engine can pull. Nevertheless, the railways find it difficult to compete with roads on costs, and the decision on road axle loads will make that even more difficult.

With increased investment, the railways could become more cost-effective, but unlike roads, they do not have a powerful, independent lobby free to use any methods to push for investment. The railways only have bureaucrats to plead their cause and they are restricted to giving advice. When I was making a made a film on a Pakistani railway journey, the chairman of the board blamed the sad state of the system there on the mismatch between the influence the road lobby exercised and the influence he had.

In India, the difference is there for all to see with roads expanding at record speed and the railways still unable to complete the east-west and north-south freight corridors approved 11 years ago. Train schedules have been extended because of the speed checks that the lack of track maintenance causes.

Other freight corridors crisscrossing the country have now been sanctioned but will the railways be given the resources to pursue their construction as purposefully as Nitin Gadkari is expanding the road network? Will Gadkari provide effective policing to prevent accidents increasing as his new roads attract more and more traffic? Will he ensure that it won’t be necessary to make the illegal legal again because the police can’t enforce the law?

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jul 28, 2018 17:30 IST