At least 288 people were killed and 900 others were injured in a collision involving three trains in Odisha on Friday, making it one of India’s worst railway disasters.

The crash highlighted concerns not only about passenger safety, but also other problems plaguing the Indian Railways, such as overcrowding and delays. While these are long-standing concerns, in recent years, political will has been focussed not on these problems but on the roll-out of Vande Bharat, a new day train service with steep ticket prices.

Vande Bharat push

The accident comes at a time when the Railways is paying Rs 115 crore for each Vande Bharat rake, as per the Economic Times. Such is the government focus on these trains that the prime minister himself has launched several Vande Bharat routes, with relentless promotional messaging about the benefits of the trains.

In February, when the Union budget allocated Rs 2.4 lakh crore to the Railways, the railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw underlined that the funds will be used to boost the production of Vande Bharat trains.

Vande Bharat fares are steeper than regular trains of the Indian Railways, which carried over 808 crore passengers in 2019-’20 and is a key means of transportation, especially for the poor.

A social media user questioning the government on the expenditure on Vande Bharat trains.

Falling safety standards

Amidst the Vande Bharat push, data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that railway accidents have increased over the past few years. In 2022-’23, they shot up by 37%, according to a report in the Business Standard which cited the railway ministry’s safety review data.

In the past 10 years, rail accidents have led to around 2.6 lakh fatalities, crime bureau data showed. Deaths linked to train accidents have risen marginally over the past five years, except for the two years of the Covid-19 pandemic when passenger train services reduced significantly.

Funding cuts are hitting safety

A significant chunk of rail accidents between 2017 and 2021 happened due to mechanical failures such as track faults. However, the budgetary allocation for track renewals was cut in the 2022-’23 Budget by Rs 3,222.4 crore as compared to the previous fiscal.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, India’s main audit institution, had similarly highlighted in its 2022 performance audit on derailments that some railway zones had even returned some of the funds allocated for this purpose between 2017-’18 and 2019-’20. “The decline in fund allocation and non-utilisation of allocated funds would have adverse impact on timely completion of track renewal works,” the auditor cautioned.

Moreover, the auditor said that 26% of all the 1,129 derailments from 2017-’18 to 2020-’21 were linked to track renewals.

The auditor added, “The Railways administration failed to act in accordance with the observation of the Standing Committee on Railways [2016-’17] wherein it was observed that the physical as well as financial targets in respect of track renewals need to be enhanced as per the annual requirement for track renewals for safety.”

This cut in track renewal funding is significant because derailments comprised 70% of all train accidents, the railway ministry’s 2019-’20 safety report showed. Railway officials have said that derailment of coaches had led to the accident on Friday.

Along with funding cuts, lack of recruitment has also compromised safety. Almost half of the 28,650 vacant positions in the central zone are in the safety category, primarily operating and maintenance staff, such as inspectors of various kinds, drivers, train examiners and shunters, among others.

Fares rise, conditions worsen?

In recent months, passengers have complained that 130 more trains being given “superfast” status has driven up their fares. Despite higher fares, even sleeper coaches are overcrowded, with poor conditions on board, passengers have said in accounts posted on social media.

Many of the complaints were about the Coromandel Express itself, one of the trains involved in the Friday accident.

Train delays are another problem. In recent months, social media has been flooded with complaints about trains running late, often by many hours.

Responding to a Right to Information query, the Railways had admitted in December that between April 2022 and October, passenger trains in those seven months were cumulatively delayed for a time period equalling over 24 years.