Two recent train crashes left dozens of people dead in India and China.
The Indian train system is one of the largest in the world, carrying around 14 million passengers a day, and terribly overloaded. Successive railway ministers have shied away from the urgent task of modernizing the Indian Railways. We have seen new airports and highways come up over the last ten years, developments that will increase mobility and cut transport costs. But there has been no major new railway project of the same scale. The derailment of an express train in Uttar Pradesh last week once again highlighted the need to drag the railway system into the 21st century.
If obsolescence and neglect were the likely reasons for the tragedy in India, the problem in China seems to be quite different. One of the high-speed trains that China has built with great enthusiasm first got immobilized after it was struck by lightning and was then was hit by another train moving behind it on the same track. The accident has thrown light on how China’s headlong rush to become the world leader in high-speed trains has been achieved at the cost of corruption and quality compromises. Japan’s bullet trains have not been involved in an accident in the last 47 years while China has already had its first big accident barely four years after the high-speed train network began functioning.
The two train crashes tell us a lot about the risks of very slow progress in India and the risks of very rapid progress in China, a metaphor for the way the two countries have built up their infrastructure. But it is our guess that China will learn from the accident and try to fix the problem, while the Indian rail system will continue to be held hostage to the twin evils of low ambition and political patronage.
(Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor of Mint)