India train crash shows importance of getting infrastructure basics right

It's far better to think small than to think big. Working on the plumbing is less glitzy than building a fancy facade, but it can be far more rewarding in the long run

Coromandel Express, Coromandel Express crash

Photo: Bloomberg

By Mihir Sharma

We are still not sure exactly why India’s storied Coromandel Express plowed into a stationary freight train late on Friday night last week, setting off a three-train pileup that cost almost 300 people their lives. But it seems likely that something as mundane as a signaling fault could have been to blame, sending the express down the wrong tracks toward the parked goods carriages loaded down with iron ore.
The tragedy shocked Indians not just because so many died, but because we have grown accustomed to the idea that railroad travel in this country has gotten much safer. A few years ago, we celebrated when nobody was killed in accidents for two successive years. The government has widely publicized its investments into Indian Railways; swanky new trains have been regularly flagged off, and the prime minister has himself been awkwardly photographed on one of the new “Vande Bharat” expresses. Some have argued that the focus on new trains has meant safety has been ignored.

That may not be entirely true. Over the past decades, a lot of work has been put into upgrading signaling, shutting down level crossings, and other ways to make Indian railroads safer.

But it is also an understandable impression. Since the hard work of upgrading safety (and improving customer experience, or increasing on-time arrivals) isn’t very glamorous, the government does focus more on showing off its new trains and other snazzy innovations.

This is one of the greatest pitfalls when it comes to infrastructure policy. Repair, restoration and maintenance just doesn’t give voters the endorphin rush a shiny new train does. And politicians — particularly populist politicians — really want to give their voters something new to cheer about every few weeks.

That’s why populists love big projects. Boris Johnson planned to spend £5 billion on an infrastructure plan he described as “build, build, build.” He also famously wanted to spend hundreds of billions on a bridge to Northern Ireland. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone through dozens of strange ideas, from a new amusement park in Ankara to a canal that would bypass the Bosporus.

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Modi himself has promised a new “bullet train” between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, the capital of his home state of Gujarat. The government also has grandiose (and dangerous) plans, due to cost $168 billion, to link all of India’s rivers together.

It’s far better to think small than to think big. Working on the plumbing is less glitzy than building a fancy facade, but it can be far more rewarding in the long run. Really successful projects are the ones that change the lives of a significant fraction of the electorate.

Modi, of all politicians, should know this. His government’s efforts to get more households using gas cylinders to cook, or to put them on the electricity grid, have been vote-winners. Certainly, his toilet-building program — literal plumbing — will help a thousand times more Indians than will ever ride the bullet train.

It is particularly important to guard against the big-project temptation when you have a large reservoir of money to spend. In India, spending on the railways has increased manifold over the past years. This year’s federal budget set aside Rs. 10 trillion ($120 billion) for capital investment, about half for transport infrastructure. And about half of that, in turn — $29 billion — is due to go to Indian Railways. But only a small fraction of the money was earmarked for a special safety fund — which, in any case, was failing because the railways weren’t living up to their promise to match federal funds.

As multiple Western countries ramp up their spending on infrastructure — the US set aside $1.2 trillion in 2021 — they should keep the big-project trap in mind.

Grandiose projects might not work out. Johnson had to ignominiously scale back his plans for high-speed rail links to Britain’s north, and Erdogan’s dinosaur park turned into a desolate wasteland full of abandoned toys. Modi’s bullet train was supposed to be built in time for general elections next year. We will be lucky if it is completed before the next elections after that, in 2029.

Worse, populist projects monopolize funds and state capacity that should be focused on getting the basics — say, replacing railway tracks — right. India’s newest “super-fast” trains are supposed to run at 180 kilometers an hour, but because the rail lines they use haven’t been upgraded, they still chug along at the same 80-90 kilometers per hour as the ones they were supposed to replace.

Most importantly, India’s commuters and migrants need safe and comfortable railway journeys much more than they need the thrill of knowing that somewhere out there some other Indian is taking a much faster train. Big projects don’t usually work out, they soak up attention and funds — and they usually aren’t what people really need. Populists should pay more attention to plumbing, not photo-ops.

Disclaimer: This is a Bloomberg Opinion piece, and these are the personal opinions of the writer. They do not reflect the views of or the Business Standard newspaper

First Published: Jun 8 2023 | 8:07 AM IST

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