Passengers travel on an overcrowded train on the outskirts of New Delhi. Reuters/Ahmad Masood

Google and Japan will bring WiFi and odorless toilets to India's trains, but the South Asian country has a much bigger problem it needs to fix first.

With both Google and Japan on board to help upgrade India’s centuries-old and decaying railways, it seems like the world’s busiest train system may finally be getting a modern overhaul. That is, if everything goes as planned.

But given the country’s lousy track record of taking on costly infrastructure projects and then letting projects founder because of mismanagement and lack of compromise among politicians, there’s cause for concern.

The country’s railway, often dubbed as the “Lifeline of the Nation,” shuttles more than 23 million people a day via 12,000-plus trains across some 7,000 stations. But congestion, frequent train accidents, and a lack of funding and political will to improve the rail system has made it inefficient and outdated.

In February, the Indian government announced that it would invest $137 billion over the next five years to give the railway a much-needed upgrade. This would include boosting costumer experience, making travel safer, modernizing the underlying infrastructure, and making the Indian Railway financially sustainable. The proposed budget will be “a paradigm shift” for investment according to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has made a commitment to fix India’s troubled infrastructure.

“The backbone of India’s ambition to become a manufacturing hub on par with China is a modern railway infrastructure,” writes Nuno Gil, a professor of new infrastructure development at the University of Manchester in the U.K., in a letter to Financial Times. He’s been studying India’s rail infrastructure for the past three years.

Google has signed on to bring high-speed WiFi service to 400 stations. And Japan plans to bring some of its wildly successful and efficient transit technology to the table. The country will help with modernizing India’s railway stations, installing waterless and odorless toilets inside the trains, and making the system safer operationally.

China also recently won the bid to conduct a feasibility study for a 645-mile high-speed rail link between Delhi and Mumbai. Also on the government’s agenda is bringing better food services to passengers and allowing people to book train tickets on their smartphones.

These boosts in technology from Google and Japan are great, but they don’t come close to what India actually needs if it wants to give its railway system a major overhaul, Gil tells CityLab. ”The big problem is not a technological one; it’s a political problem,” he says. “It’s about increasing the capacity of the railways, and money is not going to resolve it because you have fundamental institutional obstacles.”

The problem of acquiring land

Such obstacles include acquiring land, which the government will need to build a high-speed railway. “I don’t see it happening, to be honest,” says Gil. “It is a very complicated bureaucracy that gets in the way of trying to get things done.”

Many projects in the past have stalled because of judicial fights over plots of land. Take, for example, the 2005 plan to build the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC), a network of six corridors that were to run parallel to the existing Indian Railway. It was to increase the speed and efficiency for freight transport, and ease congestion.

The government needed to acquire roughly 6,000 hectares of land at the periphery of eight cities to complete the project, but farmers and other landowners understandably didn’t want to part with their land. The project came to a halt in 2010 after the Ministry of Railways refrained from forcibly taking land and proposed instead to hold individual negotiations. Ten years after the initial proposal of DFC, the project is still under construction.

Farmers block railway tracks in Uttar Pradesh to protest the takeover of their land for two proposed power plants in 2011, spotlighting a big challenge India faces in building infrastructure. (Reuters/Jitendra Prakash)

For the newly proposed high-speed railway, the government would need to procure land inside cities. “If they cannot even resolve some of the land issues—which is minimal—for the Dedicated Freight Corridor, how will they be able to acquire enough land to build a high-speed railway network as China did?” asks Gil.

Lack of political will and funding

Another large part of the problem is that Indian railways, unlike in other countries, have their own ministry. “So railways are a national political instrument in India,” Gil says. “Nothing happens in railways that is not scrutinized by elected leaders—and that hasn’t changed since India gained autonomy.”

That means politicians are making decisions based not necessarily on what’s best for the system, but on what will help keep them in power. This may help explain why, despite being relied upon to funnel millions of passengers each day, the railway still suffers from a lack of funding.

The government, says Gil, has so far lacked the will to increase passenger fares because it is an unpopular suggestion. Instead, they hike up the cost of freight transport to subsidize passenger rides. What India gets as a result, he says, is a vicious cycle: Companies choose to transport goods via highways because doing so by train has become too expensive and inefficient. That results in a lack of funding needed to make rail improvements for commuters, who are also leaving the railways for highways.

One suggestion is to minimize the Ministry of Railways power and make the Indian Railways two independent organizations—one responsible for the track and infrastructure and another for operating the trains.  But Gil doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. Yet, “If nothing changes, it will take them 100 years just to build the Dedicated Freight Corridor,” he says, adding that the government hasn’t even started looking plans for an alternative, high-speed railway network.

“They may try to build a small line, but to build a proper network,” says Gil,  “unless things change on the politics side, I don’t see how this can happen—in this century, at least.”

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