Roads outperforming the Railways

When it comes to Infrastructure, Roads and Railways are an interesting contrast. Both are modes of surface transport. They complement each other but they compete with each other as well. Historically, it has been the Railways that has hogged the limelight with the railways minister getting to present the annual budget of his ministry – essentially an annual hour-long slot for him to market himself and his ministry (till 2016). However, in the last decade or two, it has been the Roads which seems to have outperformed the Railways.

In March-2000, India had a national highway network of just over 50,000 km. By March-2019 (most recent data), the national highway network had more than doubled to just over 130,000 km. Not only has the national highway network increased significantly in absolute terms, but the quality of roads has also increased. Thus, the entire national highway network consists of surfaced roads now. Seventy per cent of the national highways are now at least double laned as against 61% in 2001. From just 1200 km of multi-lane (more than 2-lanes) highways in 2001, the country has almost 28,000 km of multi-lane highways as of 2018 (latest data). Thus, not only has India’s national highway network increased significantly in the last 2 decades, the quality too has improved.

In contrast to this, the Railway network has not increased anywhere close. Between 2000 to 2020, the total route length of the Indian Railways has increased from 63,000 km to 68,000 km – a modest 8% increase. In 2000, the Railway network in India was 20% longer than the National Highways network. In 2019, the Railway network is almost half of the National highway network. Total track length has increased by a higher magnitude as the density of connections has increased but even that is a small fraction compared to Roads. In the last 2 decades, the total track kilometres have increased by just 18,000 km or by 22%.

While there is no formal data, but in all likelihood, the Railways have lost share in both passenger and especially the freight market. The total volume of freight carried by the Railways has increased by 5% Cagr in the last 2 decades. India’s GDP, as well as Industrial sector output, have grown by 6.4% Cagr during the same period. And the total movement of goods within the country would have grown faster as trade (both internal and international) generally grows faster than GDP growth.

There are two areas though where the Railways have made significant progress in the last two decades. One is electrification and the other is safety. In 2000, less than 25% of Railway routes were electrified. In 2020, almost 60% of the Railway routes are electrified. In absolute terms, this is an increase of 25,000 km in electrified route km.

The other area with significant progress is Safety. In FY01 and FY02, there were over 400 rail accidents each year. In FY20, there were just 54 accidents. In FY20, there was not a single casualty in these 54 accidents and the number of injuries too was the lowest in at least the last two decades.