India makes tracks for the train

The fast-growing country upgrades its rail services to meet travel demands, even as other infrastructure lags.

Glinting glass high-rises. Condos with gyms and pools. People toting laptop bags and Blackberries.

Welcome to Bangalore, India's version of Silicon Valley. In recent years, Western firms eager to outsource software development have been beating a path to the city's tech park. But to get to this 21st- century hub, the easiest method remains India's 19th-century train system.

The story is much the same around the rest of India. The country's strong growth rate and sheer size has many grouping it with China as this century's future superpowers. But India has so far not made the same massive infrastructure investments, especially in the area of transportation.

The one exception is the national railroad. The addition of 46 new passenger trains in this fiscal year's Indian Railways budget - including upgraded service to Bangalore - has raised eyebrows. Indian trains, however, are in business because road and air remains so underdeveloped.

The National Highways Authority spent $2.28 billion on roads in 2003-2004, according to government figures. The Civil Aviation outlay was $413.8 million. Indian Railways, by contrast, got $3.24 billion, a figure that will probably rise this year.

"Indian Railways always makes a profit. We have never gone into the red," boasts S. Gagarin, the railroad's senior division commercial manager in Bangalore. According to government estimates, the return on rail investments is nearly three times that of other transportation investments.

With 67,941 miles of tracks, 7,000 passenger trains, and 4,000 freight trains per day, as well as 6,853 stations, the 152-year-old train system is one of the largest in the world. Its workforce of 1.5 million also makes it India's single largest employer.

Uvais Ahmed is a frequent passenger on the increasingly important Madras-Bangalore route of the Shatabdi Express, to which an additional service was announced in the budget. Being a businessman, he finds the train schedule convenient. He boards the train in Madras in the morning, which gives him five working hours in Bangalore before he rides the train back. He's home the same night.

Although Mr. Ahmed owns a car, he doesn't drive to Bangalore unless he anticipates staying over for three or four days. And that's only to help him get around in Bangalore. "Trains are the cheapest and safest," he says. "Highways are not so safe."

"Indian Railways has the lowest accident rate at 0.6 per million kilometers," says Mr. Gagarin. This is a far cry from when the Indian railroad, infamous for head-on collisions and slips, served as a favorite Bollywood subterfuge to turn plots and dispense with characters. Now, it's road accidents that seem to capture Bollywood's imagination. Indian road accidents grievously injure an estimated 1.275 million per year and contribute to 10 percent of road accident fatalities worldwide, according to the Delhi-based Institute of Road Traffic Education.

Many travelers also choose the train for economy. On average, flights on the Madras-Bangalore sector cost four to 10 times as much as rail trips. "If you have less time, then you fly. Otherwise, you take the train to save money. We Indians like to save money," says Ahmed.

Moreover, India has just 122 airports, of which only 11 are international. Bangalore's airport was upgraded to an international airport only in 1999. On the ride from Bangalore to Madras on the Shatabdi, the tech city's limited international air services is evident in the number of passengers hauling huge suitcases. They'll fly from Madras, which has a more established airport.

The lack of efficient public transportation from airports might also be sending passengers to the railroad. "Just to go to the airport, you have to travel so far," says Jayanthi Joshua, an Indian Railways employee at the Bangalore station. The airport in Bangalore is about an hour from the city center in normal traffic - much longer when traffic jams. Bangalore's main train station, by contrast, is in the heart of the city.

Factor in security line delays, and the total travel time between the two cities takes four hours with only an hour spent flying. The Shatabdi takes about five hours at a fraction of the cost.

Gagarin says Indians also simply prefer the train. "Indians have got some sort of sentimental attachment to the railways."

But with the rise of domestic budget airlines, the government's scramble to improve roads, and the growing number of cars, the train faces challenges. "I have a deep concern for the railways. We'll certainly face competition unless we reorient the system and working culture," says Gagarin.

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