Dream train

Print edition : August 08, 2014

A test run of the Beijing-Shangai high speed train on June 27, 2011. A recent study referred to the pernicious influence of HSR projects in China on removing cheaper modes of transport. Photo: Alexander F. Yuan/AP

THE bells and whistles in Sadananda Gowda’s otherwise dull budget, which was marked by the solemn promise of fiscal rectitude, clearly lay in the promise of a bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. He also promised a high speed rail (HSR) network, fittingly described as the Diamond Quadrilateral connecting the main metros and other “growth centres”. He set aside a princely sum of Rs.100 crore to “initiate” the latter project.

There is a germ of truth in the Congress’ reaction to the budget that the bullet train and the HSR project had both been proposed many years ago. In fact, the late Madhavrao Scindia had proposed in the mid-1980s an HSR line between Delhi and Kanpur via Agra. However, the Indian Railways concluded that the capital costs of the project would be so high and most potential passengers would be put off by the high fares. Thus was born the Shatabdi class of trains, which connect major cities with a travel time of about six to seven hours. These trains travel at a maximum speed of 130 km/hr, compared with the 200-250 km/hr that trains can reach and the 300-350 km/hr that trains with the bullet train tag have to reach.

In 2012, the Working Group on the Railways which provided inputs for the National Transport Development Policy Committee (NTDPC) headed by Rakesh Mohan estimated that the Ahmedabad-Mumbai-Pune HSR double line would cost about Rs.80 crore per km. The pre-feasibility study estimated the cost of this line at Rs.63,000 crore, which did not include the cost of maintenance or the cost of rolling stock. The bullet class of trains, which is in a league of its own, would cost much more.

The overall consensus among transport economists is that a seat on an HSR line would cost at least Rs.5/km, which at Rs.3,000 for a 600-km ride would be comparable to air fares. It is quite unlikely that passengers would jump on to a bullet train to travel the 493-km distance between Mumbai and Ahmedabad when a cheaper and faster option is available. Transportation experts also point out that the nature of infrastructure for air travel differs crucially from rail travel in one critical sense: infrastructure for the former has to be developed only at the points of departure and destination, unlike in the case of railways where the entire infrastructure between the end points has to be complete before travel can commence.

High cost

High fares are only the least of the problems. The Working Group pointed out that the long gestation of HSR projects—cases of delays of 10 years or more not being uncommon—resulted in cost and time overruns and the mounting cost of debt. Many HSR lines have run into trouble and have had to either restructure debt or seek additional funding from the government, the Working Group observed. The Indian financial sector’s inability to provide debt of tenures beyond eight to ten years for infrastructure projects is a major problem for Indian banks to finance such projects. Although the operating and maintenance costs are low relative to the sunken capital costs, they are not trivial. However, unless a standalone HSR manages to gather enough traffic through a dense corridor, it will be difficult for it to pay off the capital costs through passenger earnings alone.

Dinesh Mohan, Volvo Chair Professor Emeritus at the Transport Research and Injury Prevention Programme at Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, says: “In countries such as India and China where population densities are high, the only option may be to run the HSR on stilts, which would push costs further.” Even in industrialised countries, the high-speed train option is now being seriously debated. Dinesh Mohan points out that in countries like France, one of the early adopters of HSR railways, the tide of public opinion is turning against it. “The majority of the participants at a national seminar on bullet trains organised in Delhi in 2013 were against it,” he recalls. Referring to the offers of financial assistance from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to fund such a project, Dinesh Mohan says the agency would be willing to do so only because “it would push for the import of Japanese technology, equipment and expertise” for the huge project.

Dinesh Mohan, working with the basic formula that is recognisable to a high school pupil, points out that the energy consumption of trains travelling on HSR lines will increase dramatically. For instance, energy consumption will increase four-fold if the train’s speed is doubled. “The fact that this magnitude of increase will benefit only a few raises the question whether this is an efficient use of scarce resources,” says Dinesh Mohan.

Iniquitous

A recent study of HSRs in China, published in the Journal of Transport Geography, referred to the pernicious influence of HSR projects on removing cheaper modes of transport. This suggests that the high cost of HSR projects and their impact on government finances are only one set of major problems. Because such projects require such high capital costs, they also militate against welfare objectives by shutting off the other cheaper and existing modes of transport. It was necessary to funnel traffic into the HSR line by turning off cheaper possibilities, the study noted. It pointed out that HSRs were typically most “successful” between destinations that could be reached within two or three hours and favoured by commuters who made the onward and return trips the same day, much as the Shatabdi is used by Indian business commuters. In a few years the Chinese HSR network is likely to exceed the combined network of such tracks across the world, but there is little clarity about how and when the Chinese network will break even.

There are even more problems in store for Gowda if he intends to keep his word on HSRs. Experts have suggested that a degree of standardisation is required if India is to embark on such an adventure. A network carrying at least 20 million passengers a year would be required to provide a basic impetus for such a project. Moreover, the Indian broad gauge (track width of 1,677 mm) network does not match the globally preferred standard gauge (width of 1,435 mm). This is not trivial because the entire rolling stock—locomotives and cars—that is readily available from manufacturers such as Alstom is tailored for the standard gauge. Although the broad gauge would theoretically offer better passenger haulage capacities and be in accordance with the rest of the Indian rail network, the cost of a completely unique HSR network will push up costs even further.

Given the concerns, especially those of costs, it is extremely unlikely that a public-private partnership project for the HSR will be viable in any way, unless, of course, the government is the funder of the last resort.

Experts, equipment suppliers such as Alstom and even the Expert Group have suggested that the government initiate steps to increase the average speed of Indian trains gradually: they have suggested that the average speed of trains on select corridors be increased to 160-200 km/hr first before dreaming of the high speed or super high speed options.

Nothing in the Railway budget is indicative of the misplaced priorities of the government than the move to run the country’s first bullet train from the Prime Minister’s State capital. Critics suggest that a more socially fair option would have been an emphasis on the improvement at the base level of services in the Indian Railways, instead of focussing on the elite. It is evident that a focus on improving basic facilities in trains and at stations would have generated far greater common good than the Tughlaqian enterprise of launching a bullet train.

V. Sridhar

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