Considering High-Speed Rail in India

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Of all the exciting new ventures Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced, there seems to be the least optimism for high-speed rail (HSR), colloquially referred to as bullet trains. This is quite puzzling, for given India’s size, population, and ramshackle transportation networks, one would have expected relief from at least the urban and semi-urban middle class.

Critics of HSR in India have raised objections primarily over cost and traffic. Bullet trains will need entirely new infrastructure and tickets will not be cheap; unlike Japan or France, the average Indian may not be affluent enough to afford travel on this white elephant. These are both valid points yet show a greater pessimism for the overall context of HSR in India than is warranted.

Presently, the fastest train in India clocks in at barely 88 kmph. Given the “people-friendly” circuitous routes Indian Railways lays out, a simple cross-peninsular journey from, say, Madras to Mangalore takes just short of 18 hours to cover the 700 kms. Similar such less-than-optimal routes abound and even considering that trains, like public buses, are not point-to-point modes of transport, three quarters of a day seems excessive to travel across the Indian peninsula. Though the circuitous route designed to cater to more people is not difficult to excuse, the extra distance must be compensated for with higher speed.

It is argued that air travel is available for those who place a premium on time. For the vast majority who travel by road and rail, the longer duration of the journey is not bothersome and factored into their schedules. However, if the only choices are between a quick hour’s flight and a painfully long 16-hour bus ride or an 18-hour schlepp on a train, there is a huge excluded middle of journey times; people are forced to choose only between two extremes of cost and time with no intermediate options.

Of course, the cost of an HSR project does not vary in relation to its position between airfares and other modes of land transportation. Estimates put the price per kilometre at anywhere between ₹100 – ₹150 crores for tracks supporting speeds of 350 kmph. This high price must be balanced with the advantages beyond just ticket sales. Europe, for example, is considering a continent-wide HSR freight network to alleviate airport congestion, the rising price of fuel, and environmental concerns. Initially, each train would be able to carry the load of seven Boeing 737 planes. Japan has also made its HSR services more efficient by introducing double-decker carriages and carrying freight. Computerised controls of train switches and speeds has allowed Japan to maximise the number of trains running at any given time on a track, thereby also lowering costs.

While convenience to commuters is first thought, HSR in India can make a difference in freight transportation. Be it courier mail services, perishables, or other items, any fast alternative to overloaded lorries should be welcome for businesses as well as private consumers. Profits from freight can be used to extend limited subsidies for commuters.

Of course, for HSR to live up to its full potential, bullet trains cannot share the already existing and crowded railway network; they would only be slowed down by regular trains and tight schedules. This requirement implies that the development of HSR be prioritised on high freight and passenger routes and be expanded gradually. Even at its fullest development, it would only serve as a skeletal system around which regular trains would serve the less densely populated settlements.

There is also this to consider – infrastructure is always expensive, be it roads, airports, dams, or schools. HSR has shown operational profitability in several countries but after government investment in the supporting infrastructure. Roads also do not generate money and its beneficiaries are too numerous and diffuse to count. Similarly, the impact of HSR over its environs can be significant: towns as far away as Aurangabad, Solapur, and Kholapaur can be brought within the orbit of Bombay, or Bellary and Davangere within Bangalore’s sphere of influence. A business trip from Thiruvananthapuram to Salem that would have previously taken at least two days can now be completed in the same day, reducing business costs. Employment, services, and salaries would be spread over a greater area, bringing prosperity to the hinterland and bringing the price of real estate in India’s overcrowded cities to saner levels.

There is no doubt that rail transportation is more efficient than roads in terms of people it carries per unit space as well as a better safety record. India’s roads present a challenge to all forms of road transportation in terms of time, safety, as well as connectivity during the monsoons. Nor are roads necessarily cheaper – the tolls between Bangalore and Madras amount to ₹355 one-way – over 70% of a bus ticket! Faster and more reliable rail transportation would not only save on hydrocarbon costs but also provide a safer alternative to roads.

One cannot forget the many airports that are not served well or the mid-sized towns without an airport due to the prohibitive price of airline connectivity. HSR would be a life link to these towns and revitalise their economy. The higher density of the Indian population compared to Europe or the United States makes HSR more viable than examples frequently cited. Even in the United States, trains in the population-dense northeast or the bay area serve far more profitable than they would in the great hinterland states like Montana, the Dakotas, or Kansas.

For the jet setters, HSR may make more sense for journeys up to 1,200 kms. The time it takes to travel to the airport, get processed, and at the other end, travel from the airport to work or home is a significant portion of the total time taken over short journeys. A three-and-half-hour train journey from Majestic, Bangalore, to Churchgate, Bombay, would be immensely preferable to the ordeal of driving out to Kempegowda International Airport and driving in from Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. On the matter of convenience, air travel since September 11 is just not what it used to be – security checks, baggage screening, baggage handling fees, and cost cutting on everything from in-flight peanuts to legroom has made air travel a necessary evil we all have to bear.

No one claims HSR to be India’s silver bullet for developmental woes. However, history has shown that generous and proper investment in infrastructure has always resulted in economic growth in the future. Presently, India’s infrastructure is dilapidated or non-existent, denying India the luxury of cheaper upgrades. Were an HSR network not to be laid out, the same funds – if not more – would have had to be dedicated to more tracks, small-to-medium airports, expansion of present airports, and widening of roads. Some of this will have to happen anyway, but HSR takes the pressure off highways, airports. and regular rail. The question is not if India can afford high-speed rail, but if it can further afford not to develop it.


This post appeared on FirstPost on November 26, 2014.