High-speed trains and expressways have only led to progress in countries where it exists. These hi-speed tracks will get the required wealth for our country once the project is set, feel experts
India and Japan are set to ink an agreement on High-Speed Railway (HSR) services, popularly called Bullet Trains, during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit this weekend.
The Nikkei business daily said India and Japan would issue a joint statement agreeing to a rail project worth about Rs98,000 crore rupees ($14.6 billion) during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s three-day visit to India, which began on Friday. The introduction of high-speed links and bullet trains was one of the key campaign promises of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The first HSR is planned between 505-km distance of Mumbai and Ahmedabad in western India, cutting short the travel time from existing eight hours to two hours. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and India’s Ministry of Railways had already begun a joint feasibility study on high-speed rail two years ago. The final report of this study that was submitted in July 2015 recommended for India the pattern of Shinkansen bullet trains that run in Japan.
Japan was, in fact, the first country to build dedicated railway lines for high-speed travel called the Shinkansen (which literally means New Trunk Lines). The first line opened in 1964 between the 515-km distance of Tokyo and Shin-Ōsaka, something similar to the proposed Mumbai and Ahmedabad corridor. As of March 2015, the fastest service takes 2 hours 22 minutes from Tokyo to Shin-Osaka at a speed of 285 kmph. Japan has been trying to sell its technology to various countries, but recently lost in Indonesia to China. As of now, Japan has successfully sold its bullet train technology to Taiwan and India, if decides to go ahead, would be the second country.
What JICA report says?
The final feasibility report submitted by the JICA in July 2015, said bullet trains on the 505-km Mumbai-Ahmedabad route will achieve a maximum speed of 350kmph, cutting travel time to two hours from more than seven hours it takes now. JICA’s recommendations include a rail track of 1,435mm width, standard in global use of HSR trains known as the standard gauge, which is now also used for Metro trains (Indian Railways’ trains run on something called broad gauge, which is 1676mm, a bit wider). The JICA report states that high-speed running trains of over 300kmph are done on the standard gauge across the world.
The cost has been estimated at Rs98,805 crore inclusive of price escalation and interest during the seven-year construction phase from 2017 to 2023. The Japanese will provide a full range of equipment, from rails, trains and operation systems. The projected one-way fare of the journey will be about Rs2,800. (The highest existing fare between Mumbai-Ahmedabad train is that of Mumbai Shatabdi Express (First Class) of Rs1,920 and the air fare is around Rs1,720 per person with a flight taking just 70 minutes for the journey). The report adds that the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route will include construction of 318km of embankments, 162km of viaduct, and 11 tunnels with a total length of 27.01km. The line will have 12 stations in all, with two-minute halts at Surat and Vadodara. The recommendations said the planning, design and bidding process will be completed by 2017 and commercial operations can begin by 2024.
Too many questions
The first thing that strikes one is the huge cost-- Rs98,805 crore loan. As the Nikkei business daily, quoting Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, itself says India ranks as the second-biggest recipient of Japanese-government-backed yen loans as of fiscal 2013, with a running total of 4.45 trillion yen. This HSR railway loan deal of Rs98,000 crore could push India as the largest borrower ahead of Indonesia. How do we repay such a huge loan? Will the bullet train be patronised so much so as to recover the loan money? Won’t it burden the Indian Railways forever? Well, here are some explanations.
Firstly, the loan remains independent of existing Indian Railway finances. The JICA feasibility report has taken into account the interest rates and seven-year construction cost and itself states that a substantial part of the income will be generated from real estate, like has been done in other countries. This means the stations and termini of the HSR will have commercial exploitation of land as their prices shoot up. Moreover, as the operations settle down and gain momentum, they will gain stability and is less likely to turn into a white elephant. Also, the JICA report itself estimates that by 2023 around 40,000 passengers are expected to avail this service every day, a senior railway ministry official explained.
But do we need the project at all? There is much scope of improvement in the present state of Indian Railways. Services remain poor, there are delays and several problems. Why can’t we improve the existing infrastructure and run faster trains there?
Officers say as of today, Indian Railways runs 19,000 trains every day. Of these 12,000 trains ferry over 23 million passengers per day connecting about 8,000 stations spread across the sub-continent. Among the fastest running trains on Indian Railways are the Mumbai-Delhi Rajdhani Express and the Bhopal-Delhi Shatabdi Express, which average to 90-100 kmph. Running trains faster than that many a times becomes impossible due to heavy traffic, congestion and lack of track infrastructure. A trial run of a faster train called the Gatiman Express at speeds of 160kmph has been successfully conducted between Delhi and Agra, but awaiting safety clearances from the Commissioner of Railway Safety. But this will be a one-off fast train.
Faster trains on existing tracks cannot go beyond that. To build really fast services above 200kmph, what we need is a dedicated corridor for a free run, fenced and compatible tracks. This is what is now being proposed between Mumbai and Ahmedabad as India’s showcase project.
India has plans for seven high-speed-rail corridors, starting with this one. Moreover, the Indian Railways has to offer a bouquet of services that means services of all kinds that will cater to the poorest passenger halting at all stations to the fastest one to compete with airlines and push forward the economy. And for these fast corridors, we need to start building the HSR. And now is the time to begin, given the time of construction that it will take and the time to settle down.
Vivek Sahai, former Chairman of India’s Railway Board, the top-most authority, is, however, sceptical. He feels that India should try the bullet train project with caution. “I feel it could prove to be a while elephant as if you think practically, enough number of passengers need to patronise it so that the loan could be paid off on time. I am afraid it will push India into a big loan debt for such an ambitious project.”
“A car could always take four people comfortably between the 500-km distance of Mumbai and Ahmedabad at less than half the cost or so will planes. We are looking at speeds of 300kmph, but if you actually run a train, given the curves, halts and inclines, the average speed will not go beyond 200-220 per kmph. A Rajdhani Express today already takes a max speed of 130kmph. What I suggest is that we should do it phases—upgrading our lines to speeds of 200/250kmph and later jump on to the 300/350kmph bandwagon. I am sure we can do it,” Sahai said.
The argument is that the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor already has multiple options of highways and flights that ferry passengers comfortably. The two cities are powers of India’s economy. If a high-speed train can ferry passengers in Rs2,800 in two hours, a plane already does it in 70 minutes in less than Rs2,000. The point is countered by officials of the High Speed Railway Corporation interestingly. What railways will offer passengers is an easy access better than airports and faster connectivity.
The official says, “An airport has its own set of procedures, which sometimes get tedious and time consuming. Moreover, the airline industry in a way continues to remain in a state of flux and is not always able to cater to demands. We do not know how the state would be in 2025 by when the HSR would be ready. Moreover, the HSR will not only develop yet another classy option, but also become a formidable alternative.”
There is another very crucial point. “Just look at what is happening in Delhi. The pollution is killing the city and now we have to come to running limited vehicles with alternative number plates. The climate change and environment threat is a reality staring at our face. The amount of fuel consumed and pollution by air traffic remains a challenge. The HSR will offer a friendly environment, electrified railway with minimal environment damage. In fact, the HSR will be applying for carbon credits as it will use less than half the energy consumed by flights. So, this will be the future,” he said.
Plus another reason for selecting this small corridor is to make it work so that it becomes a template for the other planned corridors across the country, he added.
We can and we should
Subodh Jain, former Member (Engineering) of Railway Board, who is very passionate about the project, says India needs to do it now and take the jump. “India needs to make a beginning somewhere, if India has to progress. Most of the developed countries have tried it and we should embark on the ambitious project right away. If we do not start now, we will be left behind by the time 2025 arrives,” he said.
Asked about the huge loan and pay-offs later, Jain said it is a wrong notion that it will turn into a white elephant. “Just look at other countries, the high speed trains and hi-speed expressways have only led to progress of their countries. These hi-speed tracks will get the required wealth for our country once the project is set,” he said.
“My only issue is the cost. The Chinese HSR project could have come cheaper in cost than the Japanese could, but nevertheless, we need to always explore options. But the best option would have been that instead of going to other countries like China and Japan, we should develop our own model that the world can replicate tomorrow. We have the capability,” he said.
B Rajaram, former Managing Director of Konkan Railway, inventor of Skybus and Anti-Collision Device (ACD), who did a hi-speed run on the Konkan Railway in 2003 feels India can achieve it internally, if done sincerely. “I did deliver higher speeds at lower costs with the help of an indigenous know how and existing infrastructure. Our train’s trial run between Madgaon (Goa) and Roha (near Mumbai) averaged at 150kmph continuously over a 400km stretch,” he said.
He said, the government needs to develop such a hi-profile project through the Build Operate and Own (BOO) method. “The ideal way would be to short-list countries, invite letters of intent and let India authorise any HSR company floated with any private party as a partner registered in India. Let the company acquire/lease land without government involvement. The company constructs the line and submits itself to the Commissioner of Railway Safety. If followed such steps, it can be completed within four years and without much government involvement,” he added.
(Rajendra B Aklekar has been a journalist for 20 years and author of Halt Station India, best-selling book on history of India's 1st railway line, short-listed for the non-fiction award at the Bangalore Literary Festival 2015)