Does India really need high speed trains

This is the question Narendra Modi should be really asking himself. The Prime Minister is a pragmatic man and is also savvy in evaluating the cost benefit of any project before jumping headlong into it. So how has Modi agreed to pursue the Diamond Quadrilateral Rail Project that will connect the four metros with high speed rail?

Modi is a man in a hurry and all his recent statements and actions by way of reaching out to the international community seem to point to someone who wants to rush into positioning himself as a statesman on the global stage, before consolidating his position at home.

Take his pet high-speed train dream project that he wishes to launch as his signature project. But at what cost and what benefit?

Cost benefit overview of the Ahmedabad-Mumbai project

Two project feasibility studies are underway to determine the challenges and feasibility of the high speed trains. One is initiated by the French company SNCF, while the other by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Both reports should be ready by 2015 and may throw more light on the viability of the project.

The project is likely to cost Rs 60,000 crore. That’s a lot of money to move a set of elite people between the two cities. Let’s take a closer look at this objective.

Today the travel time between Ahmedabad and Mumbai by train is around 8 hours and around 1 hour by flight.  The current air fare for Bangalore-Chennai ranges from Rs 1,700 to Rs 2,800, while Ahmedabad-Mumbai is around Rs 5,000.

Let’s take a base fare at Rs 3,000 for comparison. The high speed bullet train is not meant to move freight, but only passengers. At a cost of Rs 60,000 crore, the actual fare on no-profit no-loss basis would not be less than Rs 6,000–Rs 8,000 on the proposed high speed train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai.

So if transporting people quickly is the objective, simply increasing the number of flights between the cities will ensure quick travel and with increased competition, lower cost. This will not cost the Government anything i.e. on account of aircraft acquisition. Whereas, the train project is going to require the railways to block Rs 60,000 crore, whose break-even will take decades!

China operates the world’s largest network of high speed trains and all lines are presently running at a loss. They are years away from breaking even, barring the Beijing-Shanghai line.

Railway Minister Sadanand Gowda recently commented that the railways needed upwards of $84 billion to fund existing projects! So with this backlog of needed investment, is it prudent to pump Rs 60,000 crore into a single connectivity between two cities, when an improved air connectivity can easily address the need for faster travel?

Unless the Government heavily subsidizes the fare, the cost for a one way journey will have to be well above Rs 7,000! How many Indians will bear that cost just to save a few hours of travel time, when flying option is available and at a much cheaper cost?

And if the fares are subsidized, it will be the citizens of India who will have to finance the cost of subsidy, all just to enable some privileged people to travel a few hours faster. It just doesn’t make logical or economic sense to push a high speed rail network of the type being proposed.

What is immediately needed?

What India needs and on priority is an efficient dedicated freight train network that can move double decker containers at a relatively faster speed. An efficient freight network can spur the economy and generate adequate revenues, which in turn can fund priority modernization programmes that are long pending with the railways. We need a golden quadrilateral for dedicated freight (repeat freight) movement. This is an absolute must.

This needs to be followed by a general increase in train speeds up to 160-180 kmph. This is feasible with relatively lesser investment on track and rolling stock improvement and can mark a significant improvement in overall passenger traffic.

Beyond this, there are several top priority areas that need immediate investment and they are:

Track modernization

The railways need to rapidly upgrade vast kilometres of rail track that require urgent replacement. The focus of the railways should be to increase the speed of the current freight trains, followed by passenger trains.

Today, the so-called super-fast trains like the Shatabdi and Rajdhani run at an average speed of under 100 kmph, whereas it is feasible to upgrade the existing lines to move trains at average speeds of around 160-200 kmph. This in itself would be a major improvement. The Government could focus on regional inter-city connections as a first priority and then look at longer distance train connectivity.

With an efficient air connectivity, the need for speed can easily be met for those that need to travel faster, but it absolutely does not make sense to pump in Rs 60,000 crore into building one high speed rail line for select passengers. With an investment of this size, the entire track network for western railways could be upgraded and modernized instead of just the Ahmedabad-Mumbai rail link.

So would the citizens of India prefer a faster and safer network of rail track covering entire western railway or would they like to pay a heavy amount just to travel a few hours faster between Ahmedabad-Mumbai? Especially when they can cover the distance in just I hour and at a much cheaper cost, by taking a flight?

Signal & telecommunication

The railways needs to urgently modernize the signal and telecommunication system on the entire network to ensure safer travel. The trains require more efficient and integrated telecommunication system between the approaching station, the train, railway crossings and the regional DRM office, to ensure that the route coordination and route rationalization is efficient and safe.

The Indian Railways faces up to the daily challenge of operating a vast network of railways but continues to be under pressure to keep the system safe. Urgent investment in technology is the need of the hour and repeated accidents are testimony that the system needs to be upgraded immediately. It requires large investments.

Locomotive modernization

The current locomotives are energy guzzlers and do not meet up to the efficient standards of energy consumption or haulage capacity that is already available worldwide.

There is an urgent need to modernize the locomotives for heavy duty haulage of double or even triple decker container rakes. In addition, there is a need to increase the speed of the passenger train movement. This requires more efficient locomotives that consume less energy for higher output.

Here again, the railways have to open up to international investment and technology transfer. Companies like General Electric are waiting for the railways to open its doors and it is time we made investments in areas that should have been an ongoing priority, in the first place.

Rail coach modernization

India’s rolling stock needs urgent replacement, both for freight and passenger movement. There is urgent need to introduce lighter but stronger rolling stock using a combination of new-age materials. The use of modern rolling stock, along with energy efficient locomotives, can together significantly reduce operating costs by over 25%.

Today, the operating costs of the railways (personnel cost excluded) is high and needs to be brought down on priority. The move will help free up capital to fund other areas of desperately needed railway modernization.

Review required

Mr Modi, will investment in overall modernization of railways add to India’s GDP or will one high speed passenger train achieve that?

More challenging questions are on the way!

Sir, you need to re-look at the numbers and priorities, once again. There are many ways to leave a mark in history but this certainly is not one of them.

 

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