Mains Issue #7: High Speed Railways in India

Weekly Issue for Mains UPSC Civil Services
Anti Defection and Toppling of State Governments

High Speed Railways has captured the imagination of public discourse in India especially after the proposal of connecting Mumbai-Ahmedabad with a bullet train. The government formed an entity called the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited ahead of Railway Budget 2016 to implement the project. But at an estimated expenditure of Rs.98,000 crore the feasibility of such a project has been shrouded in uncertainty?

What is High Speed Railways After All?

High Speed Railways does not have a clear cut definition. Generally it is referred to as a type of rail that travels significantly faster than traditional rail traffic. It uses an integrated system of specialised rolling stock and dedicated tracks.

While there is no single standard that applies worldwide, new lines in excess of 250 km/h and existing lines in excess of 200 km/h are widely considered to be high-speed, with some extending the definition to include much lower speeds (e.g. 160 km/h) in areas for which these speeds still represent significant improvements.

The first such system began operations in Japan in 1964 and was widely known as the bullet train. High speed rail programs have been successful in Japan, China and several European countries such as France, Germany and Spain.

What are the Benefits of High Speed Railways?

The benefits include reduced journey times that impact individuals and business, connectivity benefits to populations and markets, increased passenger comfort, mode shifts from more polluting air and road transport and consequently, lower road congestion. High speed rail can create agglomeration benefits i.e., benefits that accrue from the clustering together of firms and labour markets, and regeneration benefits for an area. The actual construction also provides an opportunity for employment and the potential for technology transfer.

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) published a study on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai train line. It visualised two scenarios. To determine the effects of the bullet train, the study presents two scenarios over the 2010-2050 horizon.

1) Business-as-Usual: Conventional rail use increases insignificantly. This is because better roads increase road usage, especially for inter-city travel. Overall, road transport’s share reduces because road trips by bus and car between Mumbai and Ahmedabad  will fall with an increase in relative travel time compared to other modes(air travel); this fall is partly offset by increased intercity travel.

2) High Speed Rail (HSR) scenario:  High speed trains cater to one-fifth of the total travel demand in 2050, and the growth rate of air travel slows, because of competition from high speed trains. The HSR solution is also cleaner; CO2 emissions in 2050 are also lower by 0.2 MT and further emission drops are possible with decarbonisation of electricity, according to the UNEP. In general, per passenger km, high speed rail has lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than road or air transport.

Where are we on the High Speed Front?

India has been planning for high speed railways for a while now.  It established High Speed Rail Corporation of India Limited as a body to oversee it in 2013. Feasibility studies for various segments of the ‘Diamond Quadrilateral’, a proposed high speed network spanning the country, connecting Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata, were initiated.

The government has pushed ahead with plans to develop a Rs.98000 crore, 505 km segment between Ahmedabad and Mumbai on which it will run “bullet” trains, as high speed trains are often called. A joint feasibility study was submitted by the Indian Railways and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

A go ahead has been given before the railway budget for National High Speed Rail Corporation that would oversee the construction and operation the bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad.

The company, which will be implementing the project, under the Indian Railways. It will be a 50:50 joint venture between the Centre and the States – Gujarat and Maharashtra. The authorised capital of the project will be ₹20,000 crore.

Getting to Semi High Speed Railways first!

In February 2014, Henri Poupart-Lafarge of Alstom, manufacturer of trains used on TGV  high speed trains in France, stated that India is at least 5–10 years away from high-speed trains. He suggested the country should first upgrade the infrastructure to handle trains travelling 100 to 120 km/hr.

As part of India’s two pronged strategy there is a focus on upgradation of existing railway system to semi high speed links parallely with bullet trains.

Indian Railways aims to increase the speed of passenger trains to 160–200 km/h on dedicated conventional tracks. They intend to improve their existing conventional lines to handle speeds of up to 160 km/h, with a goal of speeds above 200 km/h on new tracks with improved technology.

In July 2014, a trial run of a “semi-high speed train” with 10 coaches and 2 generators reached a speed of 160 km/h between New Delhi and Agra, but no date has been set for commercial operations.

Recently France’s SNCF has begun working with Indian Railways on a one-year project to study the feasibility of upgrading the 245 km New Delhi – Chandigarh line to permit the operation of ‘semi high speed’ trains at up to 200 km/h, and has agreed to support the pilot projects for a station modernisation programme.

High Speed Railways India

What are the problems with  High Speed Railways in India?

As per Vivek Sahai , former Chairman of the Railway Board, “Do we really need a train speed of 350 kmph? Speaking as a technocrat, I say we should discover the speed at which the train is profitable. If it is 350 kmph then go for it, I have no problems with that,”.

1) Infrastructure – There is serious question raised about the safety of the passengers as the infrastructure on which semi-high speed trains are proposed to run may not be able to run at such high speeds, for example it is preferred to run these trains on 60 kilogram tracks but now they are being tested on 52 kilogram tracks.

2) Investment – The current Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train has been financed upto 80% by low interest loans from Japan. India plans to invest around Rs.20000 crore of the total Rs.98000 crore. Even after foreign co-operation high speed rail requires massive investments. New modes of financing would have to be explored for it.

3) Financial Viability – Experts say it is difficult for a highly capital-intensive project of high speed railways to be financially and economically viable. Even if we assume there is no interest cost attached to the project, it is difficult to recover  Rs 98,000 crore worth of investments over the 50-year loan period.  The ridership will be a function of prices. If the prices are kept too high, footfalls will come down; and if the prices are low, there may be losses.

4) Ancillary Costs – Environmental degradation along the route, dislocation of people, noise pollution, as well as regionally imbalanced development are some of the ancillary costs that need to be factored in.

5) Integrated Transport Development – If the first 500 kms is covered in two hours using a high speed train and the remaining 50 kms via another mode is covered in another two hours, then it weakens the case for using high speed rail for that trip, when a flight may be a better option, time and price considered. There is a need for integrated development of all modes of transport.

We need to look at high speed railway as part of a bigger initiative to improve transport system in India  for success rather than a symbolic unviable project.