Does India need a Bullet Train?
G.S. Paper III: Infrastructure: Railways; Science and Technology – developments and their applications and effects in everyday life.
There has been an ongoing debate on whether India should go for bullet trains or not.
The high-speed rail (HSR) owes its genesis to the competition railways faced from fast-moving automobiles and airplanes.
Owning a HSR network has become a status symbol for nations.
The Mumbai Ahmedabad High Speed Rail Corridor:
The Negatives side:
The Bullet Train Project has little or no justification on the grounds of economic viability or public service. Hence it is a Vanity Project.
Only a handful of high-income countries with specific demographics have high- speed rail (HSR), while many have failed in their efforts or have abandoned it after studying it.
The Problem of Viability:
The main problem with the Bullet Train project as far as India is concerned is its viability, given the huge costs involved.
Experience The World Over:
Japan’s pioneering Shinkansen, which connects Tokyo to Osaka, passes through the biggest industrial and commercial centres, caters to almost 50% of Japan’s population, and carries more than 150 million passengers annually.
South Korea’s Seoul-Busan HSR caters to almost 70% of the population, yet struggles with viability.
France’s fabled Paris-Lyon HSR service has had to periodically receive substantial subsidies.
Taiwan’s $14 billion HSR service between Taipei and Tainan virtually became bankrupt after losses of over $1 billion.
Choosing Upgradation over High Speed:
Argentina gave up on HSR ambitions on cost grounds, deciding instead to upgrade its entire railway system to medium-speed infrastructure, an option India should seriously consider.
Even the U.S. is tentatively initiating a San Francisco-Los Angeles corridor, and is still unsure about the densely populated industrial-commercial Philadelphia-Boston-New York-Washington DC corridor.
A Costly Affair with High Tariff for company:
The Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR costs around ₹1 lakh crore.
The tariff is too high — air fares between the two cities are around ₹2,500. Subsidies appear inevitable.
Subsidies for agriculture, education and healthcare are taboo, but subsidies for the rich seem unproblematic.
Spending for the Rich and The Privileged:
Should India spend over ₹1 lakh crore for a 508-km HSR used by well-heeled passengers when over 90% of rail passengers in India travel by sleeper class or lower class for thousands of kilometres?
The Railways should get investment for new tracks and upgrading services for 90% of the travelling public and it should be done on a war footing.
The Myth of Technology Absorption:
A myth being propagated is that this project will have knock-on effects on technology absorption by India through future HSR projects which is an impossibility.
Another myth is that the Japanese funding at 0.1% interest with a 15-year moratorium is “almost free.”
Many business analysts have pointed out that the repayment amount will amount to ₹1.5 lakh crore over 20 years allowing for exchange rates and comparative inflation.
Positives side of the argument:
Before the current government, the United Progressive Alliance-led government had also committed itself to the bullet train, as was evident in the Railway Budget speeches.
The High Speed Rail Corporation:
The ‘Vision 2020’ document presented to Parliament also speaks of HSR.
In 2012, the High Speed Rail Corporation was set up.
In May 2013, during Prime Minister of India’s visit to Japan, it was decided that the two countries would co-finance a joint feasibility study for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed corridor.
A deserving member of the High Speed Rail Fraternity:
There are 15 countries worldwide in the exclusive high-speed rail fraternity.
Despite being the third largest railway network in the world, in terms of kilometres of track and the number of passengers who travel, India does not have a single high-speed corridor.
The Highest Priority of Railways today: Safety
There is no denying that the present infrastructure of the Railways should be strengthened to avert accidents and highest priority to safety must be given when it comes to investment, operation, maintenance of the rail network.
The Congested Networks of the Present:
The present system of running trains on a congested network at the cost of maintenance and safety has to give way to safety consciousness in operations.
The government had announced a plan to spend ₹8.5 lakh crore in infrastructure in 2014 and it should be possible to renovate or upgrade all safety infrastructures in a span of two years by prioritising this investment.
India needs both Bullet Trains and Conventional Rail Network:
Comparing the investment in the bullet train project with investment in renovation and upgradation of conventional railways is impractical.
Both dimensions are necessary for India.
Lesson from China:
We should take a cue from China which has developed a network of 22,000 km of HSR over the past 15 years and it further plans to expand it to 30,000 km by 2020.
HSR is a growth multiplier as it leads to greater mobility.
Unlike air travel, which is expensive and less energy-efficient, bullet trains will make the stations en route hubs for economic and industrial growth.
De congestion of Metro Cities:
HSR also means de-congestion of metropolitan cities as traffic will be diverted from road to rail.
The Bullet Train is safer, faster, and economically viable with a 11.8% rate of return. It will increase investment in infrastructure, ignite the economy, and create jobs.
A New Dimension to Transportation:
HSR is a new dimension to transportation and it is a different and distinct business independent of conventional railways like the Metro Rail.
China leveraged this phenomenon to the hilt by introducing high-speed trains on its network in the nineties, and can now boast of owning the world’s largest HSR network.
It is but natural for India to aspire to join the exclusive club of nations having a HSR network.
A Capital Intensive Venture:
The HSR is a highly capital intensive project.
And above all, India just doesn’t have the technology for running trains at high speeds.
Japan, France and China all took a decade or more to upgrade their rail systems to reach a speed of 250 kmph and beyond to qualify for wearing the tag of having a HSR network.
Getting Technology and Finance for the project:
By adopting the Shinkansen technology owned by Japan and wrangling a sizeable loan through the Japan International Cooperation Agency, India has tried to kill two birds of Technology and Fiance with one stone.
Fears of Cost Escalation:
It has now been decided to have the entire alignment on a viaduct design of construction for the bullet train.
Such design adopted for construction of metro lines anywhere in India has always cost more.
Viability in Doubt:
If the project is actually going to cost around ₹150,000 crore, then its viability will come under a big question mark.
Inflation in cost will compel the management to inflate the cost of the ticket when the operations commence.
The experience world over is that no HSR line has become profitable until it garners a ridership of 50 million passengers a year.
Hence India should carefully take up the project of Bullet train and should make sure there are no cost escalations or administrative or procedural delays for the execution of the project.