The recent stampede at a Mumbai suburban station has sparked off a debate on whether India should go for bullet trains at this stage or give priority to fixing the creaking Indian Rail infrastructure. There is some validity in the demand for first improving the existing but overworked rail system, which needed immediate modernization pending for years for want of funds.
Over indulgence in populism for several decades has driven the Indian Railways to the current sorry state of affairs and several experts have warned many times over that the rail system could collapse any time. Frequent accidents particularly derailments are attributed to overworked system. Apart from tracks renewal, signaling system needed urgent repairs. Ageing rail bogies, which needed to be condemned, are still being run by extending their life.
One is at a loss to know why Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen on Bullet trains when the economics do not justify it now, perhaps electoral compulsions as Gujarat is going to polls next year. Bullet trains are a good option in small countries with populous cities not at a distance beyond 200-300 kms as in Japan and many countries in Europe. The economics do not work in large countries where one has to travel quite a distance between two cities. United States is one example. Despite U.S being most advanced country in the world, it does not have bullet trains. People there prefer to go by air as travel time is much less, one third of bullet trains, and cost wise much less.
It costs nearly Rs 200 crore to construct one km of track for bullet train. Taking into consideration high running cost as well, ticketing cost, as per current prices, will work out to around Rs 7-8 a km in India. This is one of the reasons train travel in not cheap in Europe and Japan where it is at times more expensive than air travel.
At present Rajdhani fare works out to around Re 1 a km for air-conditioned travel. Airfare in India is around Rs 3-4 per km, sometimes even less in budget airlines. The costing therefore does not justify the investment of Rs 1.08 lakh crore proposed for setting up Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train corridor of a little over 500 km.
Instead, it will be worthwhile to spend this money in modernization of railways and new freight corridors connecting four metros of Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai and two diagonals. Also, by spending just Rs 5 crore a Km on existing tracks in India, the railways could run passenger trains at a speed of 200 km per an hour. It defies logic to spend 40 times more per km to build elevated tracks for bullet trains that runs at a speed of 300-320 km per hour.
Indian Railways are already building two freight corridors connecting Delhi and Mumbai and another Ludhiana-Kolkata via Delhi. The first one is being built with Japanese assistance, and second one, with World Bank assistance. The Railways have proposed to build three more corridors, connecting Kolkata and Chennai, Delhi and Chennai and Kolkata-Mumbai. They are being delayed for want of funds. The Golden Quadrilateral and the two diagonals connecting the four metros account for only 17 per cent of the total railway network, but accounted for nearly 60 per cent of the passenger and goods traffic in the country. So by prioritizing freight corridors, the existing system can be totally freed for passenger traffic, which could be upgraded by spending a mere Rs 5 crore per km. This would moderinse Indian railways drastically. Apart from speeding of passenger trains from 100 km per hour to 200 km per hour, the capacity to carry passenger trains would double on this golden quadrilateral and two diagonals with goods trains being run on freight corridors. The speed of good trains on freight corridors too would more than double to around 70 km an hour. The goods trains run at average 25 km per hour in the existing choked tracks connecting four metros. Besides goods trains can run as per time schedule in freight corridors, which is not possible in the present clogged tracks. One argument that is forwarded in favour of bullet trains is that Japan is providing Rs 1.08 lakh crore loan only for Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet trains and that too at 0.1 per cent interest over a 50 year period. This is not true as the loans extended by JICA for metro projects and freight corridors too are soft loans. Secondly Japan is presently having negative interest rates and the economy is in bad shape. So Bullet train will only help reviving Japanese economy besides providing better interest for its capita. Instead the same loan could have been secured for more freight corridors or metros, which are badly needed for rail and city transport infrastructure in the country. This too would have helped Japanese economy revive and modernized Indian railways rapidly.
In fact, Indian Railways require nearly 10 lakh crore capital investment in the next five years to modernize tracks, set up freight corridors and improving signaling system to make rail travel safe, speedier and more comfortable.
One is not against bullet trains but it needed to be prioritized. Indian railway could even contemplate hyperloop, an improvement over bullet trains for inter-city travel like Delhi-Chandigarh, Delhi-Agra, Chennai-Bengaluru, Mumbai- Pune etc, which involves travel time of less than an hour. Travel by air for such short distance is more cumbersome and more expensive. But this high-speed train or hyperloop travel should be taken up only after creaking Indian railways is fixed for which money is not forthcoming including the foot overbridge at Parel that led to stampede killing nearly two dozen people.
(K.R. Sudhaman, has been Editor in Press Trust of India, Economics Editor in TickerNews and Financial Chronicle)