India does not need obsolete technologies like high-speed rail, says Bibop Gresta, Chairman and Co-founder of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies. In an interview with FE Online’s Smriti Jain and Arunava Biswas, Gresta elaborates on his company’s plans to bring India’s first Hyperloop technology to Andhra Pradesh’s Amaravati and Vijaywada. The Hyperloop network is expected to cut the travel time between the two cities to just 5 minutes! Gresta also talks about how India can take a leapfrog in building infrastructure. Edited excerpts:
What made you choose the Vijaywada-Amaravati route for India?
We have been working in India for 1 year in several states in India. After meeting Modi and Nitin Gadkari, we immediately started working concretely in local states to see where is the most interesting opportunity for our technology. We have been in Maharashtra, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Goa. In all the states that we went to, we spoke to ministers and analysed the possible scenarios and routes. We have had several meetings with CM Chandrababu Naidu. We analysed various opportunities and saw that the Vijaywada-Amaravati corridor was interesting for both the government and us.
What are the timelines that you are eyeing for this project?
We have been quick to move…as fast as we could have moved. We have signed an MoU in a record time. We are working on the contract and as soon as that is in place we can start the feasibility study. We will conduct the feasibility study in maximum 6 months time. As soon as that is done, we will be ready to start work. We have lined up investors. Our model is unique. It is not like the normal way that we propose infrastructure. Infrastructure usually needs giant amount of subsidies from the state and they are never recouped, especially if you talk about high-speed rail. Our model will be able to make money.
This will be a Public-Private Partnership in which the state will put 30% and we put in the rest through a series of private investors. The state is the first one that recoups the investment and then the private investors. We have a system that can be the new backbone of the Indian economy. The purpose of Hyperloop is not just to make travel faster across the country, but also to make an efficient system. This system will allow transport problems by giving us a system that doesn’t require subsidies.
What is the ‘Make in India’ potential of the project?
We are in a partnership model that involves 11 local players. We will produce as much as we can using the local talent and skills. India has amazing engineering and manufacturing facilities. We want to take advantage of this. So this partnership with 11 local partners is to analyse as much as local elements for Hyperloop as possible. To give an example, for the Hyperloop tube we are looking at companies. We want companies with construction and engineering experience.
What is the expected cost of the project and are you in talks to raise investment for this PPP venture?
We already have a line of interested local investors for the feasibility study and the construction.
What is the maximum speed that Hyperloop will be able to achieve?
We need to see the data from the feasibility study. We can say that we will be the fastest connection on the earth between two points.
Are there any India-specific challenges that you foresee in bringing the technology here?
When I started working in India a year ago, everybody told me that it’s crazy because India is notorious for bureaucratic impediments. For me the lack of infrastructure in India is an opportunity. India can leapfrog into a new generation of technologies without passing through the intermediary, obsolete technologies like high-speed rail.
You say that India should not invest in obsolete technologies like high-speed rail. What is your take on the debate of bullet trains versus Hyperloop?
India has just embarked on the journey of high-speed rail, but we already know what is the outcome. The system will be obsolete in the next few years. The bullet train system will never recoup its investment and will require constant subsidies. This means that it will require constant injection of tax payers money to sustain it. On the other hand, Hyperloop is a technology that can repay in time its investments especially in densely populated areas like in India, this will become a source of revenue for the state. There are limited resources on this planet and we must use technology so as to make maximum use of the resources. When you build High-Speed Rail(HSR), you are disrupting land and building a giant infrastructure project, as a result the value of the land decreases.
If you go to a farmer and ask for land to build HSR, and in exchange, you say that we will give you pollution and noise, what do you think the farmer will do, he will fight. Whereas, Hyperloop is a completely different proposition, you go to the farmer and say, give me a square, maybe 5 square meters, another square in 30 meters, in reality, we are taking a little piece of land, in exchange I will give them a little bit of profit on every passenger that passes over the land. Hyperloop can also be built on top of a highway and railway infrastructure. There won’t be much problem in land acquisition as compared to what we have seen in the past. In Hyperloop, we see that it will help us in solving traditional problems and it will be more efficient as compared to HSR.
In terms of cost, how much does the bullet train project cost as compared to Hyperloop?
It depends on several factors. In some counties, it has been shown that the cost would be half of high-speed rail. But, for India, we need to do a feasibility study to put in comparison the two. The question is not about cost but how fast we can recoup the investment. There are certain examples of HSR, where passenger handling is separated from infrastructure and all the debt is put in one company and profit is shown in the other company. This is cheating. I am talking about real profits and in case of HSR investments are never recouped. In case of Hyperloop in 8-10 years there is a Return on Investment (RoI). In India, we are analysing two routes where we will be transporting one million people a day and in that case, the RoI is even shorter.
What has been your interaction with Indian bureaucrats and ministers? Do you think India is an open economy or there will be hurdles?
We are talking with the Indian government and right now the beginning has been very amazing. These people are very serious about the project, they listen and carefully watch the technical presentations. Our scientists have shared knowledge and they are very keen about that, this is very comforting. You can see whether a politician is serious and looking for a solution. This is the first phase, the real challenge will begin when we will discuss implementation. We are ready for any challenges and if I see anything wrong I will tell you.
Right now we are engaging in an infrastructural project that will be a model for all Indians. I have told the entire team in India that this should be an example of transparency, honesty and clarity. If anyone asks for anything, he or she should be exposed immediately. We will show to the world that India is a very good place with very good people. I like the Hyperloop team in India, they are young and dynamic.