It is natural that a highly expensive project such as the 508-km Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail (HSR) with a price tag of Rs 1,10,000 crore would elicit doubts about its viability. But lampooning it on inadequate information and scrutiny, terming it as “a bullet to the head of our future generations” is avoidable. In his Indian Express column on September 23, Anil Dharker concluded that government embarked on this ‘white elephant’ “on blind faith,” without even technical evaluation of Japan’s Shinkansen system and commitment of technology transfer to India. First, there is gross misunderstanding for Dharker to believe that the cost of operating all trains to carry over 8 billion passengers and more than 1 billion tonne of cargo annually is almost equal to the cost estimated for the construction of India’s first bullet train. No, the Indian Railways’ budgeted amount of Rs 1,21,000 crore that he cites is just annual incremental capital outlay. This amount falls far short of even IR’s annual ordinary working expenses. The wherewithal required for running 13,000 passenger and 7,000 freight trains daily would amount to an astronomical figure, covering the cost of tracks, locomotives, coaches, ancillary infrastructure and workforce.
The Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR, by itself, will cater to a minuscule number among India’s rail travellers—Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains carry less than 1% of 23 million passengers who travel by rail. HSR on dedicated lines has almost everywhere been initially dubbed as elitist. Much like it happened for TGV in France and Shinkansen in Japan, a query is posed: Why to invest in such an expensive train corridor, when many other pressing schemes need resources? Let us get it clear. India’s pioneering HSR in no way crowds out other IR projects. Japan’s $12 billion assistance is not transferable to other rail projects. Recall how Delhi Metro was for long reviled as too costly and elitist, now being replicated by several cities. Almost 50 years ago, Rajdhani Express signified IR’s tryst with HSR. Rajdhanis and Shatabdis were initially reckoned by sceptics as elitist and unviable.
Concerns over depleting fossil fuel reserves, climate change, overcrowded airports, delayed flights and congested roads have catalysed HSR technology alternative, which is environmentally benign. Besides much lower energy consumption per passenger km, HSR emits one-eighth of carbon dioxide that cars emit and one-fifth of airplanes per passenger km; it requires much less land than motorways—a double track rail line has more than thrice the passenger carrying capacity of a six-lane highway while requiring less than half the land. The land used for Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris just equals the total area used for the entire TGV network across France.
HSR helps bring settlements 500-km apart within two hours of each other. It not only diverts passengers from air, rail and road, it also generates a new class of passengers. It has been a catalyst for economic growth, a stimulus for the development of satellite towns, helping alleviate migration to metropolises. Providing services from and to city centres, it serves important centres en route, providing value for time through easy access to tier-2 and tier-3 towns—tourism gets a boost, property values escalate, services sector grows in new areas.
Japanese cities serviced by Shinkansen recorded higher growth in retail, industrial and wholesale businesses than those not served. With connectivity provided by HSR with Paris, Lille and Marseilles, among others, Part-Dieu in France, for example, emerged as a successful CBD. In China, HSR stations have rapidly become centres for housing and employment—sleepy villages turned into bustling cities overnight, facilitating a wide range of economic activity, providing jobs.
TGV, operating on some routes every five minutes, is hailed as a low-cost carrier. Between Paris and Southeast France, TGV traffic doubled in 10 years and air traffic declined by half. Less than a decade ago, China had no HSR; with 22,000-km, it now has the world’s most extensive HSR network. Tickets to ride on its network of ultra-fast trains routinely sell out. Its HSR network moves twice as many passengers as its airlines. An important plus is HSR’s unblemished safety record—providing high frequency, up to 14 trains per hour, Shinkansen has maintained a unique record of no fatal accident for 50 years, and TGV sans any accident in 30 years.
HSR fares—for increased speed, reliability, comfort—are normally higher than conventional rail. The Shinkansen fare includes a surcharge that doubles the fare for conventional trains. HSR fares in China are around thrice conventional train fares. Most HSR lines recover their operating and maintenance costs. The first Paris-Lyon line opened in 1981 and the Paris-Atlantic seaboard route in 1990 delivered a return of 15% and 12%, respectively.
Revenues from fare box collections are appreciably buttressed, in particular by commercial development in and around HSR stations. Japan’s JR East Group operates over 40 hotels, offers some 177,000 retail locations at stations, and earns advertising revenues from 17 million daily footfalls. HSR also wins some of the air freight business—freight represents 10-15% of TGV revenues. While debating “the relevance of high speed” in European Parliament in January 2014, it was argued that “direct system costs” and external costs are balanced against benefits defined as “commercial revenues, external cost advantages and monetised user benefits from total travel time savings.”
To say that India’s bullet train project has gone with no proper technical evaluation of chosen technology is incorrect. The proposal has been examined for over 30 years, since Madhavrao Scindia first proposed its introduction in the mid-1980s. A detailed feasibility study for a dedicated 250kmph train on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route was done in 2005 and again in 2013. In addition to the techno-economic feasibility study scrutinised by IR, a project appraisal done by government-appointed innovative collaboration committee examined the Japanese proposal technologically and financially, besides the very rationale of HSR in India.
Time on IR has run still, when the world witnesses HSR flurry. The European Commission 2011 White Paper envisaged tripling of HSR network by 2030 and completion of “a coherent network” by 2050 at an estimated cost of 300-500 billion euros. South Korea launched in April 2004 the 412-km Seoul-Busan HSR. Turkey, Hungary, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Russia and the US are resolutely poised to expand HSR network.
Habitually timid and tardy, India always tries to ‘catch up’ rather than set the benchmark. A nation of India’s size, potential and aspirations has to envision its destiny, dream big and bold, sometimes with irrational exuberance. For want of appropriate railway product and its capacity crunch, India’s domestic air travel grows 15-20% annually. Hawai chappalwala now rides hawai jahaz. As an aspirational project, HSR will help IR build international standards of engineering and services, also project execution with Japanese forte—quality and excellence.
The project provides for Japan to transfer not only Shinkansen rail tech, but it will also train Indian workforce in sophisticated construction technologies. Through entire value chain with thousands of suppliers, ‘Make in India’ will get a fillip. The HSR corridor has the potential to be an inflection point as Maruti generated for India’s automobile industry; it could build a structure essential for the transformation of India’s lifeline. What monetary value will we put for India imbibing some spirit of Japanese quest and commitment for excellence?
Shinkansens whizz 125,000 passengers a day on trains that zoom out of city centres, with no reservation needed—their average delay never exceeding an incredible 36 seconds!