Some quarters in India think that developing a bullet train corridor between Ahmedabad and Mumbai at a cost of Rs 98,000 crore, which works out to Rs 185 crore per km, should not be the top priority of the government. Is it correct?
As a mode of transport, the railways’ share is now restricted to 35% and 12% in freight and passenger, respectively, compared to 88% and 68% in 1950-51. India’s railway network has now covered the length and breadth of the country, but despite that the share of railway as a mode of transport has been taking a beating over the last four decades. Today the country has about 66,000 km of railway route, and the network connecting the four metropolitan cities and its diagonals form the most heavily-loaded corridor. This network, called trunk routes, is about 10,122 km, and it forms about 15% of the total rail network, but carrying about 55% of the total railway traffic. In fact, the failure to augment capacity in these trunk routes has disabled Indian Railways, which has allowed itself to play second-fiddle to road in both passenger and freight.
The capacity constraint issue of the Indian railway network can be compared to a river and its tributaries, where the main river has not been deepened and widened enough to have the capacity to carry the water added by its tributaries. Unfortunately, in order to satisfy the political constituencies over the decades, more and more tributaries have been linked to the main river without bothering to increase its capacity. As a result, the railway segments with least traffic form about 60% (39,000 km) of the total route, but contribute only 20% of the total traffic.
For a very long time, the need for a high-speed dedicated railway network connecting trunk routes for passenger and freight movement was considered benefiting the elite and urban populace. Only by 2005, the Indian Railways thought about developing new dedicated freight corridors on its trunk routes with a speed of 100kph and started conceptualising the Dedicated Freight Corridor (DFC). To begin with, the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor (WDFC)—connecting Dadri in Uttar Pradesh to Navi Mumbai (which forms the Delhi-Mumbai route)—with financial aid from Japan was taken up and is expected to be completed by 2019. Also, some segments of the Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridor (EDFC)—connecting Ludhiana in Punjab to Dankuni in West Bengal—have already been awarded for execution and the other segments are in the planning stage. The remaining freight corridors of Golden Quadrilateral and its diagonals are in conceptual stages.
The idea behind DFC and high-speed railway (HSR) is to develop heavy-duty rail transport network on capacity-starved trunk corridors in order to tap the unfulfilled demand for both passenger and freight traffic. In the absence of such heavy-duty rail corridor, freight traffic has been shifting to the road sector, while passenger traffic has been mainly going to the road and, to a small extent, the air. The country has planned to increase the speed of both freight and passenger trains four-fold with DFC and HSR, respectively, from the current averages of 25kph and 60kph. The first DFC and HSR corridors would be operationalised in 2019 and 2024, respectively, indicating that our priorities have been correct so far.
Apart from meeting regular demand of traffic, HSR can also easily meet peak season travel demand—when trains operate at speeds of 300kph, the turnaround time becomes much shorter, resulting in high-carrying capacity.
Moreover, 70% of HSR would be plied only in morning and evening time slots during weekdays, leaving scope to ply additional trains during daytime on weekdays and throughout weekends to cater to seasonal crowds. In India, travel demand increases enormously during festival and summer holiday season, and with limited common carrier mode transport infrastructure capacity, it has been facing formidable challenges in meeting the surge in demand during such seasons.
As a part of my thesis on bullet trains, I have estimated that every 1,000 km of HSR would increase the share of railway to the total passenger transport by about 1% in the first few years, and by about 3% when HSR matures as a regular mode of transport. And with an HSR network of 10,000 km, it alone would add 30% more in the long run, increasing the share of railway in passenger transport to about 42%. On an average, every 1,000 km of HSR would add 1% to the share of railway in passenger transport, whereas every 1,000 km of conventional railway has been adding only 0.18% to this share.
DFC followed by HSR is an investment in the right direction, at the right time. It could make the railways the dominant mode of our transport system for both freight and passenger traffic.
The author is a Doctorate in Public Systems from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Views are personal