Indian rail picking up speed

Published on Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Published by Sharad Saxena on Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Indian Railways station in Hassanpura, Jaipur.
Indian Railways station in Hassanpura, Jaipur.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of wonderfully scenic journeys on an Indian Railways train going to exotic destinations all over the country.

A truly fascinating enterprise, it’s the fourth largest railway network in the world, transporting a staggering number of nearly 23 million passengers every day. Speed, however, has not been a priority, and India’s fastest trains operate at an average 70-80 kilometers per hour (km/h). Compare that the high-speed trains in the People’s Republic of China or Japan’s Shinkansen, which move at an average 230-250 km/h. It is evident that Indian Railways has certainly lagged behind when it comes to speed.

In the past few years, government-owned Indian Railways has often toyed with the idea of developing high-speed trains. Since the first announcement was made in the 2000-2001 national transport budget, many feasibility studies have been conducted, proposals made, and even a special High-Speed Rail Corporation was set up. The ideas, though, remained on paper and never translated into reality.

One reason for the delays was of course strong opposition to the idea of a high-speed railway system in India because it’s prohibitively expensive, and the government can ill-afford to invest in such a system. Also, with the financial situation of Indian Railways not being in the pink of health, these arguments did strike a chord, and made many people wonder whether India could really afford high-speed trains.

Apart from the cost, the, critics also claimed that the funds could be better spent on maintaining existing rail lines or developing other priority railway infrastructure projects. Not to mention other issues like cost recovery, willingness of passengers to pay a higher price for faster trains, etc. The arguments just go on and on.

Skeptics, however, do tend to forget that many countries have taken on the challenge of developing high-speed rail, and are now quite satisfied with the outcome. For example, the Shinkansen is a symbol of national pride for Japan. Tokyo-Osaka, the best-known bullet train line, was built some 40 years back and is perhaps the most heavily travelled high-speed rail route in the world. The success of this line has led to the gradual development of an extensive high-speed rail network throughout the country. More recently, the PRC has developed the world’s largest high-speed rail network, which it is still expanding. This has had a transformative effect on the Chinese people’s mobility and travel patterns.

In my view, the issue is a no-brainer. India is a huge, densely populated country. Rail is the best way to move a large number of people over long distances, and certainly making trains faster will make rail an increasingly attractive option compared to air travel. There are also many other spin-off benefits of such projects, as has been ably demonstrated by the Delhi Metro project.

Initially perceived as very risky with the usual complaints about high capital costs, ridership and implementation challenges, the successful delivery of the Delhi Metro has silenced all critics. It is now acknowledged as a world-class public transport system which has literally changed the way we Indians perceive major infrastructure projects in terms of timely execution, efficiency of operations, and cleanliness — all concepts that were almost alien to public transport infrastructure in India until now. The metro is now the backbone of the city’s transport infrastructure, and its success has prompted other Indian cities to develop similar projects under the able guidance of—believe it or not—the Delhi Metro Corporation itself.

That’s the power of demonstration and replication. Who knows, the construction of the first high-speed rail line may really be a game-changer for Indian Railways, and lead to the creation of a nationwide high-speed rail network.

While the arguments over pros and cons rage on, the Indian government has decided to pick up the gauntlet by approving the first high-speed rail corridor which will connect Mumbai and Ahmedabad. If all goes according to plan, India’s first high-speed railway line will start operating a few years’ time. And for me it will certainly be the start of a new chapter of rail travel in India.

Indian Railways is ready to speed up. Let’s spur it on.