Bullet trains for India: a reality check

Indian politicians, almost all in awe of high-technology, tend to thrust India (or their particular state) into “modernity” by providing rapid and comfortable travel. But they also tend to gloss over safety, economy and volume of transportation appropriate to Indian environment. Bureaucrats and technocrats, eager to please political leaders, rarely if ever, render honest advice on these projects, and encourage, if not themselves propose, such projects.

Thus, we have high-fare urban AC buses running almost empty, with people waiting long periods to crush themselves into “ordinary” buses; railway passenger trains with high-fare AC coaches and insufficient accommodation for “ordinary” people for sleeper berths, and nightmarish unreserved coaches; and “green field” airports being constructed when there is insufficient assured passenger load and commercial airlines reluctant to operate.

In this ambience, senior politicians, influ­enced by industrial-business corporations' hard-sell of high speed rail (HSR) corridors, have proposed “bullet trains” for India. These are politicians' neo-liberal dream of expensive transportation projects to please a very small segment of India's 1.3 billion people with “development”, quite unmindful of the needs of the vast majority for safe, affordable, reliable, regular, clean (speed and comfort are secondary) rail travel.

It is necessary to note that HSR requires an exclusive right of way (EROW) corridor, completely fenced along the entire route. In India, with its very high population density, this would obviously be problematic in more ways than one. Notwithstanding the skewed emphasis of many politicians, and neglecting the severe EROW restriction, it is well to examine the economic viability of HSR projects in the Indian environment.

In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, Narendra Modi proposed connecting Mumbai with Ahmedabad by bullet train. As prime minister, he took a Shinkansen bullet train ride with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe in November 2016 to fast-track const­ruction of India’s first HSR corridor to trav­erse 508-km between Mumbai and Ahmedabad at average speed of 320 kmph, the MoU for which had already been signed on December 12, 2015. All this was done without public consultation or legislative discussion.

It is understood that the HSR corridor will have elevated EROW tracks for most of the distance, with a small stretch under the sea. Land acquisition is expected to be completed by end of 2017, with construction commencing in 2018, and the project operational by 2023.

Taiwan started the Japanese Shinkansen Taipei-Zuoying 340-km HSR in 2007, with capital cost of around Rs 60,000 crore. The present single-trip fare of Taiwan dollars TWD 1,490 (Rs 3,230) is extremely competitive with air travel, air fare for the same sector costing TWD 3,920 (Rs 8,500). Against the initially-projected daily passenger volume of 2,40,000, the actual average is only 1,40,000. With this fare and ridership, the Taiwan HSR, unable to absorb depreciation and interest, is running at a huge loss, with the government stepping in to bail out the company.

The India HSR is estimated project cost Rs.97,936 crore (up from Rs 60,000 crore in 2014), with Rs 79,166 crore to be funded by Japan at a very low (0.1%) interest rate, and loan repayment starting from 2038 for completion in 2072. The balance Rs 18,470 crore will be funded jointly by the Indian Railways, and the Maharashtra and Gujarat governments, with expected minimum return of 8% on investment.

The Taiwan fare applied pro rata to the Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR works out to Rs 4,830 while the Mumbai-Ahmedabad air fare is much more competitive at around Rs 2,500. When the present passenger traffic of Mumbai-Ahmedabad passengers by AC Class rail, air and AC bus/taxi is about 21,000, and is estimated to rise to 36,000 by 2023, it will still be only about 25% of the present actual average daily ridership on the Taiwan HSR.

Thus, when the Taiwan HSR (competitive with air travel) with four times the Indian ridership operates at a huge loss, the Indian HSR with low ridership, lower air fare for the same sector and much higher capital cost, is sure to run at greater loss even with the benefit of low interest. The economic chips are heavily stacked against the India HSR.

Subsidised tickets

The Indian government will be constrained to heavily subsidise the ticket cost (for wealthy travellers) in order to attract higher ridership since the HSR cannot generate funds to service the borrowings and fund depreciation, let alone repay the huge loan to Japan. The government cannot justify spending tax-payers’ money to finance an unviable project, and additionally subsidise the ticket cost on an on-going basis to benefit a relatively minuscule set of affluent passengers.

Japan’s Shinkansen technology is based on 50 years of experience, with an impeccable track record of safe operation at speeds exceeding 320 kmph. However, this is experience within a typically Japanese environment of work ethics, training and technological capability. Railway safety in India is linked with some combination of systemic corruption, operational and security inefficiency, and institutional unaccountability and intransparency. With frequent rail accidents occurring when the average speed of express trains is under 80 kmph, transfer of such technology needs to be re-visited.

Rather than compromising public safety in an economically questionable HSR with iffy safety in the Indian environment, the government would be better advised to consider investment for phased replacement of passenger coaches with safer Linke-Hoffman-Busche anti-telescopic coaches in the existing system.

The Indian Railways should place details of economic feasibility of proposed HSR links on its website. It is surely more important for IR to focus on present passenger safety, railway infrastructure, etc, so that the 22 million passengers who use IR daily can travel comfortably, with the assurance of safety and punctuality.

The Indian HSR proposals need to be given a transparent reality check in the public interest. Pushing ahead with a high-tech, potentially economically unviable project which can only serve a small minority, and neglecting the greatest good of the greatest number, besides being undemocratic, cannot be good politics in the long-term.

(Vombatkere holds a PhD degree in civil engineering structural dynamics from IIT-Madras; Joseph has expertise in business process transformation using IT)

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