Recent visit of Japanese Prime minister Shinzo Abe to India again ignited the debate on use of high speed rail network (HSRN) in India.
Is it economically viable to execute such high cost project?
Is it wise to deviate funds of this project toward strengthening existing transport services?
Is it necessary to criticise modern and fast transport facilities?
High speed rail is a type of railway transport that operates at a speed more than 200 km/hr. Many countries have developed high-speed rail to connect major cities, including China, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Taiwan, United Kingdom and United States. Japan was among the pioneers of High speed railway network with the name of “Shinkashen”. India is using the same service for Mumbai to Ahmedabad high speed rail (MAHSR) network.
Japan’s high speed railway which connects Tokyo to Osaka, passes through the biggest industrial and commercial centres, caters to almost 50% of Japan’s population, and carries more than 150 million passengers annually. South Korea’s Seoul-Busan HSR caters to almost 70% of the population, yet struggles with viability. France’s fabled Paris-Lyon HSR service has had to periodically receive substantial subsidies. Argentina gave up on HSR ambitions on cost grounds, deciding instead to upgrade its entire railway system to medium-speed infrastructure, an option India should seriously consider.
The cost of MAHSR is very high so will be its tariff. There is a possibility that government will provide subsidy to support this project. Instead of investing such a huge amount on bullet trains, existing railway infrastructure, which is dying can be restructured. Also over 90% rail passengers in India travel by sleeper class or lower class. There is less possibility that they will use this costly medium of transport. This facility is only for either upper middle class or rich.
There is other side of high speed railway network with positive outcome. This will increase investment in infrastructure, ignite the economy, and create jobs. India is the third largest railway network in the world, in terms of kilometres of track and the number of passengers and it is very unfortunate that India don’t have any high speed railway tracks. The present system of running trains on a congested network at the cost of maintenance and safety has to give way to safety consciousness in operations. ‘Safety first’ should be the mantra of the Indian Railways if accidents like Utkal Express and the Elphinstone Road station stampede are to be averted. The government had announced a plan to spend ?8.5 lakh crore in infrastructure in 2014 and it should be possible to renovate or upgrade all safety infrastructures in a span of two years by prioritising this investment. Shinkashen high speed railway has a negligible accident rate.
Comparing the investment in the bullet train project with investment in renovation and upgradation of conventional railways is odious. These investments are not comparable as these are not alternative choices at all. Both dimensions are necessary and we should take a cue from China which has developed a network of 22,000 km of HSR over the past 15 years. It plans to expand it to 30,000 km by 2020.
HSR is a new dimension to transportation and it is a different and distinct business independent of conventional railways like the Metro Rail. With the signing of agreement with Japan India will have the technology and the finances at one go. A loan of about $14 billion at 0.1% interest with a payout time of 50 years and a moratorium of 15 years is the best that India has ever got.