High Speed Railways in India: A reality or a Mirage?

During his recent visit to Japan, the Prime Minister agreed to a joint feasibility study by Japanese experts along with the Indian Railways officials for constructing a high speed corridor between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Currently the French Railway experts are also studying the business model for the same corridor based on future traffic projections. A few months back, a high powered committee of secretaries was appointed to look into possible funding options and the report is still awaited. The draft 12th Five-Year Plan envisages development of one high speed rail corridor of about 500 kilometres in the current plan period. It has also proposed setting up National High Speed Rail Authority for implementation of HSR corridor projects. Does it mean that the government has finally decided to develop high speed railways for the ever rising passenger transport demand on important routes?

The proposal for developing High Speed Railway (HSR) between Delhi and Kanpur via Agra was first mooted in mid-eighties when Madhavrao Scindia was the Railway Minister. An internal study found the proposal unviable at that time due to the high cost of construction and inability of travelling passengers to bear much higher train fares than what were for normal trains. The Railways then settled for the Shatabdi trains, fast inter-city day trains generally travelling at maximum speed of 130 kilometres per hour, even as the Bhopal Shatabdi has a maximum speed of 150 kilometres per hour between New Delhi and Agra. While we are still discussing the pros and cons of developing HSR in the country, Chinese Railways who began planning for HSR in mid-nineties, started construction in 1998 and now have largest HSR network in the world extending over 7000 route kilometres. Recently the Chinese Railways signed a MOU with Indian Railways for technical cooperation including HSR technology and also showed interest in constructing HSR in India.

From time to time, the issue of providing high speed rail has been discussed at various forums with demand being made several times, even in Parliament, for providing 'bullet trains' in India, similar to HSR in Japan. Their introduction was opposed also on grounds that HSR are expensive, and they can wait for some more years till the paying capacity of the people increases considerably so that they can afford traveling by them. Theyalso argue that middle level speed up to 180/200 kilometres per hour on existing lines would be adequate for India as it is cost effective and more energy efficient than HSR.

The introduction of High Speed Rail in India is mentioned in the Railway Vision 2025 where it is stated that the Indian Railways would develop six corridors in four regions. Railways have commissioned pre-feasibility studies for all the possible corridors and these are at different stages of completion.

Despite its mention in the Railway Vision 2025, Indian Railways have been very cautious about committing to developing HSR in India. The Eleventh Plan strategy for passenger business was to increase commercial speed of passenger trains and to introduce faster trains with peak speeds of 150 kilometres per hour between metropolitan cities. The Twelfth Plan for Railways has again emphasized on increasing commercial speeds and augmenting trains as the thrust area of passenger business. The development of High Speed rail corridors is still not a priority and its actual materialisation will depend upon fund availability; the preferred mode for which is Public Private Participation.

There is a high degree of enthusiasm in different states for high speed corridors. Some of the state governments have commissioned their own pre-feasibility studies on potential corridors with high traffic demand. Kerala has planned a HSR from Thiruvananthapuram to Mangalore in Karnataka. Maharashtra might introduce HSR from Mumbai to Nagpur apart from Pune Mumbai Ahmedabad corridor which has been put on fast track by the Central Government. Tamil Nadu has envisaged a HSR corridor connecting Chennai, Coimbatore, Madurai and Kanya Kumari in 'Vision Tamil Nadu 2023' released this year. Karnataka wants a HSR from Bangalore to Mysore and also from Bangalore to Belgaum and Gulbarga.

High Speed Railways are more suitable for inter-city travel at medium distance segments (up to 500/750 kilometres) wherein transit time does not increase beyond 3 to 4 hours.Drastic reduction in the transit time as compared to the one for conventional Railways, providing greater convenience and travel comforts with stations located in city centres, gives HSR an edge over air travel. The high speed rail changes the entire game of passenger transport. The provision for fast and frequent rail travel gives business activity a boost. HSR is comparatively more energy efficient than air. HSR requires much less land for construction as compared to expressways and highways. A two - line HSR is generally equivalent to eight- lane highways available to passengers preferring to travel by road. As a result, building HSR is more beneficial from the point of view of sustainability because it saves land and reduces energy usage and carbon emission.

Railways, being a central subject, states have little say in its development. Given the limited availability of funds, capacity creation for the carriage of freight is always preferred over passenger transport by railways. Since the railways are not able to charge passenger fares as per actual cost incurred and have to subsidise the passenger business from freight there is little enthusiasm for funding HSR or even increasing capacity for passenger travel.The high Powered Committee on Railway Safety has even suggested that introduction of new trains should be halted in view of safety.

Looking towards a cash-strapped Railway Board, for developing HSR in India, is like chasing a chimera. Development of Metro Railways was possible only when it was taken out of Railway Board and given to the Ministry of Urban Development. Indian Railways was hesitant to invest in loss-making Metro Rail projects. Kolkata Metro took several years to complete a stretch of 16 kilometres. A strong political will only could persuade the Railway Board to take up expansion of Kolkata Metro railway in the other parts of city.

State Governments are in a better position to assess the need for high speed corridors. The State Governments should be encouraged to develop HSR in their states by determining suitable funding mechanisms and creating organisations for developing them. The Railway Board should perform only regulatory functions by providing technical and safety standards as it used to do in the pre-independence days when the railway companies ran individual railway systems. For HSR beyond state boundaries, Railway Board will frame operating rules and regulations for exchange of trains. In this arrangement, the Railway Board will continue to have a greater responsibility for determining the gauge of new HSR tracks, common standards for erection and maintenance of track, rolling stock and signalling system. This is particularly important as today almost all HSR Railways are willing to provide their technology to India and as they see it as a major future business interest. In the long run, the country should strive to develop indigenous HSR technology and manufacturing capacity for rails, rolling stock and signalling system. This can be done only by the Railway Board.