Modi dreams Bullet Train, but India needs High-Speed upgrade

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The Bullet Train project highlights:-

  • Highlight of Japanese PM Shinzo Abe’s visit is Rs 98,000-crore bullet train project
  • Project will take two-and-a-half years to plan, eight years to complete
  • Railways says Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train fare will be around Rs 6/km
  • At 300-350 kmph, Mumbai-Ahmedabad will take less than two hours to cover
  • Six proposed high-speed rail routes will bring down the cost of living and lead to economic development
  • India cannot depend on air travel alone for reasons of energy efficiency and climate change

An agreement on the Rs 98,000-crore bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is the highlight of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to India. The project will be financed with a 50-year yen loan at 0.1 percent, which includes a moratorium on interest payments for the first 20 years.

Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu’s aides say the train will be viable with rates that are one-and-a-half times the current AC first class fares, or nearly Rs 3,000. That is Rs 6 per km.

Viability will depend on traffic and the frequency of service. Rail officials say there is enough between the two cities: trains are chockfull and flights are packed. At 300-350 kmph, the distance should be licked in less than two hours. This will create additional demand. With quick visits possible, more people will travel. Earners might persuade their families to relocate outside expensive and congested Mumbai.

Financial Rate of Return

The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the aides say, has estimated the financial rate of return at 4.4 percent a year. This is less than the yield on government bonds. But the economic rate of return – or the impact on the economy – is estimated at 13 percent annually.

Fares alone will not be enough. Japanese bullet trains are cross-subsidised by revenue from property development. India’s bullet train corporation should be able to skim the increased land value it will create along the route through industrial enclaves and townships.

The project will take two-and-a-half years to plan and eight years to complete.

Though Japanese financial terms seem fetching, they may not actually be so. Former railway official Ved Mani Tiwari who, until August, was director of Kochi Metro Rail, found the dollar to be the most stable over a 40-year period, with annualised volatility of 4.5 percent. The currencies constituting the Euro yo-yoed by 6.5 percent while the yen swung the most at 9.5 percent annually.

India May End Up Paying More

If the Japanese loan for the bullet train is ‘tied’ and India can only buy Japanese equipment it might pay more than it should. Japanese electric engines for the Japanese-financed western freight corridor cost more than Rs 50 crore each. Alstom India has undertaken to supply higher capacity (12,000 hp) electrical engines with maintenance thrown in from its Madhepura plant for Rs 24 crore each.

Making Travel Efficient

As India’s economy grows and people’s income goes up, it will need an efficient way of moving large number of people quickly over long distances. It cannot depend on air travel alone for reasons of energy efficiency and climate change. Trains use one-fifth the energy of airplanes and the carbon emission per passenger is much lower.

The Railways have already conducted studies to examine the viability of six high-speed rail routes. These are:

  • Delhi–Chandigarh–Amritsar (450 km)
  • Pune–Mumbai–Ahmedabad (650 km)
  • Hyderabad–Dornakal–Vijaywada–Chennai (664 km)
  • Chennai–Bangalore–Coimbatore–Ernakulam (649 km)
  • Howrah–Haldia (135 km) and
  • Delhi–Agra–Lucknow–Varanasi–Patna (991 km).

But if funds were finite and India had to choose between rail services that would give the biggest bang for money, it would opt for elevated 200 kmph semi-high speed trains connecting the metros with satellite cities that would make quick getaways possible.

  • Japanese International Cooperation Agency estimates financial rate of return at 4.4 percent a year
  • Economic rate of return – or the impact on the economy – estimated at 13 percent annually
  • If Japanese loan is ‘tied’ and Japanese equipment purchased, India might end up paying more
  • India needs more freight-only rail corridors and upgrading of existing routes to semi-high speed
  • Moving trains to higher speed, comfort and safety would have a greater impact
Decongest Metros

If one could cover the distance between Delhi and say Agra or Alwar in about an hour, it would make sense to live there and work in the capital. Such services would decongest the metros, bring down the cost of living, improve the quality of life and spread economic development around.

They would also boost domestic manufacturing of railway equipment, just as intra-city metro rails have done. There would be a lot more demand for engines, coaches and communication and signalling equipment, which would spur the ‘Make in India’ campaign.

The Japanese had themselves recommended semi-high speed for the Delhi–Mumbai route when the western freight corridor became operational. A JICA study expected 60 percent of freight trains on the Delhi-Godhra route, and 90 percent on the Godhra–Mumbai leg to shift across.

The capacity released would make semi-high speeds passenger trains of up to 200 kmph possible on the existing track (with fenced or elevated tracks, heavier rails, curves designed for tilting and collision preventing signalling systems).

Freight-Only Rail Corridors

JICA has estimated the cost of a 12-hour travel-time route between Delhi and Mumbai to cost a little less than $7 billion, or Rs 47,000 crore. A 10-hour journey time track would cost more than double ─ Rs 107,500 crore. The slower track was said to be financially viable.

If he had Rs 1 lakh crore to play around with, Alstom India Managing Director Bharat Salhotra, who was formerly with the Railways, says he would spend it on more freight-only rail corridors and upgrade the existing routes to semi-high speed. India, he says, requires quick mass transport before rapid transport.

Moving trains to a higher speed, comfort and safety band both within cities and between them would have a greater impact on the 4.5 billion suburban and 3.8 billion passengers who travel on the rail network annually, than a showcase project like the bullet train.

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