ADBI study suggests India not yet ready for High Speed Railways

Construction of one kilometre of high-speed railway track costs anything between Rs 100 to Rs 140 crore, 10 to 14 times higher than cost of laying standard railway tracks.

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Dr Gyan Pathak

COVID-19 struck India in early 2020, and the country was put under general lockdown on March 24. The passenger traffic on railway tracks was immediately stopped. On May 1, India restarted running first special passenger train for migrant workers. One by one, special trains restarted, but railways passenger trains are yet to open completely. It caused unprecedented damage to the growth of the railways.

In such a situation, a reassessment is required on passenger traffic even for the proposed patchwork high-speed Mumbai-Ahmedabad route, not to talk about a high-speed railways network for the country.

The “Frontiers of High-Speed Rail Development” just published by Asian Development Bank Institute (ADBI) is worth mentioning in this regard which gives insights into the various issues involving the high-speed railways (HSR). It has tried to answer three important questions:

(i) When is a country ready to introduce HSR?

(ii) What should be the total length of HSR?

(iii) How can investment in HSR be justified?

The empirical review indicates that when a country has a GDP per capita that is more than $5,000, it is suitable for HSR introduction. However, during 2014 general elections, BJP had voiced its desire to build the Diamond Quadrilateral high speed rail project, which would connect the cities of Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai via high-speed rail.

After Modi came to power, a high-speed project was approved between Mumbai-Ahmedabad, which was to be completed by December 2023, but it is now not likely to be completed before 2028.

In 2014, India’s per capita GDP was $1,574, and in 2020 it was $1,901, a decline of 9.52 per cent from $2,101 in the pre-pandemic year 2019. It is clear from the first criteria that India was not ready when it was conceived, and it was not ready even in the pre-pandemic year. COVID-19 has exacerbated the economic conditions, and hence, we need a fresh assessment to know if we can even sustain our proposed Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR.

India presently does not have any high speed train, and the proposed Mumbai-Ahmedabad project will have only 508 km length. We have 3,867 km of semi-high speed rail, while 64,089 km is conventional rail.

By definition, high speed rail is one having a speed over 250 km per hour, semi-high speed rail has between 160-200 km per hour, and conventional rail has a speed of less than 160 km per hour.

India has planned a total of twelve high speed rail corridors or lines operating at over 200 km per hour, and Mumbai-Ahmedabad was one of them, which is under construction.

As of now, the fastest train in India is Vande Bharat Express with a top speed of 180 km per hour which it attained during a trial run. The fastest operating train is Gatimaan Express with a top operating speed of only 160 km per hour. The primary reason is that we don’t have high-speed rail tracks, and have only a few tracks on which higher speed rails could be run.

Now what should India do? Should it jump for patchwork like Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR, or should it strengthen its network of rail tracks first to make the capable of being sustaining higher speed of trains?

Conventional trains have been running late, some even up to 22 hours, in 2014, and have been running late even in the pre-pandemic year 2019. In reply to a question in the Parliament of India, the Minister of Railways emphasized safety reasons for trains being late, which indicated bad conditions of our railway tracks.

We actually needed our slowly running trains to speed up to catch up the scheduled time without being late in the first place. When our railway track network would be ready for this, we should have been attempted for higher-speed track network.

What we had been doing in pre-pandemic year was running higher speed trains only on selected routes, less than in four thousand kilometres of tracks, leaving over 64 thousand kilometres of track in very bad condition, because India doesn’t have enough money even to maintain these tracks. Then why should India go for creating new HSR by spending huge money in a time of such scarcity? And why should we not use this huge spending on upgrading our existing track?

It may also be noted that construction of one kilometer HSR track will be anything between Rs 100 to Rs 140 crore, which is 10 to 14 times higher than the cost of construction of standard railway track network.

Moreover, what will be the use of a patchwork HSR if we are not going to create a network?

The second question decided by the study was what should be the total length of HSR? India has started to construct its first HSR line of 508 km, and is preparing another six lines across the country, with a vision to eventually build a 5,000 km network. The Republic of Korea has built over 600 km, Japan over 3000 km, and People’s Republic of China over 27,000 km.

The study avoids a direct answer to this question and answers what HSR can do. We can conclude from this that length does not matter if the line solves certain problems of accessibility, but it is clear that it should be a network, and not be a patchwork.

It must solve two accessibility problems: first, where a point-to-point link is dominant, each train can be a substitute for an air connection between two cities by connecting cities or central business districts over long distances via a direct train connection.

Secondly, in countries with a dominant high-speed network, train systems link together many cities and central business districts, creating a new type of region with high intra-regional accessibility sharing a common labour market and common market for household and business. The present Indian HSR project does not solve these problems and hence are only a patchwork.

The third question relates to the justification of investment in HSR. In the present Indian context of our railway network and economic and conditions, the HSR investment is not justified, on several account including the equity and inclusion. How our HSR will be sustainable without sufficient transport infrastructure and traffic in the whole region is yet to be understood clearly, especially under the impact of COVID-19 crisis.

Making sound judgment on investment priority is essential. We also need to understand the factors that prevented many developed countries to go for HSR.

“ADBI will be gathering more evidence from experiences in other countries on HSR and equity issues and identifying solutions that reduce the negative effects of new projects in favour of more inclusive development,” the study has said.

India should take note of this and should do its own homework before going for HSR?

(IPA Service)

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