Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

High speed trains: a missed opportunity

The proposal to introduce high-speed railways by allowing FDI and encouraging PPP is a good step

Indian Railways describes itself as the lifeline to the nation and rightly so. It was refreshing to see the latest budget envisage reforming the railways through introduction of high-speed railways (HSR) by allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) and encouraging public-private partnership (PPP). However, we are late and will have to buck up fast.

While China, which started its HSR only in 2007, now has the largest HSR network in the world, India has not even developed a kilometre since its vision 2020 was launched by the Indian Railways in 2009. The fastest train Shatabdi, with a regular speed of 130kmph is far behind to qualify in the HSR category which needs a minimum speed of 200kmph. The railway budget for the year 2012-13 sought to introduce HSR lines. However, the budget of 2013-14 was oblivious to HSR. Similarly, there has been no news on the National HSR Authority, which was to be set up in 2012-13. The proposed aim of the Indian Railways’ Vision 2020 and White Paper is to make the trains run at a speed of 160kmph. With all respect, 160kmph is very modest to be even characterized as a “vision". When countries are working on technology to zoom past 500kmph, what stops us from reaching a good 250kmph across all the lines? Of course, there are umpteen road blocks and that is precisely why a revolution is needed. When India can make a green revolution happen, a white revolution successful, why not a rail revolution?

HSR would drastically reduce the travel time between cities. The aim should be to reduce the time by at least by 50%. This is attainable considering the current humble speeds of our trains. A significant decrease in the time of travel would concatenate a positive homologous reaction. Routes on which sleeper coaches are plied to cover a time distance of 12-15 hours will be able to run full chair car coaches, thus increasing the number of seats and enabling many more passengers to travel at a time. Similarly, the same route would enable more trips in the given time, thus again doubling the number of passengers being ferried. The cauldron of non-availability of tickets would come to a relieving halt. A wide network of HSR would also give tough and healthy competition to the aviation sector in terms of price and convenience.

Introducing HSR would provide good opportunities for building soft infrastructure and would facilitate development of modern cities. It would significantly aid the development of 100 cities which the new government has promised.

HSR would be a prodigious tool to promote domestic tourism. It will give people excellent weekend getaways to places which are not possible today in crammed schedules. The surge in tourism would lead to pumping a lot of money into the economy in its own ways.

On the employment front, there would be unprecedented increase. Indian railways today employs 1.4 million employees and is among the top ten employers in the world. Compare that with China which is the second-largest employer with 2.2 million employees. HSR would require laying of new lines, modernization of existing lines, introduction of modern coaches, construction of fences, elevated tracks, bridges, tunnels, and lot more which will require a huge skilled and unskilled workforce. A project like this would give vibrancy to intra- and inter-state business and will give tremendous opportunities to small traders. A notable benefit would be revival of the dying genre of craftsmen and artisans who will be able to earn a good living with increased mobility of customers to them and vice-versa. Perishable commodities would be made available at other places at much lesser cost. Railways would also increase its significance in carrying out various kinds of relief and emergency operations.

Investing in HSR is exigent to rejuvenate the lifeline to the nation. It will be counterproductive to further delay its introduction. If the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government is accredited for road infrastructure, this is an apt opportunity for the Narendra Modi-led government to be known for its rail reformation.

Ashutosh Ray is a Delhi-based independent commentator.

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