Thursday, December 4, 2014


India has around 65,000 route kilometres of railway line spread out across the entire country. Indian Railways operates about 19,000 trains a day.It consists of about 12,000 passenger trains and 7,000 freight trains. It is a unique experience travelling this vast country on trains. Nowhere does the kaleidoscopic nature of this great nation become evident other than while travelling by rail. In 2013, Indian Railways clocked close to 1,100 Billion Passenger Kilometres. It is equivalent to every Indian travelling 1,100 kilometres a year by train. This is the highest in the world. 

To give you a comparison, it is like carrying the entire population of Australia around the circumference of the earth more than once. And I am talking here only about passenger travel in India. If you consider even the goods trains then the number will be many many times Bigger. Every day, Indian railway carries around 25 million people to their destinations. This number is bigger than the population of Kenya. 

But behind all these nice sounding numbers lies a harsh reality. India ferries so many passengers, but at what speed? What might be the average train speed in India? Well, in 2012, it was estimated that an express train runs at an average speed of 50 kilometres an hour and a goods train at 25 kilometres an hour. EMUs (electrical multiple units) run at about 40 kilometres an hour and ordinary passenger trains cover 36 kilometres an hour [1].

Many trains were introduced after 2013. Consequently, present day average train speed figures are still less.High-speed Rail (HSR) is a type of rail transport that operates using an integrated system of specialized rolling stock and dedicated tracks to have an average speed of 250 Kilometres Per Hour (Kmph) or above.

Well, shouldn't we be increasing the speed of our trains? Should we introduce high speed trains that can take a passenger from say New Delhi to Chennai in 5 hours? If so, what changes or new things we need to bring so that we can run superfast high speed train like china and japan do Or even better? Is it safe? Is high speed rail even needed at all? And if so, can India, a developing country with so many "Handicaps" (not my words) afford it? In this article, the various technologies and economic impacts will be reviewed to examine how HSR can change the transportation scenario in India.

High speed rail has the potential to be a great transportation asset to travellers, economies, and the environment. Where implemented, it has characteristically become the preferred transit mode. It is a knowhow that has been used throughout various countries, some with more success than others, beginning as early as the 1960’s [2].

In high concentration areas, especially those with high volumes of traffic and congestion, a well-developed rail system is a very appropriate mode of transportation. In an age of increased air quality concerns and mobility, many are finding high-speed rail to be a practical and pleasant alternative to automobiles and airplane travel. High speed rail is capable of radically reducing travel times with maxi-mum speeds well into the 450 km/h range or higher, but it has to balance with energy consumption and economic feasibility.

Usually High speed trains have speeds of over 300 km/h, drastically reducing the time taken to reach a destination. They are investments that take many years to realize a yield, but some countries are starting to see Systems start to pay off and begin to make profit.

Countries with well-developed networks of HSR have seen various types of commercial impact. Several of them have experienced the consolidation of their enormous, dynamic urban centres and corporate hubs as transportation between major cities has become quicker and easier [3]

 Many of the densely populated cities in India are facing strong air pollution and traffic congestion concerns. High-speed rail can potentially reduce both of these resulting in lower emissions and a smart and often speedier mode of transport to workers and travellers [4].

 Rail networks are not only linking major cities within Europe and Asia, but also those in other countries as well as the networks grow to span across the world.

The way the mass transportation system of a country works is intricately linked to its economic growth. If we spend a lot in transporting people and goods, the price of goods and services will be more. People will have to pay more for basic living. 

This has two effects. One, it will erode the savings of the people and two; people will have less money left for other things. By this time, their purchasing power has been reduced. There is a fall in demand. The industries face losses as their production slows down due to fall in demand. Since earning is less, industries downsize their labour as they have no work due to decrease in production (which is in turn due to fall in demand). Now the jobless labour force is unutilised, creating complications for the society as a whole.

There can be any number of problems like law and order problem, civil unrest, rise in extremism, mass migrations etc. As you can see, how transportation is done is very important for the national economy. And  doing it in the most cost-effective way helps in the growth of the National economy.
This is where the Railways come into the picture. It has been seen that Railways offers the most inexpensive mode of terrestrial long-distance bulk transportation. This is important for many reasons.

As I pointed out earlier, the way a transport system of a country works is intricately linked to its economic growth. Plus there is lesser pollution and greenhouse gas emission per capita during rail travel. In short, the carbon footprint is least in rail travel. All that is fine. But why do we need High Speed Rail travel? Will the existing Rail system not be enough for our needs? 

The answer to this question is linked to a fundamental concept in economics. Namely, that the increase in economic activity is essential for economic growth. Economic activity can be defined as Actions that involve the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services at all levels within a society[5].  Now how do you increase economic activity? One way is that you increase the resources in an economy. But resources are finite.

Another way is you increase the speed with which economic activity is taking place. That way, the resources are utilised better and faster. How do you increase the speed of economic activity? Well it can be done if you have quick ways of moving Information, goods and people. Information nowadays moves very fast due to advancements in communications technology. It is moving goods and people that create an obstacle for rapid economic growth. If we can somehow move goods and people from one place to another at reasonable cost, then we can achieve faster economic growth. Enter High Speed Rail.

 Even in terms of cost, slower trains cost us more than High speed rail (we will come to costing later in the chapter). I will tell you how. It takes almost 36 hours to travel from Bangalore to New Delhi by Rajdhani Express (which is the fastest long-distance mail express). Say we were able to travel from Bangalore to New Delhi in just 6 hours. That would save 30 hours of travel time for every person travelling. Calculations show that this saving of 30 man hours per person travelling translates to a saving of around $1.85 billion every year. That is a whopping Rs. 11,100 crores saved every year (at prevailing dollar rates). 

This saving will increase the purchasing power and also earning capacity of Indians who will use the high speed railway system. The above estimate is only for long distance rail travel (like from Bengaluru to Delhi; or Mumbai to Delhi). If you consider short distance (Bangalore-Chennai) or intermediate distance (Patna-Delhi) then the estimate increases to about more than two and half times(this is because of higher number of people travelling short distances and also the cumulative effect of more people travelling). This translates to a saving of almost Rs. 25,000 crores and above every year. Moreover the estimate has considered average per capita income (PPP).

But the people travelling in trains have slightly higher per capita income based on class of travel. Therefore the savings will be much higher. Suffice to say that due to a High Speed Rail Network economic activity will get a boost to the tune of $ 2 billion per year in savings alone.

     (END OF PART 1)                                                                               

                                                                                                      - Dr.Kartik Hegadekatti.

Dr.Kartik Hegadekatti is an Indian Civil Service officer presently serving in the Ministry of Railways in India.Views Expressed are Personal. 

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