High Speed Rail

The Great Indian High Speed Rail Dream

There are two things common to most countries which boast of high standards of living: their ease of travel and communication (there might be other things also, but these two factor are some kind of foundations, because be it the highways of America and Europe, the high speed trains of Europe, Japan and China or even inter-continental air travel, they help to overcome the bane of distance (both physical and metaphorical), the biggest stumbling block to the advancement of human civilization ever since its dawn, leading to the faster exchange of goods, people and ideas between parts of the world isolated from each other for thousands of centuries. There is no need for an entire rambling article to illustrate this, we can see how the mobile phone revolution has transformed India. What we need to do now is to translate the speed of the digital revolution to the real physical world.

Though nobody talks about it, among all the innumerable crises India faces, there exists a transportation crisis also. Our country is so huge, humongous, densely populated and diverse that India is often called a continent than a country. And how are these huge distances connected? By huge, USA-style controlled-access interstate highways? Fast bullet trains? Airports in every town? Nope, NOTA. We have only negligible kilometers of international-standard highways (expressways), flights are only between major metros and cities and a creaking network of 50 kph fast slow (on an average) trains that look like museum pieces running on ancient tracks built by Uncle Jack of the British Empire. Haven’t we had enough? Don’t we need quick, relatively cheap, efficient and comfortable means of travel between our cities and towns, to allow people to travel in the dignity they deserve, which will only do good for India as a whole? We do. So how are we going get that? For starters, we need to rework our transportation system to allow high speeds. For that, we have to choose a primary mode of transport.

Elephant transportation

India is today at a cross roads where we have to take a decision on the mode we have to choose to develop our transportation systems on. Europe, America and Japan were at the same crossroads after World War II (along with us), and America chose roads, Japan chose rail and while Europe though first chose road, quickly changed their minds to rail. And we we happy pitching a tent at those cross roads and staying there, watching all countries around us developing. Now the time has come for us to leave the cross roads. What mode should we choose? Should it be air, rail or road? Considering India with its huge population and their demographics and economic status, distances between population centers, layout, density and already existing huge rail network, there should be no doubt in that: High and semi-high speed rail. But why? After having laid out what High Speed Rail is and how it works, next in this series I will try to talk about what its advantages are, why India should adopt it and how the rest of the Railways should transform along with it. And I will also present a dream network of HSR routes.

Why High Speed Rail? High Speed Rail vs Airplanes and Road Transport

Unlike the Americans who are going hammer-and-tongs against high speed railways for various reasons, Indians at a whole seem to be quite a bit in favor of “Bullet Trains”, though it mostly seems for the bragging value it will bring. However, there are many skeptics who aren’t really sure of introducing “bullet trains” in India. They ask: “Does India really need (to adopt) expensive high speed trains? Aren’t planes faster and more, you know, elite? How about 8-lane highways? Isn’t the car the ultimate symbol of mobility and economic prowess? Didn’t all of the world develop through air and roads?” or, “Shouldn’t we upgrade our existing tracks and coaches first? What will be the cost-effectiveness of Bullet Trains in India (as a business model)? Will the trains be affordable? How can HSR benefit poor people? Shouldn’t we develop our own technology to build these? Who should build the network, private players or the government?” and so on. We will try to answer all these questions in this series.

The case for high speed railways in India

So, what are the advantages of high speed rail and how is it different from driving and flying, and how will India benefit from HSR? The argument on why India needs to focus on improved, efficient, high speed rail transport rather than road or air transport is based on its demographics, land and urban center availability, distribution and traveling patterns of its population and environmental concerns. Among these arguments, the USP of High Speed Rail, namely speed, is actually not the driving factor. That would be India’s blessing and bane, its population. In a country like India where people are enamored by the USA and all her ways, there will always be more advocates for air transport rather than railways; and even more for huge highways and personal transportation (cars) rather than fast and cost-effective public transportation. But India is much different from the USA, to which Indians are attracted because of the perception of its success as a world leader. India is much closer to Europe and Japan when it comes to demographics and should follow their examples when it comes to moving our population around.

Demographics, Population, Distribution

We Indians are squeezed together like sardines in a can at 382 people per square kilometer. People comparing India with America forget that USA is a sparsely populated country at only 34 people per square kilometer. India is more like Japan (336/sqkm) or South Korea (503) or European countries (UK: 262 Germany: 226 Netherlands: 407, France: 118). Check the map below. The darker colors indicate higher population density, and countries with higher population density are also the ones with the best (high speed and otherwise) rail systems. Well almost all. That is no accident but invention by necessity, as they need to move larger populations more efficiently using lesser land.

High population was the reason Japan built their high speed train network, the Shinkansen, the first in the world in 1964, even when naysayers pointed out the decline of railways in America (even after the bombing and all they were looking to ‘merica as the bellweather). Anyway, railroads in the USA declined for a variety of reasons from historical to demographic and political, the American highway being only one among many reasons, and what worked for America will not work for India. India is extremely crowded, be its cities or villages, and the only way to ease this congestion is by mass transport. Can you imagine what the chaos on Mumbai roads would’ve been if there were no local train network? Now, extend that to the rest of the country. Highways and air transport will work well when populations are low and land and resources are plentiful, but not in India where both are at a premium. Let us talk about the highways first. We simply cannot build American-style highways in India. Why?

Land and Infrastructure: USA’s Highways and India’s Highways

America is really how you see in those road trip movies. Huge highways cut across hugeass stretches of spellbindingly gorgeous (empty) land, especially in the western half of the country where population density is around 10 people per square km. Hence private landholdings are much larger and owned by individuals or organizations, making land much cheaper and easier to acquire. In India the pop density is 10 times the US average and is held by families or individuals in much lesser quantities, making land holdings highly fragmented. And where it is not used to live, land is almost always used for piecemeal subsistence agriculture on which even today 56% of Indians depend on for their livelihood. Then there is the legal sanctity of agricultural land, the NRI boom, Black Money and other factors, all which make land in India very costly and a nightmare to acquire. Which is why high speed rail, which requires only much lesser land than highways. land is India’s scarcest resource and any move to acquire huge tracts of it will lead to unrests of various kinds.

A typical Indian highway typically needs land of 60 to 100 meters in width including service roads and medians while a high speed rail track needs only 20 meters of land as right-of-way! It has to be mentioned that though the lands our highways pass through seem to be mostly empty, they are in reality dotted by hundreds of villages on both sides, all but invisible to the city dwellers’ eyes. Imagine the costs, hassle and delays that will crop up from acquiring all those huge tracks of land for highways! But ours aren’t even real highways. If we want to build highways instead of high-speed rail, we should be building those “real” highways seen in USA, Europe and China, and not our present two-bit “National Highways”. But that would be impossible, because those would need double the land of normal highways. Building even normal highways face stiff opposition from local population, especially so where I come from. HSR needs 80% less land than highways, which mean lesser cost, hassles and delays.

The 300 kph German “ICE” HSR line from Stuttgart to Frankfurt alongside the Autobahn A3. You can see how much land the highway requires and how much the double track rail line does. There are even houses close to it!

Highways in India, including the Golden Quadrilateral, are not real highways but only high-capacity long-distance roads since they designed to allow traffic and people to cross it. Side roads from villages, towns etc open directly onto the highways which have junctions to facilitate cross-traffic and U-turns and turn into normal roads when passing though towns. They also have bus stops and people darting across them, making constant driving at high speeds impossible. “Real” highways such as the Interstate of the US and the Autobahns of Germany are controlled-access, exclusive right-of-way for ongoing traffic tarmac designed for uninterrupted high-speed travel, where entry/exit is only by the way of interchanges or ramps. This eliminates junctions or traffic having to cross across the road, enabling always ahead, free-flowing traffic. These highways have to be fenced for the entire length and overpasses, flyovers and interchanges have to built for every village/town and junction, not to mention service roads. And for all these, a lot more land has to be acquired, which multiplies costs even more. And US Interstates directly cut through the very core of cities. Below is the Judge Pearson Interchange in Los Angeles. Right in the middle of the city. Imagine building something like this in India’s highly dense cities! But we could build an entire railway station at one-tenth of the land being used for the highway and interchange.

High speed rail is expensive, make no mistake. But building those “real” highways will actually cost as much as high speed rail, like the 272 km Delhi-Jaipur Expressway estimated to cost Rs.32,000 crore ($5 billion) or Rs.117 crore per km and some insane road in Mumbai that will cost Rs.332 crore per km! The ADI-BCT HSR is set to cost INR 90,000 crore ($14 billion) or Rs.168 crore per km including everything. The US Interstate highway system when completed in 1992 costed $425 billion ($500 billion (INR 31.7 lakh crore) in 2015 dollars or Rs.48 crore per km), but only because land acquisition costs were cheaper in USA. But today the roads are funded by direct taxes on petrol, diesel, automobiles and parts. Our Golden Quadrilateral when it was constructed in 2011 costed 30,000 crore, a marvel no doubt, but soon had to be expanded for an apparently equal amount, which is still underway.

So what about Air Travel Infrastructure?

Fine, highways are less efficient than rail travel. But what about air? Airports surely cost less than HSR to build, and is viewed as the “arrival” of economic prowess, and big airliners can carry as much people as a train can. Yes, all this is true. But the problem here is again, land. There usually is only one, maybe two or at the most three big airports in even the biggest cities of the world, and mostly outside the city, and even if within it, definitely not downtown (Mumbai is an exception). They require enormous facilities on hundreds of acres of land and hence are unviable to be constructed (or expanded) within urban centers on a large scale. Airports on outskirts require additional spending on dedicated access channels like highways and rail lines. Train stations need only much lesser land and can be constructed even within the heart of cities and towns or “ordinary” train stations can even be converted into HSR terminals by alongside, underground or overhead expansion, HSR and regular trains can share tracks for some distance (Europe) and multiple stoppages can be provided within cities and suburbs (Japan), all of which will make them even more convenient than airports. And not to mention the time savings.

Arguing about a couple of million dollars in construction costs when it comes to infrastructure projects is foolishness. We should also take into account the cost-effectiveness and cost offsets for a couple of decades in advance. Unlike airports and highways, railways and high speed rail especially scores big time on economies of scale. These same economies of scale will also help in actually lowering construction costs of future HSR lines, as the China example shows. However, the biggest foresight advantage of HSR is that it can grow without expansion. Two tracks will be enough to run high speed trains (alone) without any expansion. The problem with highways – also known as the fundamental rule of traffic – is that as soon as they are expanded, they will soon be filled with traffic and have to be expanded again and this goes on in a vicious cycle. Bangalore is the best example, where any number of flyovers built haven’t reduced any of the city’s traffic woes. Within 6 years of building it, the Bangalore airport had to be expanded at a cost of Rs.1500 crore. The GQ is now being expanded from four to six lanes, which will also fill up soon again. HSR will benefit by reducing time loss saving manpower hours thereby improving productivity, quality of life and general happiness of the population, it will reduce our national fuel bill and will also benefit our people by reducing the effects of vehicular pollution, driving stress, accidents and so on.

Speed. Time Savings

Of course, the USP of high speed trains is their speed. They can travel at speeds Indians have never experienced or even seen. They can cover 400 km in less than two hours, that too from city-center to city center, making them more attractive compared to airlines and highways for intercity travel between cities less than 700 km apart. Yes, taking a train will get you there faster than a plane! This would sound incredible in India. All this is mainly because high speed trains are not affected by that single most curse of modern transportation: Congestion. High speed trains simply do not get stuck on tracks behind one another unlike other trains, planes and cars, and because they eliminate all other “extra time-consuming factors”.

Compared to Air: Short distance air travel times are highly overrated, unless you are Tom Hanks in The Terminal. In reality, travel time by air is always three to five hours more than the actual flying time thanks to commutes to and from airports located outside cities, long check-in lines, security checks and time wasted in boarding, taxiing, circling, landing, on the runway and in baggage retrieval. For distances less than 750 km, a well-planned high speed railway line supported by mass-transit options will deliver travelers door-to-door at almost the same time (or even less) as that of air travel. As an example, it takes me 6.5 to 7 hours to get to my hometown 600 km from Bangalore by flight! 1 to 1.5 hours to get to the airport, 1.5 hours for check in+boarding, 1 hour flight time, .05 hours getting out of the airport and 2 hours traveling home (70 km from the nearest airport). A high speed railway line (~320 kph) would get me there in 4 hours max, all included and at lesser cost and lesser hassle! Here is an illustrated example showing how much time it would take from Bangalore to Ernakulam by different modes of transport; by car, bus, train, flight and high speed rail.

All times are in hours. Origin: Indiranagar, Destination: Panampilli Nagar. Train: 12677 Intercity, Bus: KSRTC Volvo B9R, Car: Family Sedan, HSR: 300 kph top speed and average 215 kph (Nozomi Shinkansen). HSR stations estimated to be exactly where the present stations are and commute times are by taxi in average traffic.

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If we were to take Bangalore – Chennai, HSR at 1 hour 15 min would literally kill all other modes.

Compared to Road: Even if we built arrow-straight 8 lane superhighways and we all had cars capable of doing 200 kph constantly, we still would be taking around 6 hours to cover 600 km. Reasons: traffic/congestion, road work, breaks, fatigue… And this is assuming all Indians suddenly became Germany-level disciplined drivers, which is a lot to wish for. Indisciplined driving is one of the most important factors behind increasing travel times because cars never move at constant speeds on our roads because of the absence of lane discipline. And whenever we get a break we put pedal to metal resulting in high speeds and deadly accidents. Well, maybe one reason we don’t have these superhighways in India is because here they would all turn into death roads.

Now, let us assume that we bit (or did not) the bullet and decided to junk HSR for an air or highway network. What would happen? The Bangalore airport apparently costed only 2800 crore, but only because land came cheap. The Navi Mumbai airport will cost 9500 crore. So, let us take an average of INR 5000 crore to build/expand an airport in India. Doing a rough back-of-the-train-ticket calculation, India needs around 80 airports to be built/renovated to build up a robust pan-India air network. That makes 400,000 crore. And who will fly planes there? Now itself we have many small-town airports lying idle because airlines don’t see services to them viable. What if we spend lakhs of crores building up a pan-India super-Interstate network, interchanges and all? Forget the land-related issues, there is another serious problem with both of these, which is also among HSR’s main selling points. Trains will ensure that our children grow up into healthy adults, or at least, will have a world for them to live. More about that in the next chapter.

(Note: Some of my readers must’ve noticed a part 2 of this article that was published earlier. That was a mistake, that article was not ready and has been taken down. This is the original first part of it. Sorry for the trouble! :))

Read More Chapters on High Speed Rail

What Are High Speed Railways or “Bullet Trains”?

Environmental Benefits of High Speed Rail

How HSR Will Economically Transform India

Why Prioritize HSR Over Developing Our Existing Network?

Clearing Some Myths and Misconceptions on High Speed Rail

On The Financials of the Indian High Speed Rail Project

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Vishal RD Dwivedi
Vishal RD Dwivedi
8 years ago

Why don’t they make a international rail link directly from London-Turkey-Iran-Pak-India-Bangladesh just like world has trans-siberian links. I understand there are difficulties of Baluchistan but hey one has to surpass that.

Arjun Mohan
Arjun Mohan
8 years ago

But how long is long enough for high speed? Pan-India railway routes are often so long, it makes more sense to fly, or take a flash overnight train, than a high-speed train. BCT-ADI (rather BDTS-ADI) will be covered in 2 hours 30 minutes by the fastest possible HSR, but beyond, we can expect the journey to take 7-8 hours, if it is Mumbai to Delhi. A HSR from Delhi to Chennai is just too much to get done, and much of the advantages that Bangalore-Kochi travel has will simply vanish across this distance, as you spend 10 hours a day in a train. That’s why China’s long-distance G-series bullet trains are struggling with occupancy, while the regular, conventional, loco-hauled Z-trains and T-trains often get booked out quickly- the latter series are flash overnighters.

The single most relevant reason for HSR to be implemented in India is the reduced fuel bill. We know this quite well- India is too dependent on petroleum for its own good. Pollution increases, so do dangers along our roads- and we often have to settle with meek foreign policies to keep the petroleum selling nations happy. But is enough petroleum saved to recover the cost? That is a study worth doing.

The so-called elite who may benefit by high-speed trains are actually middle-class people who cannot afford a flight. Most of our flights are outright overpriced, except possibly Mumbai-Bangalore. Fly to Jodhpur and feel your wallet get lighter. These people need an alternative, and so-called low-cost flights need competition- and so do several bus lobbies we’ve grown to hate for a reason or two. What high-speed trains can then do is open up more seats and berths in top-end regular trains.

Can HSR be cost-effective to the end passenger? The Shinkansen is not cost-effective, except, possibly, for passengers from other countries who hold passes. France’s Ouigo, on the other hand, starts at 10 euros, while iDTGV, on regular TGV routes, starts at 25 Euros, which is very cost-effective, for a Mumbai-Hyderabad distance. To make it meaningful, they need to run several services a day, at high capacity, with (possibly) no first-class accommodation, and online-only booking- look to sweat their assets and reduce overheads wherever possible. The people who can avail of this service need to pay only between 3A and 2A fare, for it to be viable.

A challenge for Indian HSR is the uneven terrain across regions. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR service would make more sense if extended all the way to Udaipur, a place full of tourist attractions, but for the steep gradient encountered. Since the proposed HSR is running on stilts, they can take it all the way up to Udaipur, but for the fact that BCT and ADI are more or less at sea level, while UDZ is 583m above. How they sort out this issue is critical for HSR development in more difficult regions.

Meanwhile, Czech Republic and Poland have a different high-speed solution- they use Pendolino sets, hitting speeds as high as 250-290 km/h, along existing tracks shared with other trains. Such a solution is far more inclusive than dedicated HSR infrastructure. Italy has both- dedicated HSR and Pendolino units, and even locomotives at both ends of a rake of coaches- the latter being useful for our flash overnighters and several affordable non-HSRs.

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