As Narendra Modi spoke of bullet trains, he ignited the imagination of a billion plus country and brought the subject of high speed trains to the centre of discussions. High speed railways (HSR) is a type of rail transport that operates significantly faster (200-300kmh) than the traditional rail traffic. The first such system began its operations in Japan in 1964 and was widely known as the bullet train. In India, the subject was first brought into discussion in late 80’s. However budget constraints and feasibility had put the idea in cold storage. High speed trains are indeed a costly affair with the cost to lay each km coming to more than 100 crores. At such a cost even to start building a nominal network of 400-500 KMs between some of the proposed corridors will cost a bomb. And it is not just India where it has been perceived to be costly; across the globe even in a resourceful country like the US there are debates about its sustainability.
However in recent years there has been a lot of research that has gone into the feasibility and sustainability aspect of HSRs. In one such report “high speed rail and sustainability” by UIC(the International Union of Railways) done to find out the feasibility and sustainability of these rails in California, USA, many interesting findings in favour of high speed rails have emerged. Some of them are as relevant to India as it is for the United States.
One of the biggest cost factors in building such a project is cost of the land, however rail networks have come out to be the most cost effective in terms of land use using 3 times less land than traditional highways for carrying same amount of traffic as the number of lanes required are far less in a HSR. An average 2 track rail-line uses only 3.2 hectares of land per km with a typical width of 25 meters compared to an average six lane road using 9 Hectares per km of land with a width of 75 meters. Also in order to maximize the HSR land usage and make it even more feasible in terms of cost such a line could be built in parallel to a highway.
Also if we look around the world most of the airports are slowly reaching a saturation stage where expanding them further for interstate travel or intercity travel between nearby cities may become an extremely costly affair. HSRs come handy in such a scenario where they can handle the interstate and intercity travel freeing the airport for more important international travel and very long distance travel. Such HSR networks can be integrated with the city metro/other transport systems owing to the fact that they can be taken deep inside a city compared to airports which are usually at the outskirts of a city. A HSR can therefore be a very cost effective solution over the long term and should be looked at in that light.
Global warming due to greenhouse gases is a reality of the current day. Of the total carbon dioxide emissions across the world, transport systems form a major chunk of 23 percent. Out of this motor travel and air travel forms 80 percent of the total CO2 emissions. Railways just form 2 percent of these emissions (isn’t that fantastic?).The carbon footprint per passenger is lowest in rail traffic. It is just 17 grams of carbon dioxide per KM (European HSR) compared to 153gm/km for air travel or 115gm/km for road travel. Another very important factor is that HSRs could be made to run totally on renewable sources of energy like solar or wind power. Around 46 percent of Spain and 22 percent of France HSRs run with renewable sources. Sweden has taken steps to put their entire rail network on renewable sources in coming years. Why can’t we do the same in India reducing our dependence on imported fossil fuels?
A HSR network across major cities in India can reduce the congestion on roads leading to reduced travel time, this alone can save billions of dollars in carbon footprint and such savings should be taken into consideration when we estimate the cost of building any form of transport system. While The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation is not an HSR it is the nearest example of how a good choice of transport transforms the life of a city. It has been certified by the United Nations as the first metro rail and rail-based system in the world to get “carbon credits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions” and helping in reducing pollution levels in the city by 630,000 tonnes every year.
According to a report by the Central Road Research Institute (CRRI), as many as 1.2 lakh vehicles are off the road every day because of the Metro. Roughly Rs 523 crore is saved annually in fuel costs whereas the cost in terms of time of passengers saved per year works out to a whopping Rs 2,978 crore, according to the study. Just imagine all these benefits replicated across top 20 cities in India and in future extended to all cities with a population of a 1-2 million, the benefits will be huge crossing more than 60000 crores per year (as per any conservative estimate) increasing the productivity of the country and adding at least half to 1 percent to overall GDP figures. And these benefits are just the other benefits that we get out of these systems; the actual benefits will be huge.
High Tech industry
With the available pool of millions of engineers India can look to become a powerhouse in building such networks across the globe with the best quality at the most competitive price. Building such a high tech industry will have enormous benefits for a country like India laying the foundation for many high tech industries. And the jobs created are not just direct high tech jobs but as per the UIC report every 10 direct jobs created in building HSR results in 14 indirect jobs compared to just 5 numbers of indirect jobs when building highways.
Is it feasible?
Yes indeed it is feasible, and the answer lies in going for a phase wise development of such transport system across India. Such a system can help India build new cities and new industries across the path of such a track. Across the world it is a known fact that cities around such a high speed network have become engines of growth and prosperity. Also there is a growing realization across the urban planners in the world that rapid urbanization is actually a good thing which leaves a large track of land to retain its biodiversity as the majority of the population stays up in big cities. And such big cities make the investment in such a transport system extremely feasible.
If the 2014 elections throw up a new government with a strong developmental agenda this will be one of the most debated subjects. While we discuss, our neighbour China has shown the way by building a world class HSR network to the tune of more than 10000 Kms with a daily ridership of more than 1.33 million. And the decision has transformed the way people used to travel and do business in China. Hope we also start investing in building capacities which may serve us well for the coming decades and change the way we travel and do business in India. Hope the next occupant of 7 Race Course Road is listening.
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