A bullet train is a costly digression in the context of Prabhu‘s major focus on boosting investment in the main railway system.
Loyalty to the boss is not a bad thing in itself, but Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu struck one discordant note in an otherwise sensible Railway Budget for 2015-16: bullet trains. We don’t need them – at least at this stage.
Prabhu, whose budget focused on fixing the railways’ finances and chronic inability to invest in safety and speed, made one enthusiastic mention of Narendra Modi’s pet idea of bullet trains in his speech yesterday (26 February). He said “we will continue to pursue with vigour our special projects like high speed rail between Mumbai-Ahmadabad. The feasibility study for this is in an advanced stage and the report is expected by the mid of this year. Quick and appropriate action will be taken once the report is available with us.”
The only “quick and appropriate action” required is to send the report to the dustbin.
A bullet train is a costly digression in the context of Prabhu’s major focus on boosting investment in the main railway system. While it is possible that the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train – estimated to cost Rs 63,180 crore – may be entirely funded out of foreign or private funding, with Indian Railways providing little more than logistical help on land acquisition, the problem is that it is likely to be a white elephant even in foreign hands.
Either the fares will have to be extraordinarily high, in which case the public blowback will be immense, or it will have to be heavily subsidised at some point. One can’t see Japan being willing to run a loss-making bullet train, even assuming it is willing to fund the venture
entirely from its own resources.
When previous Rail Minister Sadananda Gowda first made a mention of bullet trains, this writer noted that India does not need a bullet train that will become the surface equivalent of the Anglo-French supersonic Concorde – which was finally put out of its misery after years of losses to both British Airways and Air France.
In fact, what Prabhu’s budget really makes out a solid case for is increasing train speeds on high density passenger and freight routes. Nine inter-metro routes are being earmarked for raising average speeds from the current 100-130 kmph to 160-200 kmph. This means train
journeys between Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Kolkata will just become overnight 12-hour journeys.
The airline chaps will get sleepless nights. Way to go.
Goods trains will be speeded up to 100 km and 75 km, depending on whether they are empty or loaded. This will make the Indian Railways a viable option for heavy cargo and logistics firm.
This idea will give truckers sleepless nights, and bring down the average cost of moving goods from one end of the country to another, by road or rail, at reasonable speed and cost.
The best option, of course, is for Prabhu to give us bullet train lookalikes that can be run on existing tracks, but much faster. These are called train sets because they can run in either direction without an engine.
Prabhu said: “With a view to providing superior riding experience and about 20 percent savings in journey time, it is proposed to introduce a very modern train system called train sets. These are similar to bullet trains in design and can run on existing tracks without an engine to haul them. For the railways it would imply higher capacity, greater energy savings and increased throughput. We hope that the first set of these trains would be running on our system within the next two years.”
This is a far better idea than the one about real bullet trains between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. The distance between the two cities is around 534 km. A high-speed train – which travels at 160-200 kmph - would take three hours to make the trip. This is not exactly a bad deal even for the truly busy air traveler since it saves time on going to and from airports – and waiting there for flights. And with all the jing-bang of wi-fi and other services added, anyone who travels on a high-speed train will not need to waste even this three hours in travel. Why would anybody use a bullet train at much higher cost just to shave an hour or two of travel time?
Prabhu’s job is to slowly convince his boss that a high-speed bullet-train clone that won’t bust the bank is a better idea than the real thing.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group
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