Bite the Bullet
BY Mitalee Kurdekar
Considering the huge capital commitment that High-speed Rail (HSR) projects call for, it is natural for anyone to question the need for such a high-cost mode of travel in a developing economy like India. In fact, such questions were raised soon after the Government announced its intent and plans to go ahead with such projects almost five years ago. In answer, the benefits of HSR speak for themselves. For starters, HSR has proved be an energy-efficient alternative per passenger kilometre when compared with other modes of travel. In addition, if one considers longer term economic benefits, then payback on the initial capital outlay for HSR is significant.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the Government has already announced HSR infrastructure projects to link major metropolitan cities and a few other metro cities along the way or in close proximity. The ambitious plan set to unfold during the course of next 5-10 years will fulfil the dream and promise of the Late Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of providing the nation with better connectivity through the diamond quadrilateral.
The Need for Speed
With India on the verge of an economic explosion, transportation/ travel of goods & passengers is an important economic activity. In this context, HSR offers obvious benefits. It is said to be the most energy-efficient and less environmentally polluting mode of transport, both in terms of goods & passengers. Currently, India imports almost 80% of its oil requirement, which is mostly consumed as fuel in road, rail and air transportation. On the other hand, HSR uses energy-efficient resources like water, nuclear energy etc. and, in some cases, even the latest technologies such as maglev or magnetic levitation or electromagnetic propulsion systems. Greenhouse emissions are one of the lowest in the case of HSR. Hence, both economically and environmentally, HSR makes the most sense for India.
Explaining the need to opt for HSR, Alain Spohr, MD, India & South Asia, Alstom, says, “Faster trains are essential to strengthen the fundamentals of the country’s growth. The Indian Railways has embarked on an ambitious project to develop high-speed rail. The present infrastructure and equipment need a major upgrade to support high-speed rail.”
“India has 25,000 kms of electrified broad-gauged tracks (out of 67,000 kms of rail network). They can be used to run high-speed freight and passenger trains. HSR works at an average speed of around 250 kmph (with the most extreme speed of 320 kmph), which is perfect for a distance up to 800 kms,” Spohr suggests.
Also, land requirements for HSR projects are the least when compared to highways or motorways in terms of number of passengers or goods tonnage transported per hour. In the Indian context, this is a big plus in terms of connecting mega cities and metros where such railway lines are lifted on elevated corridors. China has proved this point rather well. In addition, such HSR corridors would help in reducing the congestion of megacities by minimising the influx of people from neighbouring cities and towns, without compromising on economic growth of the nation and economic development of its people. HSR will also reduce the wastage of resources arising from traffic congestions and fuel losses. Overall, for India, HSR makes huge economic sense. It is truly an attractive travel option that would reduce travel time and improve comfort for passengers.
As Hardeep Singh, director of rail, Egis in India, points out, “HSR would play a vital role to shorten long distances. As compared to air trips, HSR is more convenient in terms of space, speed and time. HSR corridors will also help in the development of surrounding areas. Also, HSR corridors will reduce the burden on currently operated corridors as passengers will be diverted towards the dedicated corridors of HSR. If we consider examples of developed economies – like Japan, USA, UK and many European countries – where it is currently operational, HSR has clearly added value in the development of cities.”
However, the implementation of HSR is no easy task. The biggest challenge in India is the political will that is required for such pivotal decision-making in a democratic political system involving multiple parties. Issues of huge capital outlay, starving the population of scarce resources, and other concerns about viability have been regularly brought up. These are issues that the Government is tackling by seeking a consensus within the political system, hence they may take time to resolve. And time is of the essence.
Drawing attention to some of these challenges, Dr VK Gahlot, urban transport engineer, Public Works Department, Government of Rajasthan, states, “There are plenty of challenges including alignment selection, network expansion, land acquisition, integration with the existing rail network, safety, signalling and human resource development for the successful operation and maintenance after commissioning of the HSR project.”
As Spohr professes, “We need to study feasibility and business propositions that depend on a lot of factors. India has a broad-gauge network, while HSR networks in other countries are standard gauge. This is an issue. Additionally, challenges in land acquisition, environmental clearances and pricing will be debated a lot.”
While operational challenges can be overcome, land acquisition issues are unique in a democratic country, and Indian developers have experienced these with most major infrastructure projects. Assessment of economic & financial viability and the risks associated with such projects are another key challenge for the planners and executors of HSR projects.
Dr Gahlot explains, “Transport planning mainly depends upon transit demand estimates, and the economic and social importance of the connecting cities. These days, any vulnerability to natural disasters and calamities is given due importance while selecting alignments.” The governments have to step in from time to time with policy support and alignment of policy framework to ensure implementation with minimum disruptions and problems.
Import of Technology
Unlike China, which encouraged technology access through licencing for local manufacture of HSR components, India has adopted the route of importing requisite technology through collaborations, funding support and Make in India programmes. Many countries like Japan, Germany, South Korea and China have adapted to Maglev Train systems. In fact, China has started building new metro lines using Maglev technology to increase the speed of these trains. Earlier in 2016, India’s Railway Minister had suggested that six global companies have expressed interest with the Indian Railways to build tracks to test high-speed rail systems.
Despite this, India has been cautious in making its technology choice for HSR. Much like China, it is keen to have interoperability of these trains between multiple public as well as private players. This will provide Indian operators much required flexibility and also buying power. India is also interested in magnetic attraction technology instead of magnetic repulsion, which somewhat reduces the maximum speed, but is more cost-effective.
Singh of Egis says, “The best technology chosen for India would be one which provides maximum technology transfer and maximum interoperability. It should be a means that doesn’t restrict open competition for system providers and the same train can be run on all HSR corridors.”
After a long wait and initial feasibility study conducted along with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in 2013, India has finally taken up the HSR project for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor. A foundation stone was recently laid for this project, indicating that things are looking up for the country’s HSR outlook.
Most of the 508 kms of this corridor’s length would be elevated, except for a short stretch of 21 kms between Thane and Virar that is meant to be underground – of which 7 kms would be under the Thane Creek. The agreement with JICA states that signalling equipment and power systems for this project would be imported. As per the plan, initially, a total of 24 high-speed trains would be imported from Japan and the rest of the trains would be manufactured in India. This will support the Make in India programme and also provide India with manufacturing capabilities. If this project turns out to be on similar lines as the Suzuki car model, this could well lead to a low-cost option for subsequent exports to regional markets.
Alstom, for instance, is positively considering the opportunity in India. They are developing ultra-modern maintenance depots at Saharanpur and Nagpur. These, along with the plant in Madhepura and the control centre in Bengaluru, will create a complete ecosystem for manufacturing, monitoring and maintaining India’s most-powerful freight trains, says Spohr.
In terms of financing models, India is looking at many options and alternatives like foreign funding support, loans for adopting technologies and funding through multilateral agencies, besides committing its own planned spend. There is also a good response for selective private funding support through the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model.
On the subject, Dr Gahlot offers, “High-speed railway system development, implementation and operation projects can be undertaken as public sector transport development in view of the nature of its characteristics as one of the public land transport services. Looking to the metro rail experience in the country, the PPP model is the most viable option to make the HSR mission successful in the long-term.”
JICA has committed to finance 85% of the total cost of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor HSR project, estimated to cost around $ 17 billion. The state governments of
Maharashtra and Gujarat would finance the remaining
15% cost component. The terms for financing the project provided by JICA are seemingly attractive. The loan is provided at an interest cost of mere 0.1% with a moratorium of 15 years and further repayment period of 50 years. With this beginning, there would be other multilateral agencies who could come forward to fund other HSR corridors, hopefully on more competitive financing terms. Considering the Indian project pie is attractive with five more corridors of the Diamond Quadrilateral Plan on the table, this is a good sign for better financial co-operation between India and such agencies.
On the Right Track
While India still has a long way to go as far as HSR is concerned, Spohr of Alstom is optimistic when he suggests, “There are ample opportunities for HSR in India. The long-term advantages of HSR network are plenty. It can induce more competition with other modes of transport, redistribute population into smaller cities and towns, change travel behaviour and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.”
“Apart from the currently under-construction Ahmedabad-Mumbai HSR corridor, the Government has already planned for diamond quadrilateral HSR corridors, which are Delhi-Mumbai, Mumbai-Chennai and Delhi-Kolkata, for which studies are on. Apart from this, Delhi-Chandigarh-Amritsar is also planned for semi-HSR operation. Many states are also working on studies for different corridors like Chennai-Bengaluru-Mysuru,” Singh points out.
Plans are certainly on the right track, and if all goes well, India should soon have a robust HSR network in play.