Sunday, January 10, 2016

Why the Mum-Ahd bullet train is a bad idea

Last week, I read the piece of news with increasing bewilderment - the Modi Government has put the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail project on some kind of fast track (pardon the pun), and has set up a panel for the same. This extraordinary rail project basically involves building a dedicated high-speed elevated track for trains that can run at speeds upto 350km/hr, thus reducing the 550km Mumbai-Ahmedabad route to just two hours. Of course, the train is expected to have around 10-12 stops as well, which would probably bring down the average speed of the train to around 200 kmph over the length of the journey, and thus increase the actual travel time to around 3 hours.

For most of us Indians, the term "bullet train" sounds like some kind of futuristic technology, the kind that supposedly catapults India into the big league of advanced nations. Nothing can be farther from the truth. High-speed rail has existed in many nations for several decades. In fact, Japan's first bullet train started services in 1965. Yes, FIFTY years ago. THAT'S how old the concept is. And therein, also lies the problem.

You see, bullet trains were introduced in Japan at a time when commercial aviation had not taken off (pardon the pun again) as much as it has today. Flight tickets in the 1970s were unreasonably high.  Hence it made a lot of sense at that time to have high-speed trains giving a relatively affordable means of quick travel. Today, airfares have hit rock-bottom and are hence the preferred mode of high-speed transport over long distances, where even high-speed trains would take several hours.

A flight ticket from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, if planned properly, costs around Rs.2600, and takes about 2 hours including the check-in and checkout procedures. The proposed bullet train is expected to cost 1.5 times the 1stAC fare, which works out to around Rs.3000 bucks for the same two-to-three hour journey. As a passenger, why exactly then would i want to travel by this train, except for a one-time joyride experience?

Let's look at this from the other side. The cost of this project has been pegged at Rs.98,000 crore of which Japan is funding around 81%. Going by the past track record of most infrastructure projects in the country, this will surely balloon up further, but I will still hope for a miracle and assume that costs do not exceed. How will this cost be recovered? It's a no-brainer that one would need multiple services a day to actually make this successful, so I will be ambitious, and hope that there is one train every four hours daily, which means 6 services a day in each direction, or 12 services in all. Let us assume that each train is of 16 coaches (again an ambitious figure, as 350kmph is a bit risky for very long trains). Assume each bogie seats about a hundred passengers, and with 90% occupancy (again ambitious), each train could carry around 1440 passengers, thus reaching 17280 passengers a day. If we hope that the Railways earn a 40% margin for each passenger ticket at 90% occupancy, that works out to a profit margin of Rs.1200 per passenger for a ticket worth Rs.3000. Thus, the railways would earn Rs. 17280*1200 = Rs. 2.07 crore per day, or Rs.756 crore a year (around 0.8% of the cost). At that speed, it would require 129 YEARS to recover the entire cost of the project. Considering the rate of inflation at 8%, it is mathematically impossible to recover the entire cost at all. In fact, it would require some outrageous assumptions (like jacking up the price of each ticket by 300%) or running a train every one hour, in order to realistically break-even in around 25 years.

Other Countries

The fastest train in the US, the Acela Express, touches a top speed of 240kmph. While that is much quicker than Indian trains, it is nowhere close to the definition of "high-speed" rail. Yes, the technologically most powerful country in the world, hasn't even bothered to increase the speed of its trains beyond this. The Shanghai Maglev, considered to be the fastest train in the world at a speed of 430kmph, is being termed a white elephant and a major flop

The Alternatives

Today in the year 2015, commercial aviation has become a mainstream mode of transport. Not even the fastest train in the world can beat the speed and affordability of air travel. Rail travel, is today considered as a cheap, comfortable, and reasonably brisk mode of transport. Yet it lags way behind in speed and comfort. Cleanliness and hygiene inside the trains still have a long way to go, especially in sleeper class compartents. The speed of trains is a major drawback. For example, the fastest train connecting Mumbai and Bangalore (two metro cities) is the Udyan Express, which runs at a leisurely speed of 47 kmph, taking a royal 23 hours to cover the entire journey. Most buses do it in around 16 hours. This is true for many other trains. In fact, several trains which are designated as "superfast", in reality have speeds ranging from just 55 to 60kmph. 

Most experts have agreed that semi-high-speed rail (160-200kmph) is the best solution for India's transport requirements, costing just 10% of the cost of building a high-speed rail. But, if implemented across the country, travel times could drop by half. That would be an incredible improvement. Imagine travelling from Mumbai to Delhi in just 9 hours by train!

To be fair, the main reasons why trains in India are slow, is not because of the top speed possible - most trains in India regularly touch speeds in excess of 100kmph, but because of 
(a) slow railway switches leading to forced reduction in speed 
(b) too many stops at irrelevant stations for political reasons. 
(c) sharing of tracks with much slower freight trains

Indian railways would benefit far better if this 98,000 crore ws spent on building dedicated freight corridors, and upgrading the railway switches to eliminate the need for slowing down at each switch. Coming back to the Udyan express example, if the train's average speed could be increased from 47kmph to even 70kmph, it's travel time would decrease from 23 hours to around 16 hours. Increase it further to around 90 kmph, and it would take just 12 hours - just an overnight trip! 

The Duronto series of trains launched a few years back is a welcome step towards increasing the speed and comfort of rail travel. It is no surprise that the Duronto, Rajdhani and Shatabdi always travel with nearly 100% occupancy, with tickets getting sold out several days before the journey date. It merely shows that most passengers would dont mind spending a few extra hours if they get comfortable and affordable travel. If these trains could be further speeded up by fine-tuning the above points, they would be a much more viable option for both the Railways as well as the customers insetead of spending obscene amounts on high-speed rail. For the minority who really need extremely high-speed travel, air travel is always available at a marginally more expensive price.

I can only hope that someone in the Railway ministry sees the futility of this project and utilizes the taxpayer's money in a better way!

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