The Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (MAHSR) project is the most ambitious and largest rail project envisaged in India. It will propel India to the elite league of nations that run high-speed trains and is, therefore, also a project that would symbolise and instil national pride. At over 300 kmph, it would also mark a paradigm shift for the Indian Railways (IR), which still has average speeds in the range of 50 and 23 kmph for passenger and goods trains respectively. It would indeed dramatically change the way people in India look at travel as hitherto overnight distances between major cities would get compressed to 2-3 hours, often lower than the total time while travelling by air.
High Speed Rail (HSR), which is defined in terms of speeds above 250 kmph (MAHSR is designed for maximum speed of 350 kmph and operational speed of 320 kmph), does not represent an incremental improvement over conventional systems, but combines technologies to take rail travel to new dimensions. Presently, only 15 countries have HSR. In all these countries, it has brought about profound development over corridors in terms of economic opportunities, employment and environment-friendly transport. In all cases, a massive shift away from air travel and automobiles has also been noticed.
MAHSR went into the implementation phase with the ground-breaking ceremony in Gandhinagar on September 14 in the presence of the prime ministers of India and Japan. Unfortunately, however, as happens with all big projects that propel major changes, the lack of a thorough appreciation has resulted in unfounded misgivings. These need to be dispelled in the overall interest of the nation. Some of these misgivings are that the HSR is only for the elite; traffic projections are inflated; the project, by going in for Japanese technology on nomination basis, will consume substantial financial resources; India has locked itself into a high-cost model and whether IR will be able to manage HSR safely.
MAHSR is a futuristic project. Can we remain satisfied with average speeds of 50 kmph for passenger trains forever? Should IR not look at a leap of technology?
It should indeed be a matter of satisfaction that the railways is looking at both consolidation and growth and development at the same time, as one is not at the cost of the other. The way our country’s economy is growing, 10-15 years later our GDP levels would be much higher and that would necessitate extending the HSR network over the high-density golden quadrilateral (almost 10,000 km). It would also drive economies of scale and make HSRs uniquely Indian and frugal in construction cost and affordability.
The project aims at moving the masses. The traffic projection for the project has been arrived at by using normal econometric models and it is often true that once trains start running and people get used to the easy availability of fast travel, the ridership will exceed the projections. Our assessment is that there shall be a major exodus from road and air travel between the two cities in favour of the high-speed train. An offshoot would be the decongestion of the highway and airports.
IR is alive to the need for the modernisation. Major upgradation efforts comprising of two dedicated freight corridors, improvements to signalling, new coaching and freight stock and over 20,000 km of doubling, quadrupling, gauge conversion, etc, are in the offing. Capital expenditure over the last 10 years — at almost Rs 87,000 crore per annum — is 90 per cent higher on a year-to-year basis compared to 2009-14. To improve safety, a Rashtriya Rail Sanraksha Kosh, with a corpus of Rs 1 lakh crore to be spent over in five years, has been set up with a focus on asset renewal and elimination of unmanned level crossings. This has already started showing encouraging results. The existing railway network would also benefit immensely from the learnings that would emerge from the technology of HSR.
The safety record of the existing railway system is affected by a number of factors such as surface crossings, habitations close to tracks and the low margin for maintenance. All these factors are fully addressed in the HSR. In fact one of the reasons for choosing Shinkansen is that since its inception in 1964 there has been no fatal accidents.
HSR does not entail just fast travel for the passenger. Covering 500 km in 2-3 hours will obviously give an enormous boost to economic activities along the corridor. Closer economic linkages will convert the entire corridor into an economic cluster. Other benefits that would come with the project are generation of employment of about 40,000 persons during the construction phase, skill upgradation of local residents who will engage with the project and that of railway personnel who would be trained at the state-or-the-art High-speed Training Centre at Vadodara and the transformation of station terminals. The project would require about two million tonnes of cement and five lakh tonnes of steel per year during the construction phase. This would itself generate demand for transport and warehousing. The modal shift from air and automobiles to HSR will improve also air quality.
Government-to-government cooperation with Japan has not mandated the award of projects on a nomination basis. All the contract packages in the project will be bid out competitively within the framework of the Memorandum of Cooperation, except for about 18 per cent of the value of the contract which would be reserved for competition among Japanese companies.
The project is being managed efficiently and that gives confidence that it can be delivered at a competitive cost and to international standards. In the next 5-6 years, by when the high-speed trains would start running, the project will more than prove itself even to its wildest of detractors. The nation will be eagerly awaiting this giant leap in technology.