By S. Sivathasan –
Speaking on the Gujarat Budget of 2013, Modi expressed his annoyance at India’s failure to have her HSR. He also conveyed his passion. “Since 1980, the HSR has remained confined to the drawing boards only, now it should speed up”. The writer without access to the above observation wrote in Colombo Telegraph on March 24 2014, that in India “Intriguingly even a beginning is not made. Debate, more debate and intense debate till eternity before all the strands of wisdom can be assembled for the ideal decision”. Now the occasion has arisen for the very critic to be vested with authority to ‘speed up’ the decision and to cast aside 34 years of inaction. It is seen that in Germany 99% of long distance travel is by train. Her citizenry displays the most rational choice of travel and the government responds in the most sensible manner.
HSR system operates significantly faster than traditional ones. An integrated rolling stock system is used on a dedicated line built to take on speeds of 200 to 350 kmp/h. Upgraded tracks can go only up to 200.
Seeing HSR in motion on 23,645 kilo metres in as many as 17 countries of the world, Modi could not have spoken differently from conveying his impatience. More strikingly China was operating 800 train sets on 14,424 km while constructing another 13,053 km. Since 1964, Japan had transported 9 billion commuters on Shinkansen HSR alone. India had neither constructed a single km nor operated the first train set. In this background Modi has announced his plan for HSR. Strangely enough, US with 4 times the track length as India is yet to construct the 1st mile of HSR.
India’s Late Entry
Between the first train in the world that operated over a century and a half ago, and the High Speed Train (HSR), lies a century. Perhaps the rail system and the train sets called for great inventions to bring this about. But another half a century has intervened for India to plan her entry. Curious it would seem that the simplest discovery of its relevance should have taken longer than the most complex invention. It has fallen to Prime Minister Modi as the man of destiny to decide, pursue and to usher in the HSR to India. It is for him to see that 11 countries are constructing 21,677 km. It may be noted that China alone is doing 13,053 km of new tracks and will have a stock of 27,480 km in a few years.
India’s rail network is extensive as the 4th largest in the world having 65,000 km of track. In honeycombing the country it is the most intensive network. Compared to China, India is 1/3rd the land area, but has 2/3rd the track length. More significantly she carries 4 times the number of commuters at around 8 billion per annum. This is the highest volume for any country. Against this is China’s 2 billion which is 2nd highest. The figures show the contrasts of speed and comfort of travel in China and the perpetual congestion in trains and stations in India though at lumbering speed. The numbers also highlight the absence of any other mode as a substitute. Since long distance daily travel is unavoidable, Modi sees HSR as the inevitable and viable solution.
HSR and Imperatives for India
A very salient characteristic of HSR is that with time its speed goes higher and higher. Japan’s bullet train of 1964 – world’s first – had a maximum speed of 270 km/h. Today its speed is 440 km/h and ranks third. A second characteristic we see is the incredible innovation and improvement that other countries make to the original invention. China, Germany, France and South Korea stand high in this regard, having recorded speeds ranging from 483 kmp/h to 350. China has pride of place with 483 which is topmost as of now. For speed, Belgium is at the 11th slot with 297 kmp/h. For sophistication and elegance too she stands very high as may be seen from the Liege station.
The above account shows very pointedly the imperatives before India. Having an HSR for name sake running on an upgraded track capable of a speed of 200 kmp/h and nothing more is inconceivable. When the highest speed is about to touch 500 and 10th already recorded is above 300, India’s ambitions may already be pegged in this range. This would imply green field tracks, altogether new and modern and will be dedicated lines. In recent years India has acquired high level expertise in the delivery of tracks both underground and elevated. Metros in principal cities of Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai among others bear testimony. Local manufacture of luxury train sets for the Chennai Metro is another achievement. The HSR will open a new dimension to a fresh field that will open up for the future of India. It will take the form of tracks, train sets and the linking of populous cities and clusters of factories. Most importantly in a single lurch the medieval landscape will get transported into the modern.
A stunning view of Liege-Guillemina Station Belgium, built at 312 million euros and opened in 2009. It is of steel, glass and white concrete, with an arch 160 metres long and 32 metres high. Platforms are 5.
Another striking view of the station, displaying engineering skills and architectural excellence. India may have them a quarter century from now.
A nation of French speaking Catholics who seceded from Dutch speaking Protestant dominated Netherlands in the background of language and religious discrimination, came into their own and did this.
In contrast may be seen below a line in Hanoi after a 30 year war of destruction (1945-1975). The train squeezes past these tenements.
Yet all is not lost for Vietnam, independent for 40 years. A 640 km (400 miles) HSR is planned at $ 21.4 billion for execution shortly.
HSR and FDI
It may be discerned from the Manifesto, the President’s Address and Prime Minister’s pronouncements that revamping of the economy is engaging the energies of the powers that be in a very big way. It is clear that enabling inflow of FDI is high on the agenda. HSR in the next 20 years may require not less than 20,000 km and the cost will be in trillions. The Diamond Quadrilateral to which the government is already committed is the rail equivalent of Vajpayee’s Golden Quadrilateral for roads. Both seek to link the principal cites of the country with world class infrastructure.
The attention of the government will be demanded in a multiplicity of areas. Fund mobilization, imparting skills both technical and managerial, developing Public Private Partnership PPP to an unprecedented level, local manufacture of rolling stock, track materials and production of machinery and equipment, to name a few. Unparalleled development bringing in its wake inflation may tax the intellectual resources of fiscal policy managers. Balancing the political fallout will be even more challenging to the nation’s leadership. A comforting factor for the government is the ready accessibility of intellectual resources, of late in a state of malaise and now renascent.
A plunge into HSR in India has a parallel to the Auto Bahn (Federal Motorway) in Germany. It was conceived of in nineteen twenties, but the thrust to implementation was given by Hitler and it was completed in 1932. Direct employment and in the supply chain reached 400,000 in this project alone. Germany had incredible development in the 5 years 1933 – 1938. India can grow likewise and see peace and repose in an altogether different world in and around.