August 27, 2014

Money is limited, so should a bullet train be a priority?

One of the blockbuster announcements of this year’s Railway Budget was the bullet train. To be constructed with international collaboration, the bullet train – expected to run at 250 or 300 kmh – will operate in the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route.

I have no fundamental opposition to high-speed or bullet trains. Indeed, they fascinate me and would be very welcome at some point. The doubt in my mind is: have we reached that point? Indian Railways desperately need money for upgrade and modernisation. Money is limited, so should a bullet train be a priority?

The Railway Budget also makes mention of six freight corridors. To my mind, these corridors, rather than a bullet train, should obsess the Railway Minister. There are several reasons why. For a start, building a bullet train line will cost Rs 150-200 crore per km. Building a dedicated freight corridor will cost a tenth of that.

In the absence of dedicated freight corridors, goods and passenger trains share the same tracks. Obviously passenger trains get priority, and this delays freight. In recent years, India’s road and highway network has improved, as have trucks available in the country. This has led to a transfer of freight, from railway to road.

Twenty years ago, 60 per cent of all freight in India was moved by rail. Today it is 31 per cent. The volume of freight being carried by Indian Railways is growing by 4.8 per cent a year, so the minister told us in his Budget speech. Other than in the past two years, the overall economy has grown much, much faster. It would follow that overall freight is also growing much faster. As such, it is crucial for the well-being and the bottom line of Indian Railways to take this 4.8 per cent growth figure to six or seven per cent and get a greater slice of the freight market.

Take two examples. Each year, Food Corporation of India moves 250 million tonnes of food around the country. The share of Indian Railways is only 50 million tonnes. Similarly, 290 million tonnes of cement moves from one part of India to another. Just 90 million tonnes use trains.

Why is this happening? Part of the reason rail cannot compete with road is capacity. If a customer wants to book a consignment of 1,000-1,500 tonnes, rail doesn’t provide an easy solution. Each railway wagon has a capacity of 60 tonnes and 10 wagons means 600 tonnes.

When Mamata Banerjee was the railway minister, this predicament was the subject of deep study. Merit was seen in a concept already in operation in the Konkan Railway: RORO or roll on-roll off. This involved a road-railer model, where a steel wheel could also be used as a pneumatic tyre. It allowed for not a competition between rail and road but a partnership, with one feeding on the strengths of the other.

The RORO model needs to be pilot tested elsewhere. It can revolutionise Indian Railways much faster than the bullet train will.

Derek O’Brien
Member of Parliament
Chief Whip in the Rajya Sabha and National Spokesperson, Trinamool Congress