Pointless to evaluate Bullet Train in terms of its economic viability: says K Balakesari IRSME (Retd.)

In the din of the euphoria that has greeted the commencement of India’s first bullet train project, K. Balakesari’s voice of caution, balance and nuance is a welcome relief. Although he retired 16 years ago as Member (Staff) of the Railway Board, the premier executive body that charts the course of the Indian Railways, Balakesari’s 38-year tenure with the Railways—across the country and in various capacities—enables him to offer a perspective that balances the need for futuristic solutions to transportation problems with a pragmatism that takes into account India’s specific constraints.

Balakesari joined the Indian Railway Service of Mechanical Engineers in July 1963. While on the Railway Board he was also concurrently Chairman, Rail India Technical & Economic Services Ltd (RITES Ltd). Incidentally, Balakesari provided expert assistance to the Justice U.C. Banerji Committee (2004-06), which conducted an inquiry into the fire on the Sabarmati Express at Godhra in 2002.

Forty-three years ago, Balakesari, while with the Research Designs & Standards Organisation, ran a test train on the Tundla-Kanpur section to a maximum speed of 177 kilometres an hour on existing tracks. Recalling this thrilling experience, he said: “We ran slightly modified ICF-designed coaches on tracks for which we had permission for speeds up to 160 km/hr only.” To reach this acceleration, it took the train—a locomotive and two coaches—to travel a distance of 15-20 km. “Something went into our heads and we decided to go on and on,” he said.

Balakesari cautions against the shrill cries that everything is wrong with the Railways: “While there is no such thing as being perfectly safe, we have to appreciate that the Railways is not falling apart as some appear to suggest.” The bullet train, he says, is a project aimed at burnishing the image of the country, and therefore it is pointless to evaluate it in terms of its economic viability or its impact on the wider Indian rail system. Excerpts:

What do you think about the planned introduction of the bullet train from Mumbai to Ahmedabad in 2022? How important is the project given the state of the Indian Railways, especially in terms of priorities?

We need to keep in mind the fact that the bullet train project has been on the anvil for a long time. In fact, when I was in the Railways—as early as the turn of the millennium—there were discussions on such a project. Basically, it is a project to improve the image of the system. The idea was to leapfrog from what is 19th or 20th century to something futuristic. It is important to understand that the bullet train project has not been decided off the cuff.

Basically, the idea seems to be to project to the world that we are also capable of running something like this. It is also important to appreciate that any High Speed Rail [HSR] project is generally delinked from the conventional railway system—in terms of both management and finances. The HSR is not like running a Shatabdi [intercity express train]. In fact, HSR systems are more like airlines than conventional trains; they are competitors to airlines rather than the roadways. The experience overseas is that they attract users who wish to avoid the hassles associated with travelling by road. Indian Railways is probably only promoting the bullet train project; the managing entity will be something comparable to the case of the Delhi Metro.

But even if that is formally so, we have a situation in which the railway system is essentially in a state of decay. When tracks, coaches and wagons, signalling and almost every other aspect of the rail system is in need of urgent attention because of prolonged neglect, is this something the government ought to focus on?

I concede I have little direct experience with HSR systems. But I have [former] colleagues who have had direct, hands-on experience of 10-15 years and who have been actively associated with such projects in China and in Europe. Essentially, high-speed projects are about projecting an image, for various reasons—it could be political or even industrial. Interestingly, when the French TGV [Train à Grande Vitesse] was initially proposed by Georges Pompidou, it was rejected on financial grounds. Later, it was pursued and completed in the early 1980s.

The Japanese Shinkansen actually came about in the context of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, at which time Japan wanted it as a showpiece of its recovery after the Second World War. Although the Chinese had done a lot of spadework on such train systems earlier, it really got a push [in China] after the global financial crisis a decade ago. China went the whole hog on HSR, using it as a means of providing an economic stimulus. In fact, the Chinese HSR expansion in the last decade was perhaps the fastest implementation of a large-scale infrastructure project ever undertaken anywhere in the world. In six to seven years, they constructed about 15,000 km of high-speed track. So, every HSR, anywhere in the world, was not taken up as a result of strict evaluation of financial and economic criteria. It has always been based on some sort of a political decision that is aimed at furthering the image of a country or of the regime governing it. The message seems to be: “If you can do it, we can also have it”.

The second aspect of the Indian bullet train project is that it is being funded largely by the Japan International Cooperation Agency [JICA]. In a sense, it would be Japan Making in India.

But the financial terms are not so transparent…

I agree with that. Some have even asked: “Who knows what will happen after 50 years? None of us would be alive.”

But the point I am making is that the tendency to link the development of the conventional railways to HSR is not exactly correct because they are totally different. One is a running system; the other is a project that is separately funded and its finances are not going to impact on the finances of the Indian Railways. Definitely it would have an impact on the finances of the Indian government, but not directly on the Indian Railways.

There can always be the question that the Rs.98, 000 crore [needed for the] project can be better invested in the Indian Railways. But to tell you frankly, that is a political decision. The Prime Minister has added another aspect to this by insisting that it ought to be ready for the 75th anniversary of Indian independence, showing to the world that India has arrived in the bullet train age. This may mean nothing to an ordinary second class rail passenger, but the political masters have made their point! But the argument that the money could have been used for something else—improving the health indices or educational access, for example—is a never-ending one.

Questions of viability have been raised…

In every major country that has implemented HSR—barring perhaps the Paris-Lyon HSR—it has not been economically viable. Even the Paris-Lyon line took 17 years to break even [inclusive of infrastructure costs]. All the other HSR systems all over the world are, directly or indirectly, supported by their respective governments. To use the term “viable HSR” is thus an oxymoron.

The fascination with high speed has always been there. I do not think we will ever reach a stage where we will be able to say, “We have done all that is needed for the Indian Railways, so, now let us invest in HSR.” What I am saying is that we may disagree on the priorities, but the fact is that the HSR is a stand-alone project which in 99 per cent of the cases is a political decision. In this case, there are some locational advantages. It is located in the western region, an area in which the per capita income is relatively higher than the rest of the country. In the project area there are also fairly prosperous tier-2 cities like Surat, Vadodara and Anand. Moreover, the distance between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is about 500 km, which is supposed to be ideal for HSR projects.

There is some international evidence, primarily from Japan and France, to show that HSR improved safety in rail systems and contributed to economic activity in the areas served by it. In both countries the ridership increased beyond what was initially expected. I think we will imbibe best-class world practices as we implement the project. A training centre is to be established in Vadodara and Indian railway personnel are to be trained; these are welcome. The arguments against the project can point to all the ills that plague the Indian Railways. You can ask, “Why are you wasting money on this when the common man is not interested in travelling at 300-400 km/hr?” You could say he or she would be happy to reach home safe and on time, with clean coaches and clean toilets. It is important to recognise that we cannot run very-high-speed trains on existing tracks because of the high traffic.

When a Rajdhani runs, even on a double line, quite a few goods trains have to be stopped. This is because of the speed differential between the Rajdhani and the other trains using the same tracks. It’s only logical that any further increase in the speed differential would impact the throughput even more. This is the reason why I have reservations about even introducing semi-high-speed trains on existing tracks. Earlier, even for speeds in excess of 140 km/hr, fencing alongside tracks was recommended to prevent ingress of humans or cattle, even after eliminating all level crossings. This is because many of these lines pass through thickly populated areas. The service is not like a suburban railway, although in Japan the Shinkansen has almost become part of the suburban system; in some cases, they are ferrying passengers from 200 km.

There has also been prolonged and gross underfunding for track replacement, acquisition of coaches and wagons, signalling and improvement of stations and passenger amenities. Moreover, these frail assets have been flogged over the last several years. Although the Railways’ main business and the bullet train project may theoretically be completely separate, there still remains the question: can we afford to neglect the whole—the much larger conventional railway operation—for a much smaller part—the bullet train project? Can we afford a Janus-faced posture in these circumstances?

What is required in terms of resources to keep the Indian Railways safe and economically viable is a matter about which there can be no argument. Every regime in the last few decades has claimed to have handled the Railways better than its predecessor did. You cannot have a situation in which you claim to be doing better but you want even more money.

About a decade ago, there was a jump in earnings simply because the Railways started flogging its assets without a care for the state of its assets—over tracks, wagons and other systems. I do not know what damage has been caused, but the extent of wear and tear needs to be assessed.

If, as you say, everything is in a run-down state, who should be saying this? Are the people running the Railways admitting this?

My point is basically this: get honest information before you decide what you need to do. The political masters are saying: the Railways is not doing outstandingly well, but doing okay, so I may as well implement this [bullet train] and get some publicity!

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