» Six new passenger lines being considered for service at speeds above 250 km/h.
Revealing her plans for India’s railroads in a speech this week on this year’s budget, Railways Minister Mamata Banerjee committed to the development of high-speed rail corridors throughout the country, even as she reaffirmed her promise to ensure continued investment in India’s conventional train network, which she framed as a social necessity. Her budget includes $9 billion in spending on the maintenance and upgrading of existing rail corridors, up 2.8% from last year’s budget.
With 18 million daily passengers, a staff of 1.4 million employees, and 17,000 trains operating on 64,000 kilometers of track, India maintains one of the world’s largest rail systems, arguably only matched by China’s. Yet it has thus far been unwilling to commit to a major speed-up of any of its corridors, so even the most-used intercity routes operate on decrepit tracks.
Indian Railways runs many of the local commuter rail systems in the nation’s largest cities, including Mumbai, which will get 101 new daily services according to the budget plan.
Most of the nation’s rail network was built by the British colonial government during the period of economic subjugation that concluded with India’s independence in 1947.
Plans for high-speed corridors have been discussed for years, but Minister Banerjee’s budget is the first to include a plan to establish a National High-Speed Rail Authority, which would coordinate planning and eventually construction on selected lines.
Indian Railways’ Vision 2020 proposal, released late last year, selected six priority routes (“Golden Rail Corridors”) designated for trains to operate at speeds above 250 km/h, or 155 mph. These six lines would connect the nation’s largest cities, including Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, and Calcutta. High-speed trains in India would operate in corridors reserved for passenger trains, unlike the mixed routes shared with freight trains that slow down the system today. Most of the running ways would likely be constructed elevated over the surrounding cities and countryside.
But India’s focus remains clearly on the operation of the system that already exists. Ms. Banerjee suggested that her Ministry’s “Objective is inclusive growth for all, and our goal is to unite the country with connectivity.” To the Minister, the rail system is more about “social responsibility” than “economic responsibility.”
It’s a nice mantra for a country so reliant on its trains, and indeed, her budget is designed to begin the effort to spread railroad service to isolated areas of the country with 25,000 kilometers of new track by 2020. Over the next year, the Ministry will add 3,200 passenger coaches to the system and introduce 28 new passenger services. Ms. Banerjee has made this commitment without raising fares, a reflection of her efforts to reduce social inequalities through improved transportation. She is the founder of the Trinamool Congress Party, a democratic socialist member of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, which won reelection in 2009.
Yet one wonders how serious the Minister can be in advancing major social goals through the railway network when she is openly pushing for public-private partnerships that will diminish the degree to which the system can work to reduce economic inequalities.
Similarly, China’s foray into high-speed trains has been spectacular but the fares its customers pay are simply too high to make the service beneficial to a large percentage of the population. The poor continue to be relegated to the slow train.
Will India advance an alternative approach for high-speed rail, perhaps modeled on that of France, where fares on fast trains are low enough that equivalent standard-speed service is simply eliminated? That’s a much more equitable strategy in line with Ms. Banerjee’s ideals.
If built, the high-speed system would interface nicely with public transportation in many of the cities where trains will stop. The Indian national government has provided a 50% funding share to any state that agrees to finance a metro system in a city of more than one million people. This commitment to local transit, based on the success of the Delhi Metro, has made possible the construction of new lines in Mumbai, Bangalore, and Chennai, all of which would receive high-speed service according to plans. Planning for new metrorail lines in several other affected cities is underway.