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Speed up the railways
I have been pointing to the very poor additions to rail lines made since independence averaging around 160 km per year. Attention to railway’s development will trigger all round growth.

THROUGH THE PAST 68 years we could point to just a handful of major projects like the Konkan railway, the Delhi Metro or the recent efforts to link Kashmir with the rest of India. The electrification of the trunk lines may also be pointed out as a major change. But these dwarf into insignificance related to the massive advances noticed in this area in terms of speeding up train services. Initially noticed in Europe, notably France, subsequently in

Japan with the Shinkansen Expresses and in the recent decade in China where speeds of 400 km/h are becoming the norm.

 

Snail’s pace of Indian railways...

Contrast this with the speed of several express and mail trains that have been running for decades at snail’s pace. The Chennai-Mumbai Mail comes to mind as the most glaring of these. If it took 36 hours to travel a distance of around 1100 km some five decades ago, it continues to take over 30 hours today. This means an average speed of around 40 km/h!

The position is not very different in regard to other proclaimed novelties like the Shatabdi Express. This train covers the distance between Chennai and Bengaluru, of around 330 km, in five hours, working to around 66 km/h. It is true that the sector is saturated and also the quality of rail track does not permit running trains at higher speeds. These limitations come in the way of further reducing travel time despite the fact these trains are point to point with no scheduled stoppages in between.

 

Chennai-Bengaluru in an hour!

For decades France, Germany and Japan have been clocking speeds of 300 km/h. At such speeds the distance between Chennai and Bengaluru can be covered in just about an hour.

In 2008 IE organised a seminar on Corridors of Excellence, which involved several policymakers including Madhavan Nambiar, then Secretary, Ministry of Civil Aviation, to discuss the prospects for a high-speed industrial-cum-rail corridor. IE suggested such a corridor from Chennai to Bengaluru through Sriperumbudur-Kancheepuram-Ranipet-Hosur-Electronic City. Specially laid tracks can be constructed to take trains at speeds of over 300 km/h. Such a project can bring several advantages: chief among these is the development of the entire stretch as a strong industrial corridor. The second and equally important outcome will be the dispersal of housing along the route. It will no longer be necessary to crowd Chennai or Bengaluru and also to strain the infrastructure, which is cracking at the seams. It should be possible for one to live comfortably in a rural setting some 50-100 km away either from Chennai or Bengaluru and commute daily to the city. In this we will de-congest these major cities, live in more congenial surroundings and enjoy the be-nefits of better environment as in hundreds of suburbs in the US.

 

Triggering employment downstream

A massive step up in rail construction will bring enormous advantages. For one thing, as had happened in the US, Germany, Japan, China and elsewhere, there will emerge a huge demand for steel and other materials. India can plan to produce around 200 MT of steel, which will mark a more than three-fold increase in the current capacity. China produces over 750 million tonnes a year. This in turn can trigger a whole range of industries downstream, notably signalling equipment and rolling stock. The immediate fall out will be a huge increase in employment in the construction sector. India can witness the boom that was witnessed by countries in Europe, as also in Japan and elsewhere in the post-war years. And this boom can be continuous.

The reduction in travel time between Chennai and Bengaluru, to an hour, will eliminate the need to focus on the costlier development of air services and make travel more affordable. Large cities in the southern region - Hyderabad, Mysore, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Madurai, Coimbatore and Tiruchi - can also be reached in a couple of hours with such high speed trains. This can trigger enormous economic development of places en route.

Delhi has been focusing on the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor. There are expectations of development of dozens of cities en route modelled on Singapore. Such a development should spread to other regions of the country.

 

Cess on freight and rail tickets

IE has been suggesting a facile method of raising the needed resources by levying a cess on the freight moved, say around Rs 10/tonne. This alone can help raise over Rs 1000 crore of additional resources. Likewise, a cess on the railway tickets for passengers can help raise a couple of thousand crores of rupees. These can be leveraged through loans from multinational and bilateral institutions to tap Rs 10,000 crore per year. This huge amount, specially dedicated to railway development, can help add hundreds of kilometers of high speed rail tracks as witnessed in China in recent years.

 

Powerful road lobby...

US has been missing out on such opportunities on rail development. There is recent interest in this area. The lopsided priority given for highways and the automobiles, has hindered development of the railways. The speed achieved, even by the Acela Express, is a maximum of around 130 km/h, not much different from India’s. This is in spite of having laid a very large network of rail lines. US has not benefited from the economies and elegance involved in running high-speed trains. Sadly, India has been following this particular model.

Over the last six decades the road transport lobby has been extremely powerful and strong contributing to a massive switch over from the railways to road. Today, the road transport sector accounts for over 80 per cent of the total freight moved and this is certainly not an economic way. For instance, a truck, even if a multi-axled one, can carry around 40 tonnes. Ordinary trucks can carry hardly an average of around 10 tonnes and they are subjected to enormous delays and corruption at check posts across the district/state borders.

Improving efficiency of the rail network can eliminate all these. Here one feels the need for high quality managers at the top. It is true at least in the first three decades of independence Indian Railways supplied top management for the public sector and even private sector. But the bureaucratic set up and regional pulls come in the way of the railways rearing high quality talent. The Modi government would do well to induct talent from the private sector and work vigorously in terms of public-private partnership mode for making the railways accelerate the economic growth.

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