MYSURU: Indian politicians, almost all in awe of high-technology, tend to thrust India (or their particular State) into “modernity” by promising rapid and comfortable travel. But they gloss over safety, economy and volume of transportation appropriate to the Indian environment.

Bureaucrats and technocrats, eager to please political leaders, rarely if ever render honest advice on these projects, and encourage, if not themselves propose, such projects.

Thus, with an overall shortage of buses, we have high-fare urban AC buses running almost empty, with people waiting long periods to crush themselves into “ordinary” buses; with inadequate railway passenger trains, high-fare AC coaches and insufficient accommodation for “ordinary” people for sleeper berths, and nightmarish unreserved coaches; and “green field” airports being constructed when there is insufficient assured passenger load and commercial airlines reluctant to operate.

In this ambience, senior politicians, doubtless influenced by industrial-business corporations' hard-sell of high speed rail (HSR) corridors, have proposed high-fare “bullet trains” for India.

The name “bullet train” sells well with all sections of society, much more than “HSR” would do. These HSR corridors are politicians' neoliberal dream of expensive transportation projects to please a very small segment of India's 1.3 billion people with “development”, quite unmindful of the needs of the vast majority for safe, affordable, reliable, regular, clean (speed and comfort are secondary) rail travel.

It is necessary to note that HSR requires an exclusive right of way (EROW) corridor, completely fenced along the entire route. In India, with its very high population density, this would obviously be problematic in more ways than one. Notwithstanding the skewed emphasis of many politicians, and neglecting the severe EROW restriction, it is instructive to examine the economic viability of HSR projects in the Indian environment.

In the run-up to the 2014 general elections, then Prime Minister candidate Narendra Modi proposed connecting Mumbai with Ahmedabad by bullet train. As PM, he took a Shinkansen bullet train ride with Japanese PM Abe Shinzo in November 2016 to fast-track construction of India's first HSR corridor to traverse 508-km between Mumbai and Ahmedabad at average speed of 320-kmph, the MoU for which had already been signed on December 12, 2015. All this was done without public consultation or legislative discussion. It is understood that there is a lobby within the Railways ministry which has opposed the bullet train for a combination of reasons.

The HSR corridor is to have elevated EROW tracks for most of the distance, with a small stretch under the sea. Some sections of the media have written about a train ride under the sea, as if passengers would be able to view fish from the window! Land acquisition is expected to be completed by end of 2017, with construction commencing in 2018, and the project operational by 2023.

Taiwan started the Japanese Shinkansen Taipei-Zuoying 340-km HSR in 2007, with capital cost of around Rs.60,000 crores. The present single-trip fare of Taiwan dollars TWD 1,490 (Rs.3,230) is extremely competitive with air travel, air fare for the same sector costing TWD 3,920 (Rs.8,500). Against the initially-projected daily passenger volume of 240,000, the actual average is only 140,000. With this fare and ridership, the Taiwan HSR, unable to absorb depreciation and interest, is running at a huge loss, with the government stepping in to bail out the company.

The India HSR estimated project cost is Rs.97,936 crores (up from Rs.60,000 crores in 2014), with Rs.79,166 crores to be funded by Japan at a very low (0.1%) interest rate, and loan repayment starting from 2038 for completion in 2072. The balance Rs.18,470 crores will be funded jointly by Indian Railways, and the Maharashtra and Gujarat governments, with expected minimum return of 8% on investment.

The Taiwan fare applied pro rata to the Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR works out to Rs.4,830, while the Mumbai-Ahmedabad air fare is much more competitive at around Rs.2,500. When the present total of Mumbai-Ahmedabad passengers by AC Class rail, air and AC bus/taxi is about 21,000, and is estimated to rise to 36,000 by 2023, it will still be only about 25% of the present actual average daily ridership on the Taiwan HSR.

Thus, when the Taiwan HSR (competitive with air travel) with four times the Indian ridership operates at a huge loss, the Indian HSR with low ridership, lower air fare for the same sector and much higher capital cost, is sure to run at greater loss even with the benefit of low interest. The economic chips are heavily stacked against the India HSR. The Indian government will be constrained to heavily subsidise the ticket cost (for wealthy travelers) in order to attract higher ridership since the HSR cannot generate funds to service the borrowings and fund depreciation, let alone repay the huge loan to Japan.

Government cannot justify spending tax-payers' money to finance an unviable project, and additionally subsidize the ticket cost on an on-going basis to benefit a relatively minuscule set of affluent passengers.

Japan's Shinkansen technology is based on 50-years experience, with an impeccable track record of safe operation at speeds exceeding 320-kmph. However, this is experience within a typically Japanese environment of work ethics, training and technological capability. Railway safety in India is linked with some combination of systemic corruption, operational and security inefficiency, and institutional unaccountability and intransparency. With frequent rail accidents occurring when the average speed of express trains is under 80-kmph, transfer of such technology needs to be re-visited.

Rather than compromising public safety in an economically questionable HSR with iffy safety in the Indian environment, government would be better advised to consider investment for phased replacement of passenger coaches with safer Linke-Hoffman-Busche anti-telescopic coaches in the existing system.

The Railways ministry should place details of economic feasibility of proposed HSR links on its website. It is surely more important for Indian Railways to focus on present passenger safety, railway infrastructure, etc., so that the 22 million passengers who use Indian Railways daily can travel with the assurance of safety and punctuality.

Indian HSR proposals need to be given a transparent reality check in the public interest. Pushing ahead with a high-tech, potentially economically unviable project which can only serve a small minority, and neglecting the greatest good of the greatest number, besides being undemocratic, cannot be good politics in the long-term.

(S.G.Vombatkere is an engineer with long years of experience in planning and design of civil engineering projects, combined with on-the-ground project execution experience. He holds a PhD degree in civil engineering structural dynamics from I.I.T., Madras.

Roy Joseph has over 25 years work experience in a MNC in the areas of Finance and Information Technology (IT) with expertise in Business Process Transformation using IT.)