Why Bullet Trains are Unsuitable for India

    Why has the speed of trains on IR remained stagnant in the past forty-eight years?

    The difference in travel time is not very significant despite the tremendous cost difference

    Is Railway Board trying to divert attention from its dismal failure to raise the speed of trains?

    We should rather go for conventional high-speed trains, which will prove better and cheaper. The big advantage we have is the flat terrain on the trunk routes

    Alok Kumar Verma*

    Many will be surprised to know that eighty years ago trains ran at a faster speed in North America and Western Europe than in India today. On the shorter distances, daytime inter-city trains achieved an average speed of 120 to 130 km/hr, and on the longer routes (more than 1000 km) speed was little lower. For example:

    * The 286 km distance from Berlin to Hamburg in Germany was covered by the “Flying Hamburger” in 2 hr 10 min at an average speed of 132 km/hr. Trains, called Streamliners, covered the 1633 km distance from Chicago to Denver in the US in 16 hr achieving an average speed of 102 km/hr.

    * Eighty years later on IR, only one train runs at an average speed more than 100 km/hr. The Gatiman Express covers the 188 km distance from Delhi to Agra at the average speed of 113 km/hr.

    * The next fastest train is much slower. The New Delhi-Bhopal Shatabdi Express which covers the distance of 703 km at an average speed of 90 km/hr.

    * The fastest train over long distance is Delhi-Mumbai Rajdhani Express which covers the distance of 1386 km in 15 hr and 50 min at an average speed of 88 km/hr.

    Is Railway Board trying to divert attention from its dismal failure to raise the speed of trains in the country? The speed of trains has been stagnant in the past forty-eight years since 1969 when the Delhi-Howrah Rajdhani Express (Maximum speed of 130 km/hr) was introduced. Now, Railway Board wants to crash into the club of countries with High-Speed Rail (HSR) lines that carry the famous Bullet Trains (The trains got the name Bullet Trains because the nose of the aerodynamically shaped train looked like the tip of a bullet). Certainly, the country is not being given the full picture, particularly the fact that there is the sensible option of adopting conventional high-speed trains that would meet the country’s requirements of higher speed.

    The question that should be asked to understand why India does not need Bullet Trains is this: Why should Indian Railways (IR) build a HSR line at a whopping cost of 217 crore/km (Rs. 1,10,000 crore for a distance of about 508 km from Ahmedabad to Mumbai) if it is possible to build a conventional high-speed line at one eighth of this cost (Rs. 25 to 30 crore/km; Total cost: Rs. 16,000 crores). Both these project costs include the cost of trains also.

    While the Bullet Trains (Maximum speed of 350 km/hr, average speed 240 km/hr) will cover the distance in 2 hr and 8 min, the journey will be completed on a conventional high-speed line in 2 hr and 50 min with tilting trains (Average speed: 180 km/hr) and 3 hr 25 min with normal trains (Average speed: 150 km/hr). Clearly, the difference in travel time is not very significant despite the tremendous cost difference.

    A measure of how cost-effective conventional high-speed is that while it will cost about Rs. 4,35,000 crore to build a 2,000 km long HSR line from Delhi to Chennai, it shall be possible to upgrade the entire 20,000 km network of IR’s trunk routes (average cost Rs. 12 to 14 crore/km) to run high-speed trains on the existing conventional lines. This includes the cost of building about 10,000 km of new double line routes (average cost Rs. 15 crore/km) alongside the existing key trunk routes to optimise the speed of trains by segregating the faster trains from the slower ones. The upgraded existing lines will carry high-speed passenger trains (Maximum speed 200 to 240 km/hr) and fast freight trains (Maximum speed 120 to 160 km/hr).

    With the above upgradation and expansion, IR will be able to provide fast daytime intercity travel over 200 to 600-km distances and comfortable overnight travel on longer distances up to 2200 km (See box “Journey time and speed of trains” all over the country. Further, this can be expected to provide sufficient capacity to meet the IR’s requirement of the next twenty to thirty years.

    Why has the speed of trains on IR remained stagnant in the past forty-eight years? The fact is that from 1985 to 2005, Indian Railway had made a massive investment to upgrade its trunk routes (see box IR’s plan to upgrade the existing trunk routes). By 2005, it had everything in place to raise speed to 200 km/hr from the existing 100 to 130 km/hr in stages over the next five to seven years with benefits starting to accrue from the second year itself, but IR repeatedly failed to carry out the last mile works (Easing of some sharp curves, strengthening some bridges, improving track geometry to tighter tolerances, cab signalling, and fencing in congested areas to prevent trespassing) that were required to complete the upgradation and unlock the full potential of its existing network.

    IR’s WAP 5 Locomotive were acquired for upgraded lines (160 to 200 km/hr)


    Ø    1983-84: IR prepared plans to raise speed on the trunk routes from 130 km/hr to 160 km/hr. Track and other infrastructure began to be upgraded. RDSO, the research arm of IR was given the task of upgrading existing locomotives, coaches and wagon indigenously with the help of UNDP and other global developmental agencies.

    Ø    1993-95: RDSO carried out a detailed study on the prototype rolling stock, and submitted its report for raising speed to 160 km/hr on Delhi-Kanpur and Delhi-Bhopal lines. Upgradation of the track and other infrastructure for this speed had been largely completed on these routes.

    Ø    In September’1994, Railway Board wrote to RDSO to complete necessary field trials and submit a report for raising speed on the above routes. Speed-raising was to be done the next year (1995). Field trials were successfully carried out by RDSO, but Railway Board deferred speed-raising.

    Ø    1995-2005: IR acquired ABB electric locomotives and LHB coaches which could run at 160 km/hr on the existing lines and were upgradable to 200 km/hr. With the transfer of technology agreements with the suppliers, production units of IR started manufacturing these locomotives and coaches. Wagons capable of running at 100 km/hr were also manufactured.

    IR’s LHB coaches were acquired for upgraded lines (160 to 200 km/hr)

    In March 2007, as China was completing upgradation of its network to 200 km/hr before moving on to build new HSR lines, the author submitted to the railway board a study of how railways across the world had upgraded and expanded their networks using different approaches that suited their geography, demography and level of economic development. Then chairman railway board had shown a keen interest, but he was to retire shortly. Eventually, nothing concrete happened to put back upgradation of the existing network as IR’s top priority. Much of the information contained in this article is from that report: Wherever required the information has been updated to account for the recent developments.

    This article is not specifically about the Ahmedabad-Mumbai HSR project to run Bullet Trains. Railway Board has justified the project on the ground that the project shall be financed by Japan on very favourable terms to India. Reportedly Japan will give a soft loan of Rs. 88,000 crore which will cover 80% of the project cost, which is estimated at Rs. 1,10,000 crore. Railway Board has claimed that the loan is at a negligible 0.1% rate of interest. Further, the loan will be repayable over thirty-five years after a moratorium of fifteen years. What is worrying is that IR is carrying out feasibility studies for new HSR lines totalling about 8,000 km. So the important question that this article intends to address is should India build more HSR lines?

    For a full understanding of why India does not need Bullet Trains (HSR lines), a rather intriguing question that demands an answer is why did Japan, France, Germany, Spain, China, South Korea, Taiwan and some other countries build HSR lines instead of building conventional high-speed lines even though the Bullet Train lines offer only marginal benefit in terms of journey time and line capacity. To get necessary insight into this, it is necessary to look at the historical development of HSR.

    Within two decades after the end of World War II in 1945, railways rapidly declined from a position of near total dominance of domestic travel to a marginalised role in the developed countries of Western Europe, the USA, Japan, Australia, Canada, and Japan. As these countries witnessed explosive industrial and economic growth, there was a need for faster inter-city travel for better mobility. But, the railways failed to bring about technological improvements to sufficiently raise the speed of trains to meet the demand for better mobility.

    While the railways failed to increase the speed of trains, the airlines saw rapid growth spurred by technological breakthroughs like the birth of jet planes and improved air navigation. Travel by road improved greatly in terms of safety, reliability and comfort. With rising affluence, more families could own motorcars and travel by road also became safer compared to the conditions in the 1920s and 30s. By the end of the 1960s, the share of railways in passenger transport had been reduced from more than 80% to less than 10% in most of these countries. In USA passenger travel by trains was nearly finished.

    Like such products of technology, High-Speed Rail (HSR) was developed in the 1960s to 80s in Japan, France, Germany and Italy to meet specific needs of the time. The rapid growth of the air and road modes of transport led to heavy congestion on roads and airports, a serious problem of air pollution, and heavy dependence on imported oil. Each of these countries was a major oil importing country at that time. Thus, the aim of developing HSR technologies in Western Europe and Japan was to bring back to railways the passenger traffic that it had lost to the aeroplanes and automobiles and thereby also address the problems of congestion on highways and airports, pollution and dependence on imported oil.

    Reducing dependence on imported oil was crucial because road and air transport accounted for about 80% of the total consumption of oil. Cartelisation by the oil-producing countries of the Middle East and elsewhere (OPEC was formed in 1960), and the Arab-Israel wars - which escalated into the bloody conflict of 1973 - created a situation of rising oil prices and uncertainties in supply. Prices of oil in the world market skyrocketed from $3 per barrel in 1973 $35 in 1980, a tenfold increase in seven years.

    Financial viability of an HSR line, as well as a conventional high-speed line, primarily depends on the cost of the line and other line infrastructure which typically accounts for 85 to 90% of the project cost. Rolling stock accounts for just about 10 to 15%. The main reason why Japan, France, Germany, Spain and Italy in the 1960s to 1990s and later South Korea and Taiwan decided to build new dedicated High-Speed Rail (HSR) lines instead of building high speed conventional lines is its topography of mountainous terrain and undulating highlands (gently sloping hillocks and valleys) and not just higher speed. Most of Japan is in a mountainous terrain. The trunk routes in France, Germany, Italy and Spain also have such terrain is large portions.

    The basic fact is that on routes on routes where a substantial portion of the line passes through hilly terrain or rolling topography, the cost of building an HSR line is not very high compared to the cost of building a conventional high-speed line. The cost of building an HSR lines in mountainous terrain is on average about twice the cost of building a conventional high-speed line. The higher cost is justified by higher speed and higher line capacity (which is also a result of higher speed).  So it made sense for these countries to build HSR lines.

    The first HSR line was built in Japan. By the end of the 1950s, the existing line from Tokyo to Osaka, which was a meter gauge line, was carrying trains to its full capacity. So, Japan decided to build a new standard gauge line. The Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Osaka was opened in 1964 at a speed of 210 km/hr with plans to further raise speed in future. It was opened to coincide with the Tokyo Olympics that were held in that year. The line was an astounding success as it managed to quickly take 80% of the total rail and air transport between the two cities.

    France followed with first HSR (TGV) line, Paris-Lyons, which opened in 1981. The Rome-Florence line IN Italy opened in 1988, Germany (ICE) opened the Hannover-Wurzburg line in 1991, and Spain (AGV) followed in 1992. Travel by HSR lines was cheaper than travel by air. Because of affluence and increasing economic growth, most of these lines were carrying 100 to 150 trains in each direction within five to ten years of their opening. More HSR lines were built by these countries to connect large metropolitan cities. These lines were very successful in taking significant market share from the road and air modes of transport. An important factor in their success was that travel by HSR was significantly cheaper than travel by air and safer than travel by road.

    But, on a flat terrain, the cost of building a Bullet HSR line is about eight times more than a conventional high-speed line. The reason for this massive cost difference is as follows:

    In mountainous terrain, a substantial portion of both a conventional and HSR line has to be built in tunnels and bridges/viaducts. What drives up the cost is that the cost of building a line in tunnels and bridges is ten to twenty times the cost of building a line directly on the ground. This makes building both an HSR line and a conventional high-speed railway line in mountainous terrain a very costly affair. Of course, not all existing and planned HSR lines are entirely in mountainous terrain, but a large proportion of these lines are indeed so. The data for some of the randomly selected HSR lines are given below:

    * About 80% of the total 2765 km of Shinkansen lines in Japan are in tunnels and bridges/viaducts. Like Japan, the other countries which have built HSR lines also have significant proportions of their trunk routes in mountainous terrain or undulating topography.

    * 67% of China’s first major HSR line (the 968 km long Wuhan-Guangzhou line), 72% percent of the 505 km long Zhengzhou and Xi’an line, and 89% of the Beijing-Shanghai line is in tunnels and viaducts/bridges.

    * 91% of the 345 km long Taipei-Kaohsiung line in Taiwan and 72% of the 412 km long Seoul-Busan line in South Korea is in tunnels and viaducts/bridges

    * About 88.3% of the Florence-Bologna line in Italy and about 55% of Germany’s first HSR line from Hannover-Wurzburg is in tunnels and viaducts.

    * About 80 to 90% of the lines crossing the Alps in Switzerland and Austria, traversing from France and Germany in the north to Italy in the south are also in tunnels and viaducts/bridges.

    The lines in France, Spain and some other countries use steep gradients to reduce the length of tunnels and bridges, but the proportion of the line on high heavily engineered embankments/cuttings, which are also costly, is higher. So despite different methodologies for negotiating hilly terrain, these countries also preferred to build HSR lines to the conventional high-speed lines because the difference in cost of these two types of lines is not very high.

    Taiwan’s High-Speed Rail line from Taipei to Kaohsiung: HSR lines are costly because a large proportion of the lines are required to be built in tunnels and viaducts/bridges

    The picture is quite different for high-speed rail lines in flat terrain because typically in such terrain less than 10% of a conventional high-speed line is required to be built in bridges and viaducts and the rest on normal embankments on ground, but, an HSR line has still to be built on viaducts because of technical requirements of maintaining geometry of track to very close tolerances and reducing ground vibrations. Theoretically, HSR lines can be built on heavily engineered embankments (which are also very costly) instead of the viaduct in flat terrain, but viaducts are preferred because by constructing the line on viaducts land acquisition is reduced. Further, in inhabited areas viaducts are preferred over embankment as viaducts reduce the effect of noise on the nearby inhabitants (At speed above 250 km/hr aerodynamic noise is more than the mechanical noise of train). It is for these reasons that even though the Ahmedabad-Mumbai line will be passing through flat terrain, yet only 2 % of the line will be on the ground: 92% of the line will be built on viaducts/bridges and the remaining 6% in an undersea tunnel near Mumbai.

    A comparison of the actual costs of HSR lines and conventional lines in flat and hilly terrain is given below (See Box: Average costs). Costs vary from project to project, but the costs given here can be taken as benchmark costs for a general comparison.

    China’s vast landmass also has mountainous terrain or undulating topography interspersed with flat terrain in all its regions. Unlike the other countries which adopted dedicated HSR lines straightaway in the 1960s to 90s, China still did not have the level of affluence that these other countries had when they adopted HSR lines. So, China first upgraded and expanded its conventional network of lines. This push culminated in a campaign of raising speed on its trunk routes from 100 to 120 km/hr to 160 to 200 km/hr from 1997 to 2007. This continued till 2010.

    As China’s economy continued to boom all through the 1990s to 2010, it became clear that the upgraded trunk routes will reach saturation levels soon. In 2006 China began building a network of HSR lines which eventually resulted in the construction of four north-south and four east-west HSR lines. The last of these lines are expected to be completed this year. But the concept of HSR in China is quite different in one important respect. The European and Japanese HSR lines generally carry only high-speed trains, but the Chinese high-speed lines, which are called Passenger Designated Lines (PDLs), carry HSR trains as well as conventional high-speed trains (Speed 200 to 250 km/hr). Some lines even carry fast container freight trains (120 to 160 km/hr). The idea seems to be that as prosperity will increase, more HSR trains will be run on these lines.

    While HSR was spreading, tilting train technology was being developed to raise speed on the existing conventional high-speed lines from 200 km/hr to 240-260 km/hr to reduce journey time sufficiently to compete with air and road for market share. And, these lines have been quite successful in this. Sweden, Italy, Spain, UK, Switzerland and several other countries, including US (Boston-New York-Washington line), which did not find it necessary to build costly new HSR lines, have raised speed for high-speed travel on their existing upgraded conventional lines by introducing tilting trains.

    Another important factor that is often overlooked in public debates is that travel by HSR is no longer cheaper than travel by air. Low-Cost Airlines and stable oil prices have reduced air ticket prices on most routes over the past ten years, and now travel by HSR is costlier than travel by the Low-Cost Airlines. Reports from Europe and China show that now the budget conscious travellers prefer to travel by Low-Cost Airlines while the executives and businessmen prefer HSR trains because of comfort, and no hassles of security checks and baggage collection that travel by air entails: The ability to read, work on laptops and access to free Wi-Fi are added conveniences.

    On nearly all routes travel by the budget airlines is now cheaper than travel by Bullet Trains/HSR

    The decline of the railways in Western Europe and North America did not affect mobility because these countries were by then affluent societies where people could travel by air or personal car. India is a vast country and a developing economy with low per capita income. Distances between the main metropolitan cities are typically 1000 to 2500 km. Millions of students and young professionals have to travel long distances for education, training, and work. Due to regional disparities, millions of daily wage earners also find a job at places more than a thousand kilometres away from their village or town. If Indian Railway continues to fail to increase the speed of trains, the mobility of all but the rich and upper middle class would be severely impaired.

    Because of the failure to upgrade the existing trunk routes and expand the network, congestion on the existing lines on IR has reached levels where it is beginning to impact safety and punctuality. This was highlighted in the public outcry and debates after the recent accident of Utkal Express on 19th Aug’17 that caused the death of twenty-three passengers. According to the latest data, utilisation exceeds capacity on 65% of the high-density sections; utilization is 120-150% on 32% of the sections and > 150% on 9% of the sections.

    India has been blessed with a very favourable topography on its trunk routes of transportation. More than 90% of these routes are in the flat terrain of the vast Indo-Gangetic plains, the Deccan Plateau, the Coastal plain, and the Rajasthan desert. Just about 10% is in mountainous terrain or undulating topography, such as parts of the Konkan line from Mumbai to Mangalore and the Mumbai-Pune line.

    Bullet Train lines are astronomically costly, which a developing country like India can ill afford.  Because of the predominantly flat terrain on its trunk routes, conventional high-speed lines - which can be formed by upgrading the existing trunk routes - through a little slower than HSR lines are the most appropriate and a much cheaper answer to India’s needs.  By concurrently expanding the network by building additional lines - which will make it possible to segregate fast and slow moving traffic on the key trunk routes - an average speed of trains will be further increased. Thus, by adopting the conventional high-speed rail option, people in all parts of the country and of all income groups can be provided with the benefit of fast travel.

    HSR/Bullet Train is fundamentally unsuitable for India because of the predominantly flat terrain on its trunk routes. It is time to shift focus to completing the long-pending last mile works of upgrading the trunk routes to unlock their full potential and also realising high-speed train travel on these existing lines. But, if this vast network of lines continues to be ignored, the mobility of Indians, barring the 5 to 10% in the top income brackets, will continue to deteriorate with serious consequences for the country’s socio-economic development.

    * Writer is Retired from Indian Railway Service of Engineers (IRSE) in 2016.

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