Lesson From Amtrak’s Failure: Invest Heavily In Railways

Srikanth Ramakrishnan

May 07, 2016, 02:30 PM | Updated 02:30 PM IST

Indian Railways (NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)
Indian Railways (NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images)
      The United States has a very substandard network of railways; substandard for its stature and substandard in comparison to other countries.
      Both America’s Amtrak and Indian Railways struggle due to lack of investment, but while the US has opted for faster air transport, India has just struggled.
      However, under Suresh Prabhu, Indian Railways has seen a major change, with an investment of $140 billion being planned over a five year period.

The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, which does business as Amtrak in the US, turned 45 last week. For those who don’t know, Amtrak is a partially government-owned body in the United States and is the American equivalent of Indian Railways (IR).

For quick comparison, Amtrak currently owns 2,142 railway cars and 425 locomotives. In contrast, IR, in 2012, owned 46,722 passenger coaches alone, along with 2,39,321 goods coaches.

Further, Amtrak operates electric locomotives only on the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington DC and the Philadelphia to Harrisburg main line. The rest of the network is serviced by diesel locomotives. India, on the other hand, has electrified 38 percent of its railway lines, and is constantly working on increasing this number.

The United States considered a global superpower has a very substandard network of railways; substandard for its stature and substandard in comparison to other countries. Smaller nations such as Spain, Japan and even France, have a better, faster and more reliable network.

The northeast corridor of Amtrak is similar in many ways to the Mumbai-Ahmedabad region of the Western Railways. Both were built in and around the 19th century, and helped shape the pattern of development in the region. However, this was the cause of their undoing in later years. Due to high population densities in these areas, governments are not willing to foot the extremely large bills on expansion and upgradation (too expensive to buy/acquire land).

Both Amtrak and IR fell victims to lack of investment. The US, being such a vast country, opted for faster air-based transport, while India just struggled due to bad governance. IR had a slight push in progress when Nitish Kumar was made the railway minister, but subsequent bad administration and populist measures under Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mamata Banerjee brought everything to a grinding halt. However, under Suresh Prabhu, the railways has seen a major change, with an investment of $140 billion being planned over a five year period.

There are several corridors where both Amtrak and IR fail miserably in comparison to other modes of terrestrial transport. The trip from Washington DC to Pittsburgh, a 250 mile journey, takes four hours by car and nearly eight by Amtrak. A bus trip costs merely one-fifth of the rail journey and is significantly faster. Similarly, in India, the 1000 km Mumbai-Bangalore corridor is dominated by buses, both private and state owned, who are able to cover the distance in 17 hours, while the fastest train journey takes no less than 24 hours. Private bus operators lobbied hard to ensure that several crucial railway lines were never doubled or electrified and this has taken its toll on the highway network instead.

What both Amtrak and IR require is a lot of investment. Investment in infrastructure, technology, locomotives and rolling stock. This investment should ideally be a partnership between the public and the private sector. Air based transport cannot be sustained for a long time over terrestrial, land-based transport. Rail triumphs over road due to its speed and cost in the long run. While the US can certainly take a leaf out of India’s book, India has a larger lesson to learn from the United States and needs to invest more in its railways in order to build a sustainable transport network for its budding manufacturing sector.

It is worthwhile to note that Japan, despite being the victim of two nuclear bombs, set up the world’s fastest railway line as far back as in 1964 when the Tokyo-Osaka line opened up. Operating initially at a speed of 210 kmph, it currently runs at 285 kmph, thereby covering a distance of 550 km in 2 hours and 22 minutes, with an average fare of 25 yen or 14 rupees per kilometre. It would be worthwhile for India to emulate this in the form of a High Speed Rail line rather than promoting the highly fuel-intensive aviation sector, especially with fuel reserves slowly dwindling.

Srikanth’s interests include public transit, urban management and transportation infrastructure.

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