Why Governments Should Stop Being Airheaded, And Get Rail Instead

Why Governments Should Stop Being Airheaded, And Get Rail Instead

by Srikanth Ramakrishnan - Saturday, April 20, 2019 11:43 AM IST
Why Governments Should Stop Being Airheaded, And Get Rail InsteadMAKING A BULLET POINT: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe (JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)
  • The Indian civil aviation sector is in the doldrums right now.

    Wisdom demands that governments focus more on improving high-speed rail connectivity between major hubs.

As has been done for the past three general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) released its election manifesto after the Indian National Congress did. Released a week later, the BJP manifesto was nearly twice the length and included several interesting promises, based on the programmes undertaken by the incumbent government.

With several ambitious promises, including free immunisation for children and pregnant women, and the Jal Jivan mission – an equivalent of the Ujjwala and Saubhagya scheme to provide piped water to every household (aptly titled Nal Se Jal), the manifesto makes its priorities clear.

However, what is crucial in both manifestos is the importance given to transport and infrastructure.

The BJP manifesto can be accessed here; infrastructure is on page 20. The Congress manifesto can be accessed here; infrastructure is on page 14.

While both of them have made similar promises such as increasing highway lengths, modernising railway stations, setting up an urban transport policy for roads, railways, electric vehicles (EVs), buses, ride-sharing, pedestrianisation and cycling, the former has set deadlines of 2022 for major works including gauge conversion, electrification and offering WiFi at major stations along with metro rail in 50 cities by 2024.

The BJP has also mentioned that it would expand connectivity with high-speed rail (HSR) and modern trains such as Train 18 (Vande Bharat Express). It has also pledged to double the number of commercial airports in India – currently at 101, up from 65 in 2014 – in five years.

This is where the BJP would need to do some introspection. While road construction, railway augmentation and all are fine, do we need to focus that much on the aviation sector?

The last few months has not been a great one for Indian aviation. The crisis hitting Jet Airways has deepened, finally resulting in founder Naresh Goyal agreeing to step down as chairman of the debt-ridden carrier. Jet isn’t the only one though, for the state of the Indian aviation industry is not too great. The other two major carriers – IndiGo and SpiceJet – have been posting losses too, while the story of Air India is one that is too well known to mention.

In the aftermath of the airstrikes in north India, both Indian and Pakistani airspace were closed briefly in February. As if all this wasn’t enough, the Ethiopian Airlines’ 302 flight crash has resulted in the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) grounding all Boeing 737 Max 8 planes in India. Simultaneously, the DGCA has also grounded several Airbus A320 Neo planes using Pratt & Whitney PW1100G engines due to in-flight engine shut-downs.

While the aviation industry sorts its mess out, this gives us a great opportunity to reflect on the much-touted “airline killer” Bullet Train project. Plans for the High-Speed Rail (HSR) are currently restricted to the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor (MAHSR), while other corridors haven’t moved beyond the proposal or approval stage. Other proposals including an extension of the corridor to Nasik and Pune and the Maharashtra government’s plan to connect its two capitals with one are also still on paper.

So, What Is The Issue?

The primary issue with any new project in India is that officials generally wait for the first leg of a project to be complete before beginning on extensions. While the HSR corridors in India are being surveyed and have also got approval, there is nothing more that is happening.

The reason behind why the HSR project is stuck within the confines of the 505- km is relatively easy to ascertain. Japan is funding the project with a cheap loan. While this is not the first time Japan is exporting its Shinkansen, it is the first time it is being done for such a large project. Japan’s ‘rail diplomacy’ is primarily due to the grip that China has over the HSR market and is aimed at countering that, especially in the Indian subcontinent.

Along with this, the trainsets to be used, the Shinkansen E5, which is manufactured by Hitachi and Kawasaki, will be imported from Japan. Various Japanese agencies are pumping in a lot of money to build infrastructure in India while the Japanese firms will invest in manufacturing facilities in India to build metro rail coaches for the next phase of the Chennai Metro. This can easily be extended towards manufacturing HSR trains as well.

Given the hostility of our neighbours and the current state of our aviation industry, the government’s top priority right now should be to implement a pan-India HSR starting with the largest cities. What if a national emergency or war-like scenario erupts on the western front? That would kill the airspace over Mumbai, currently the second busiest airport in the country.

The crux of the matter is that the aviation sector in India is currently in a tight situation. With Jet Airways pulling out of major domestic routes, airfares are bound to go up. An editorial in the South China Morning Post even claimed that it would be cheaper to fly to London than to Delhi.

While the MAHSR corridor is ongoing, other corridors need to be prioritised, preferably shorter ones. For this, the key determining factors should be the existing capacity of trains, buses – especially high-end and premium ones – as well as the economies of these cities. For instance, Mumbai-Pune should be the next logical extension of the network.

The Mumbai-Pune Expressway is well beyond capacity and while plans are on to augment that with a new tunnel, it isn’t enough. The Maharashtra government is also toying with the idea of the Hyperloop, but again, till the technology is proven, it isn’t an option.

Further, Pune acts as a larger gateway to south India with the Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad-bound highways all meeting at the city. Similar lines need to be explored for Delhi-Chandigarh-Amritsar, Mumbai-Aurangabad-Nagpur-Raipur, Pune-Hyderabad-Bengaluru and Hyderabad-Chennai.

At the southern end, the Chennai-Bengaluru corridor is a densely populated one with hundreds of premium buses – both state-run and private – thriving on the roads on a daily basis. While the highways are in top condition with a new expressway coming up, the sector warrants an HSR line.

The nearly 350-km journey currently takes anywhere between five and eight hours, depending on traffic. From Bengaluru, the line can be expected to Hubli-Dharwad and Belagavi, both upcoming cities while the line from Pune can be extended towards Kolhapur and then meet its southern arm.

It’s Not Just The High-Speed Rail Sector

While the Congress has remained tight-lipped about it in their manifesto, the BJP has stated that it aims to build metro systems in 50 cities in the next five years. While ambitious, a metro may not be required everywhere. Smaller scale projects including a light rail system (as has been proposed for Dehradun and Nashik) and suburban rail networks too can be taken up.

Despite Mumbai burning its fingers, the Monorail is still a viable system, so long as the right firms get involved. Of the four metro rolling stock manufacturers in India – Bombardier, Alstom, Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML) and Titagarh Firema – the former two also manufacture high-speed trains, trams and streetcars.

According to the horizontal alignment of the MAHSR corridor (available here; requires Google Earth to view), not all stations are near the main cities. Among these, while the Vapi station is located in the enclave of Dadra of Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Surat station and Thane stations are quite far from the cities themselves.

The next priority of the governments (central, state and at civic levels) would be to improve connectivity to the HSR terminals from the centre. In the case of the two terminal cities, the Mumbai terminal will be connected to Line 2 of the Mumbai Metro while Line 3 will run about 2 km away.

The Maharashtra government has also asked the railways to prepare a feasibility study to connect the Western and Central lines along the city’s suburban rail through Bandra-Kurla Complex (BKC) where the HSR terminus is coming up. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) had in early 2016 even proposed a ropeway connecting Bandra and Kurla railway stations through BKC. Keeping these developments in mind, construction of two major flyovers connecting to the Western and Eastern Express Highways are also in full swing.

Along with this, perhaps a small-scale personal rapid transit (PRT) system or automated people mover (APM) could be considered in the vicinity to ensure optimal connectivity.

At the Ahmedabad end, both the Kalupur (Ahmedabad Junction) and Sabarmati terminals lie adjacent to existing railway stations which will be connected by the partially-operational Gujarat Metro. But what about the other stations?

The Thane station is located a good 19 km away from Thane city near Diva, while the Surat station is located near Kamrej, around 16 km from the city centre. Other stations such as Virar, Boisar and Valsad are located quite closer to the cities.

Preparations are currently on for the construction of a 29-km-long circular metro in Thane. The state should consider building a spur of this line towards the HSR station. In the case of Surat, the existing BRTS network can be extended to Kamrej, but a direct metro line connecting the HSR terminal to the city centre and then proceeding towards the upcoming DREAM City and then the airport needs to considered.

Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis last year announced future expansions of the Mumbai Metro towards the Vasai-Virar region, which should ideally connect the existing railway stations and the HSR terminals. These can also be linked to the upcoming ferry terminals in the vicinity.

Vadodara is probably the luckiest city with its HSR terminal coming up right next to the existing railway station. Talks are already on between the civic administration and the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (NHSRCL) to link the terminal to the upcoming Urban Transport Hub ‘Jan Mahal’ located across the tracks.

But Why Build So Much Rail Infrastructure?

If one looks at how Japan’s Shinkansen network changed lifestyles, it shows us that the Japanese are today living in small towns away from major cities and commuting by train for work. The MAHSR corridor has the potential to do that, especially given Mumbai’s high-priced real estate. The HSR’s passenger base should not be looked at as travellers carrying baggage for a holiday, but the everyday crowd commuting from home to work. Building more lines will help bring down costs indirectly through indigenous production of rolling stock, signalling equipment and simultaneously create more jobs. Giving additional commuting options within cities will not only help the long-distance commuter but also those travelling within the city.

Private operators should be welcomed in rail operations, too. The Shinkansen is a privately-owned system, owned by several corporations that succeeded the Japan National Railway. As this author has written before, private rail operators in India are adept at ensuring maximum capitalisation of all available assets.

The time has never been as ripe as it is now for India to go full steam ahead into the rail world.

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

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