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The Socioeconomic Costs of High-Speed Railway in India

Updated: Jul 12, 2020

Guest contribution from Chitresh Shrivastva, Adjunct Faculty at Christ University, Bangalore.

All views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Harvard Economics Review.

Abstract: Indian Railways is a 163-year-old institution, which has been a national organization since 1947 and continues as a public sector undertaking burdened with declining operating efficiency and deteriorating freight shares. The fourth largest railway network is immersed in debts and has been sanctioned a loan of `5 lakh crores for rehabilitation of some of its vital services, such as housekeeping, catering, station rehabilitation, and technology upgradation. India lags behind other global railway systems when gauged in terms of speed, safety, and technology. Ever since the Modi Government took charge in 2014, there has been a paradigm shift in the pace of projects of national and international importance. The High-Speed Rail Corridor forms one important project amongst the many. But the question remains – what are the socioeconomic costs of undertaking such an exorbitant project at a time when the railways are struggling to balance its existing resources? This is a commentary on the social, economic and technical costs involved if the high-speed Railway comes into operation.

Indian Railways in the Contemporary Era

Indian Railways is the fourth largest railway network of the world, with a span of 115,000 km of track, of which 63,000 km is running track connecting 8,000 stations with 21,000 trains and 10,500 locomotives operating everyday. Of the total 21,000 trains in use, 19 percent are freight and 81 percent are passenger trains.

The global railway systems are governed by the International Union of Railways, or UIC, which has set certain parameters which distinguish the high-speed trains from superfast railways. Unfortunately, the trains operating on the network of Indian Railways do not fulfill the criteria of the International Union of Railways.

According to the definition provided by European Standards, a superfast train is a train that is capable of running at a speed of 160 kmph, while the UIC defines High – Speed trains as trains operating at a speed of 220kmph.

In both cases, India can be seen lagging behind other railways, including its immediate neighbor China, which achieved 20,000 km of high-speed railway in 2011, while India continues to run trains at 110 kmph, while only a selected category of train services continues to run at speeds ranging between 130- 160kmph. The elite trains and the semi-high speed Gatimaan Express together only 1 percent of the total train population, though efforts to improve the speed of trains through alstomization have been sped up in order to enrich the travel experience of passengers and improve safety record of the railways

While the existing network has the potential to operate semi high-speed trains, there have been problems, which are yet to be addressed in achieving higher operational speeds of trains. They are as follows:

1. High – Saturation Rates

Indian Railways, unlike Australia or America, does not have dedicated lines to run trains. In the Indian scenario, all trains run on the same line, although it is anticipated that the much-awaited Dedicated Freight Corridor construction which commenced in 2009 is to be completed by 2018. The current saturation rate as estimated in the 2016 budget stands at 180 percent compared to previous 120 percent.

2. Train Length and Level Crossings

If we are to achieve higher speeds, the aforementioned form the first crucial element to achieving the goal. This however is not valid in the case of India. When we look at both the criteria, India fails to meet the criteria. First, the train length exceeds 10 coaches (this is ideal for high--speed Services) while the maximum length for a train is in India is 24 coaches and there are close to 31,846 level crossings, though the railways has paced up its program to replace level crossings with overbridges and underbridges. The second concern is the location of homes close to tracks and trespassing of tracks, which is another hindrance for the speed increment.

3. Signaling and Communication

Indian Railways has still not achieved a modern signaling system. Many sections still rely in the British–Era signaling system and the existing Route Relay Interlocking systems prone to technical faults and glitches. In July 2015, a major fire at the Route Relay Interlocking Cabin in Itarsi led to cancellation of 50,000 tickets and a loss of `2500 crores. The government in 2018 had proposed to invest 75,000 crores on the automatic signaling systems. The policy however is yet to be implemented. It is just not the fault in the system, but also the financial constraints involved in dealing with glitches of such a magnitude.

4. High Technology Costs

Currently, railways are facing challenges in the implementation of existing technology when we look at the ALSTOM Coaches or the implementation of ACD on all the 10,500 locomotives. Post 2010 Santragachi Train Disaster, it was estimated to cost the railways a whopping 16 lakh a locomotive as per reports, while on other hand, the high cost per unit coach anywhere between 75 lakh – 1.8 crore rupees per coach the current production is at 4000 coaches annually.

The railways aims to switch over to ALSTOM by next year, which would lead to an increment in the speeds of the trains. The proposed increments are as follows:

Manpower Training

Indian Railways employs 17 Lakh people and is the ninth largest utility employer in the world. Of the 17 Lakh, 1 Lakh are Loco operating staff or train engineers. There however remains a disparity amongst the specialization of drivers or engineers as they are termed in the US.

Post the 2011 Kalka Mail disaster, it was pointed out that close to one lakh safety related posts of signalman, pointsman, gangman, and train engineers remain vacant. In light of such instances, the prospects of having a bullet train are remote for the fact, at a time when we are unable to modernize our current training facilities, the setting up of a training school and a longer duration of training would invite further delays to the project. It is therefore required for the railways to chalk out an efficient strategy to modernize the manpower and then chalk out strategies for the bullet train project.


India needs to pace up its policies with relation to rail transport, if we are to achieve the standards of Europe. The tragedy of railways in India is that it is driven more by political interests and vote bank politics and overlooked from the perspective of common interests. In the present state of affairs, the bullet train looks to be too far-fetched to be fulfilled keeping in mind the factors which have been elaborated in the earlier discussions. The dilapidated infrastructure which is the greatest weakness and inhibitor to future prospects of faster and economic rail travel, provides us with an opportunity to enter into diplomatic relations with other countries and at the same time foster stronger relations in the field of transport technology, without harming the present state of relations. This would work as a learning experience for India before venturing into bullet train compromising the socio-economic impact and the dilution of the social welfare motive of railways.



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