As a veteran Indian Railways traveller, I felt delight and trepidation in equal measure as the speed indicator at the head of the railway coach crept up to 299 kmph. I was on a high-speed AVE train, rocketing between the Spanish cities of Seville and Madrid, five years ago. The train was rock steady, and I eventually relaxed (one did fly off the tracks last year, killing 78 people).
That was not a feeling I had earlier this month as a similar speed indicator touched 199 kmph. I was on the Acela Express, the fastest US train, bound for New York from Boston, but it bounced and swayed alarmingly, threatening to hurl me against its metal walls, as I fought my way to the restaurant car.
With four passengers dying after a Dibrugarh-bound Rajdhani Express (its top speed a piffling 140 kmph) derailed on Wednesday, the latest in a series of embarrassing crashes, the time appears wrong to push high-speed rail. But it is. A long-held academic argument says that national incomes are smaller in countries without railways, and high-speed rail is a gauge of not just economic progress but national confidence.
When I rode the Spanish railways, it reflected a transformation from Franco-era poverty to prosperity and technological accomplishment. Today, Spain is again troubled, but the 3,100-km high-speed network is exceeded by only China, a country 20 times larger, and keeps much self-assurance intact.
China’s high-speed rail network of 10,000 km is now the world’s most extensive, the result of a $500-billion, decade-long spending orgy. The stations, specked with immaculate gardens and gleaming floors, release trains that speed to Shanghai from Beijing, a distance of 1,318 km, in five hours. Mumbai to Delhi is just 66 km longer, but the fastest train on the route, the “superfast” Rajdhani, takes 11 hours more.
The Indian Railways, now in their 161st year, are an extensive, romantic but ramshackle network. Few things represent its third-world status as its primitive toilets, which let tonnes of human waste onto the tracks, corroding already frail lines. Maintenance is abysmal and rats are common on the long, filthy trains that crisscross the subcontinent. Admittedly, pressure on the world’s fourth-largest rail network is intense: Since 1951, it has grown by less than 20% in length, while freight transported has increased by more than 600% and people by more than 400%, the world’s largest passenger carrier.
It is hard to expect better after years of underinvestment, overstaffing (with some 1 million employees, the railways are the world’s largest employers), randomly added new trains to ministerial constituencies and rock-bottom fares.
So, let’s welcome the BJP government’s decision to raise ticket prices by 14% and attempt the monumental task of giving India the railways it deserves. The party’s manifesto clearly accords high-priority to this revival (even if it succumbed to pressure from the Shiv Sena, an ally, and rollbacked suburban-fare hikes). The hike is but a small step ahead; it may do no more than allow Indian Railways to balance its budget. Transformation requires grand thinking. If Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s signature project was a series of linking highways called the ‘Golden Quadrilateral’, now almost complete, Narendra Modi’s government touts a ‘Diamond Quadrilateral’, six high-speed rail lines to be built over the next decade.
Does India really need these speedy corridors? In the high-speed-rail bellwether nation, China, the enterprise has twice run out of cash, so broke that it could not even make interest payments. Accusations of corruption are widespread. Yet, thanks to the equipment and trains it imported and later manufactured and improved, China’s global standing has soared.
China now hopes to participate in railway projects as far afield as the United States, where the Chinese network is increasingly held as a sign of Uncle Sam’s declining prowess. In countries like Laos and Myanmar, it talks of a new Silk Road to seed the area with its itinerant, enterprising merchants, eventually converting financial and cultural influence into political clout, the US journal Foreign Policy reported in April 2014. “The reshaping of Southeast Asia on a firmament of railroad tracks would give China an enormous advantage in dictating regional trade policy,” the journal said. It quoted a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering as telling the English-language Global Times: “High-speed rail is to China what watches are to Switzerland, electric appliances to Japan, and machinery to Germany.”
High-speed rail tends to upgrade technology across the network. The biggest markets for high-speed rail are in Western Europe and East Asia, areas with the world’s most advanced railways. The US is an outlier. Its freight network is a global innovator, but passenger rail has receded dramatically over a century. Superhighways and cheap airline tickets are partially responsible, but so is politics. Republicans look on railways as wasteful public spending.
India’s railways have been a victim to politics of another extreme: Mindless populism. This is why you hear the tired objections to the fare increases from the BJP’s own allies and, of course, the Congress. It is also why the BJP fiercely opposed any hike when it was out of power.
Emerging India will pay for quality infrastructure. Tolls of more than `100 to traverse a 25-km stretch of highway are quietly paid across India — except, perhaps, when an enraged politician takes to smashing a toll booth when asked to pay up. Also consider India’s growing metro railways. No one protests the relatively high fares on Delhi’s efficient, air-conditioned system, which now sprawls across 190 km. And you can be sure no one will, as metro lines start up or expand in Jaipur, Kolkata, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kochi. In Mumbai, earlier this month, the only person protesting higher-than-contracted prices was the Congress chief minister, who threatened to boycott the inauguration of the city’s first metro line (the Bombay High Court on Tuesday allowed the new fares). He should concern himself instead with the fact that plans for the desperately needed second and third lines have ground to a stop.
Samar Halarnkar is a Bangalore-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal