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India needs a national bullet train system

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NEW DELHI : India is the perfect country for a national High-Speed Rail (HSR) system. The most obvious reasons are India’s high population density, the geographic proximity of its megacities (some of which are the largest cities in the world), and its rapidly growing middle class.

To give a rough sense of what a national HSR system might look like for India, I created the map above, which tries to connect most of the country’s largest cities in a parsimonious way. Using the “average journey speed” for the Beijing-Shanghai HSR (a normal trip takes 4.5 hours to travel 1,300 km with stops = 290 km/h), we can get some rough estimates for HSR trip durations in India:

  • Delhi-Mumbai: 4.5 hours (versus 16 hours currently)
  • Bangalore-Hyderabad: 2 hours
  • Delhi-Calcutta: 5.5 hours
  • Mumbai-Bangalore: 4 hours

Here are the top reasons why India in particular should really have a national HSR system.

India has a huge aviation industry. India has the third-largest aviation market in the world by passenger volume with over 200 million domestic passengers per year in 2019-20 and likely to reach 500 million passengers per year by 2030. This means there’s already huge demand for fast, long-distance travel in India—and many people willing to pay for it. Moreover, because of its size, India’s aviation is one of the highest-emitting aviation industries in the world. For both travel convenience and environmental reasons, it would be much better if many short-haul flights were replaced with bullet trains.

In China, HSR has already replaced a significant amount of air travel for distances of 1,000 km or less. A number of short-haul flights were cancelled after an HSR line was built, including Chengdu-Chongqing, Zhengzhou-Xi’an, and Wuhan-Guangzhou. Even for medium-range trips, travelers often prefer taking HSR over flying. For example, for the 600-km trip from Shanghai to Wenzhou, taking a 3.5-hour bullet train ride can be more convenient than a shorter, similarly priced 1.5-hour flight because you can avoid airport hassle, flight delays, and crammed airline seats.

India’s existing railways are congested. In a way, it’s a good problem to have. Decades of rapid economic growth and growing demand for mobility have outpaced India’s ability to build and expand its heavily used railway system, which is often called the “lifeline of a nation.” Track congestion is responsible for slow speeds and frequent delays (which I’m intimately familiar with from my many train journeys across the country). India’s current freight rail speeds average under 24 km/h. The problem is especially acute at regional hubs where freight and passenger trains converge onto track bottlenecks. Overcrowding is also a major safety issue.

One of the more counterintuitive things about HSR is that it not only makes passenger travel faster, but it can also make freight transportation faster by expanding rail capacity overall. A primary motivation for China’s HSR program was to free up conventional track for freight. One study found that China’s HSR system reduced the number of trucks on China’s highways by 15% by freeing up freight rail capacity, which turned out to be a key channel for reducing carbon emissions (as I discussed in previous piece).

Climate change and air pollution. India is the third largest carbon emitter behind China and the US (although India’s per capita emissions are far lower). Road transport makes up 12% of India’s carbon emissions. In 2019-2021, less than 8% of Indian households owned a car, which means future emissions from the purchase of additional gas-powered cars could be significant (although the rise of electric two- and three-wheelers could offset some of this). As mentioned earlier, India’s huge, growing aviation industry is another major source of emissions. India also has some of the highest air pollution levels in the world, which reduces India’s average life expectancy by 5.3 years (I often used air purifiers and N95 masks when living in Delhi as well as Beijing).

A national high-speed rail network can help with both carbon emissions and air pollution. One major study found that China’s HSR system reduced carbon emissions by over 11 million tons per year. These emissions savings will likely grow as China, like India, shifts away from its heavy reliance on coal for electricity. The Indian Railways has actually been making a strong push into clean energy, such as installing over 200 MW of rooftop solar on train stations, and Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw has set a goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.

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