Know Your Railways – High Speed Rail and why India needs it to progress

“You cannot resist an idea whose time has come” said a great man once. After discussing Indian Railway at length about their coaches, configuration and operation, it’s time we discuss about the future i.e. High Speed Rail or “Bullet Trains” as the popular nomenclature goes.

What exactly is a “Bullet Train” and how is it different from our conventional trains? Well, it looks sleek, shiny and futuristic and runs at a speed which is double or more the speed of our conventional trains. But how? Is that all it is? To begin with, “Bullet Train” is the official name given to the 0 series Shinkansen, the first ever High Speed Rail (HSR) built by Japan on the Tokaido Shinkansen line that runs from Tokyo to Osaka, now discontinued. World over, it is called with different names, for example ICE (Intercity Express) in Germany, TGV in France, CRH (China Railway High speed) in China and Shinkansen in Japan.

The magnificent China CRHs

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So how does HSR runs at 300+ KMPH speeds? How exactly is it different from our conventional trains?

To begin with, most HSRs are EMU Trainsets (Most because, few like the Eurostar still is hauled by a loco, even though it has powered coaches). EMU stands for “Electrical Multiple Units”. So there are multiple power cars that draw power from OHE (Over Head Equipment) catenary and multiple motor cars that do the driving. This is unlike our conventional trains which have a Loco attached to the front which does all the pulling and coaches are powerless.

Some HSRs even have 100% axles powered i.e. all axles are connected to traction motors. So the driver cabin in these trains only house the control equipment for the train while the entire rake drives itself. Also, these are manufactured as “Trainsets” i.e. the coaches are semi-permanently coupled to each other forming a set of train. Imagine a Delhi metro rake. Can a gang man just get down on the track with a hammer and couple of spanners and detach a coach? No, because the coaches are not easy to separate. Delhi Metro trains are EMU trainsets, HSRs are just a more sophisticated version of this.

A Delhi Metro 6 car rake with 2 pantographs drawing power

There are other details like, some of them have articulated bogie a.k.a Jacobs Bogie like the Eurostar trains manufactured by Alstom, where 2 coaches share the same bogie, 2 wheels per coach, while the Kawasaki manufactured Shinkansen doesn’t share bogie just like our conventional trains. All, HSRs must be air conditioned and sealed, some even have pressurised cabin because you can’t have trains running at 300 KMPH with air flowing in and out of cabs. The underslung of all these trains have to be covered. There are no protruding doors on windows and these fit into the coach body (Imagine Delhi Metro rake). All these are done to achieve better aerodynamics.

Articulated bogie on an Eurostar, manufactured by Alstom, France

Apart from the rolling stock, HSR also needs a whole new ecosystem to run. In-cab signalling, Automated Train Protection Systems ensure complete computer controlled run like auto pilots in flights. High speed trains can’t run on conventional tracks like ours where there is a join every 14 meter using a fishplate.

They use something called Continuous Welded Rails (CWR) joined through thermal welding, which allows expansion during heat generated when trains run on them, besides the rails are longer. The ballasts and slippers are the same, just that slipper are placed more closely than conventional rail track.

An welded rail joint

Technicalities apart, the question however is, do we need a HSR?

Let’s first settle the debate on do we need high speed transportation? I don’t think this needs to be elaborated. High speed transportation like CRH, Shinkansen or the Interstate network in USA has changed the entire economics of these countries and propelled them into an era of super-development.

It opens up the country to a vast set of possibilities. It revolutionises manufacturing by decentralising it. It also has cultural significance as diversified people come together thus breaking the geographical barrier. It virtually breaks the “tyranny of distance” as some may put it. In essence, it turbo charges the economy. Most developed countries worked on high speed transportation after world war II and that’s the sole reason, they are where they are.

Having settled the debate on high speed transportation, we have 3 options for going high speed. Air, road and Trains. Let’s target the easiest first. We can build American Interstates or German Autobahns to solve our high speed transportation problem. But to solve this problem, we have two bigger problems that need to be addressed first.

If you have travelled in a western country, you would have realised that there are vast swathes of empty land through which these super highways travel. Where would we get so much of empty land? And with “Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition”, it becomes more difficult and costly affair.

Also, remember, we are talking about high speed communication here, where we have to build real expressways with defined entry and exit points, known as “Access Controlled Highways” in normal parlance. With a town, village or settlement every few kilometres, this is not even a possibility in India. Wherever we have “Access Controlled Expressway”, we have a parallel highway serving to non-dense populated areas in between, so we need 2 sets of highways!

The second problem is, if we chose road as the default High Speed Transport medium, it comes with a fossil fuel dependency i.e an inflated oil import bill, dependency on OPEC and US dollars.

Interstate I-25 with vast swathes of empty land along side. Imagine how rare is this India.

The second choice before us is air. Here, the problem is similar. Currently, most of our airports are operating near about full capacity. If we have to expand, we need Greenfield airports that not only requires huge tracts of free land but it also puts certain restrictions in adjacent areas. Just follow the Navi Mumbai airport to see the number of problems it has got into, because of land usage. Also, air transport doesn’t help the hydrocarbon dependency or OPEC and US dollar hegemony.

Both of these mediums also suffer from another chronic issue i.e. carbon footprint. Considering the number of people it carries, if we calculate the carbon footprint per person per KM in these mediums. The below illustration substantiates it.

Transport mean Passengers
average
Emissions
(g CO2/km*pax)
Bus 12.7 68
Car 4 55
Plane 88 285
Train 156 14

(Note: The illustration is taken from European Environment Agency where most of the electricity used to run these trains come from Nuclear reactors unlike coal powered boilers in our country)

To add, HSR solves the oil import bill. One more advantage of trains are, they reduce the total door-to-door travel time vis-a-vis airports. Where greenfield airports are located around 50-60 KMs from business districts in the city, it takes somewhere around 1-2 hour to reach the airport, additional 1.5-2 hours in check-in and boarding formalities and another 1 hour in the destination city. So somewhere between 4-5 hours is added to your total journey time.

Whitefield to Bangalore airport on a Sunday – Non working day

Consider this, as I write this, a customary search on Google maps from Whitefield (Business district), Bangalore to Kempegowda International airport at Devanahali shows me around ~ 1.5 hours.

Compare this to HSR line that is coming up at Mumbai, where you will get down right at the heart of most bustling business district of Mumbai, the Bandra-Kurla complex. You can compare St. Pancras-vs-Heathrow, Paris Gare du Nord-vs-Charles De Gaulle, Tokaido-vs-Haneda airport to get a comparative figure of airport commute vs train station commute. It’s the same world over. That’s because unlike airports, HSR stations do *NOT* need huge tract of free land. In fact, most of these are constructed underground so they require land, lesser than even a shopping mall.

St. Pancras at Central London spread over ~500 square meter. Heathrow airport takes ~12 Sq KM area

Additionally, apart from the station, the train tracks require 25% of land required to build a 6 lane highway. In India, it’s even lesser than that because almost the entire HSR line from Mumbai to Ahmedabad will be elevated with only piers taking as much land, leaving most of the land to public use. Not to add, the economic corridor it will bring along the route.

Hyderabad metro, overground. Only the piers occupy space on road leaving much land to public usage

I hope, you are now convinced that we need high speed transport to jump to the next level of development era and train is the way to go considering demography, geography and other unique needs of India. Now let’s come to the central opposition to HSR in India, the famous socialistic debate “Why do we need HSR when our existing railways have so much lacuna”.

The stem of this debate lies in our mindset that all development must be linear. First we must achieve “this” before we start investing in “that” while missing the point that development can and should always be parallel.

Did we ask, why are we developing Taj expressway when most UP roads are filled with potholes? Did we ask why bring Scanias/Volvos when we don’t even have proper highways? Did we ask, why BSNL is investing in 3G/4G when it can’t even get the landline right? We didn’t, because landline is obsolete, stone age. It’s the age of mobile. If we don’t invest, we will perish.

Apply similar logic here. High Speed Train is the future. Conventional loco hauled trains will be history in sometime. If we don’t invest in it now, we will be missing the development bus, YET AGAIN. And get this, if you want to solve all your current problem before moving to the next one, you will be stuck forever, because you CANNOT ever solve all your problems.

That said, there is no denying that we need to improve our current rail infrastructure. Make no mistake, without a robust conventional railway, a HSR will never ever be a success. Conventional railway works as a feeder to limited HSR network, be it Germany, France or Japan. And in a huge country like India, it’s more than essential that we develop a HSR and an equally robust feeder system in the form of current Indian Railway. Imagine major economic and cultural corridors connected by HSR network being fed by IR network which connects it to smaller towns and villages in the interiors. It can bring a revolution in the way Indians travel.

Shinkansen E5. India will be getting these. A 10 car configuration sits around 700 people

Don’t consider HSR as an upgrade to our existing trains. It’s a whole new paradigm shift in the way people travel. HSR is an idea whose time has come and we will have to do it. Why Mumbai-Ahmedabad, you can argue. Well, that’s because Japan is paying and it’s upto them where they want to invest as they see a financial sustainability.

It’s not about the corridor. It’s the tech. We are missing this tech for long and it’s due India get the HSR tech to its door. We can then come up with more corridors in the diamond quadrilateral connecting other metropolis like Bengaluru-Chennai, Delhi-Jaipur, Lucknow-Kolkata, Hyderabad-Vizag to name a few.

Possibilities are endless but we have to make a beginning. Ahmedabad-Mumbai Shinkansen is that beginning and we must support this endeavour. If channelled right, this alone can put us on the growth trajectory that none other reforms have achieved so far.

Also read the other two articles in the “Know Your Railways” series:

Part 1: Know your Railways – Rolling Stock and Coaches

Part 2: Know your Railways: Why our trains are perennially late

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