What should India be working on instead? Hyperloop.

Bullet Train is a white elephant Retired bureaucrat and rail enthusiast rips apart Modis planImage: @MEAIndia
Voices Transport Sunday, September 24, 2017 - 18:02

I dare say I have mixed feelings for the bullet train. As a railway buff, I love the technology. As a reasonably informed citizen of India, I think it is not appropriate for India, in the current configuration as negotiated by Mr. Modi and Mr. Abe.

Let the railway enthusiast in me speak first.

As a child in the sixties, I was entranced by picture postcards of the bullet train. Printed on three dimensional cards, the pictures usually depicted the pure white train running through pristine Japanese countryside, with the perfect cone of Mount Fujiyama serenely suspended in the sky beyond. I dreamt of the day when I would ride the super-express bullet. Sadly, that day has not come yet. Though I have ridden in equally fast European trains, the feeling is not the same.

The closest I came to living my dream was in the National Rail Museum in York, UK, last year. When I spent a pleasant week in the archives doing my own gold digging into Indian Railway heritage, my breaks were spent in the spacious display area below, where one of the first generation Japanese Shinkansen trains is displayed. It speaks for both Japanese pride and possessiveness, that the York exhibit is the only Shinkansen locomotive that is displayed outside Japan. Sharing the gallery with the Mallard, the Nigel Gresley designed streamlined steam locomotive that still holds the speed record for the fastest ever speed clocked by a steam locomotive, she is a wondrous sight. I would often sit inside the passenger carriage and imagine I was traveling through the postcards of my childhood.

The Shinkansen was introduced in Japan in 1964, as a prelude to the Tokyo Olympics. It connected Tokyo with Osaka, the two biggest metropolises in Japan and traversed the 500 plus kilometer distance in just 3 hours and 10 minutes, by 1965. This was disruptive technology at its best. Till that time, Japan operated Meter gauge lines alone (which they termed Narrow Gauge). Suddenly, they not only jumped to Standard gauge, but to a wholly new generation of locomotives that were futuristic and surpassed anything else in the world. It was in a niche all by itself; worldwide. The first comparable trains elsewhere would arrive in Europe in 1985, fully twenty-one years after the Shinkansen was launched.

The most important feature of the Shinkansen was that in spite of the expense incurred for its construction, it had no competitors at all. Air travel at that stage was hardly of the scale of today. Aircraft jet engines were fuel guzzling and noisy. Airports required land for construction and the Japanese resisted that. Predictably, the Shinkansen was an immediate success. Japan is a highly urbanized country; with much of its population densely packed into large cities. Shinkansen trains depart at intervals of a few minutes, and carry huge volumes of passengers. The Shinkansen made perfect sense for the country, both economically and logistically. The network reached the 100 million passenger mark in less than 3 years and one billion passengers in 1976. The introduction of the Shinkansen trains in Japan also significantly changed the lifestyle of the Japanese. However, it must be noted that in fifty years of existence, the track mileage of the basic spine of the Shinkanshen has increased from 515 kms in 1964 to 2764 km currently. Only one more extension is under construction, to Sapporo. It is a slow project, expected to be completed in 2031.

Now let’s look at the economic feasibility of bullet trains worldwide. The big difference between the past and the future is the strides that aviation technology has made in the last fifty years. Simply explained, jet engines have been replaced by turbofan engines, which comprise of a jet turbine driving a propeller fan. The propeller is enclosed in a tube, where the airstream it produces envelopes the jet engine that propels it. That deadens the noise, and also greatly increases the efficiency. Today’s aircraft are aeons ahead of the ones of the sixties. They are wide bodied, economical to run and quiet. More advances in aviation technology are expected in the near future, as the turbofans get better designed, and auxiliary energy is provided through much more efficient means such as fuel cells.

Let me descend to earth; Indian earth, to be precise.

Calculations already in the media show clearly that the Indian Bullet trains are never going to be economical compared to air travel. Even the pro-Bullet crowd agree that they will be three times more expensive than flights between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. This is something that the Japanese never had to consider. So, there is not the slightest doubt that we are indulgently watching our government rushing headlong into buying a white elephant. The fact that the elephant is being paid for by a loan given to us by the one selling it to us is hardly an explanation. It does not change the mathematics of profitability. Not by a long shot. It only transfers the responsibility to pay for our indulgences, onto our unsuspecting children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

What India is doing right now is to pick up inappropriate, non-competitive and expensive technology in a clumsy effort to show to the world that we have arrived. All this stuff about the ripple effect of industries being rejuvenated in Bharuch, Billimoria and Surat is wishful thinking. Are all these places languishing today for the sole reason that they lack a bullet train to connect them? That’s absurd and far-fetched. Such hastily conjured afterthoughts by those who are unwilling to listen to reason and who want to support the Shinkanshen at any cost, reminds me of the wild promises I would make as a child, when I implored my parents to give me toys. Please give me this wind-up car and I will study Hindi and in fact, top the exam, I would say. Nobody believed in my hasty promises of a better Hindi-literate future. Not even I.

I have a slightly different take as compared to those of my friends who say that India, being a poor country, cannot afford the bullet train. I agree with them that India cannot afford it, in its current configuration. But that is not to say that India should not be at the forefront of technology, because it is a poor country. It only means that bullet trains are not at the forefront of emerging technology on surface transport.

That India should spend a great deal of time, effort and money to improve its creaking railway system (including city metro rail systems) is a given. But having said that, what does India need to do to come to the forefront of transportation technology? Let me step back and explain that a bit.

When the bullet train was introduced, the world was on a high. In every mode of transport, the desire to be faster was spurring countries to innovation, regardless of the costs involved. So, we saw bullet trains, the Concord and its Russian equivalent, the Tupulev TU 144 and the Channel crossing SRN4 hovercraft. They have all disappeared today. Most of these machines did not ever make money, and others, like the hovercraft, swiftly disappeared when competing modes of transport took over. Clearly, the romance with pure speed is now behind us. It has been sacrificed at the altar of economics.

The reason why fast is not smart is because the incremental gain in speed beyond 350 kms of so per hour is gained at huge incremental cost. It takes more and more energy to push air out of the way when one goes faster. That is why air travel speeds have not gone up for at least twenty years; the focus is on safety, comfort and economy. If the Japanese were to consider a completely Greenfield Shinkanshen project now, they would think twice; it would not be economical at all.

I think India should make a bold move to disrupt surface transport. If India wants to do something disruptive, similar to what Japan did in the sixties with the Shinkansen, it should explore hyperloops.

These are mag lev trains that run inside a tunnel maintained as a partial vacuum. Near Mach 1 speeds, faster or comparable to an aircraft traveling at 40000 feet, can be achieved because there is no air to be pushed aside. Besides, hyperloop trains will surpass aircraft in economy while polluting much less, because they do not burn the huge quantities of fossil fuels that an aircraft does, to beat gravity.

India has proven to the world that it is capable of breathtaking scientific advances – our Mars mission, which cost us less than a Hollywood movie, is a case in point. We claim to have a huge pool of scientific and engineering talent. So, what are these men and women for, what are they doing today? Let’s get them on the job and work on hyperloops. Let’s do what Japan did in the sixties; claw our way to the front. Let’s not waste money, even if we are blowing up a foreign loan, to buy a useless, expensive foreign trinket.

The writer is a former Joint Secretary to the Government of India. This was originally published here, and has been republished with his permission. 

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