The Indian Economy Blog

July 17, 2005

An Integrated Rail Transportation System

Filed under: Infrastructure — Atanu Dey @ 10:15 pm

I may be mistaken about this but I get the distinct impression that whenever India’s development is mentioned, the matter immediately shifts to PCs and internet, BPOs and call centers. It is as if the entire economy will be magically transformed if only everyone had broadband access and a web enabled cell phone with customized irritating ring-tones and had the ability to subscribe to a gazillion web logs through RSS and had the ability to publish his own stuff for the edification of the masses who were similarly engaged in publishing their own stuff.

By persistently going against the popular illusions of the age, one risks the possibility of being branded a crank. I expose myself to that fate because it is my desperate hope that I may be able to change a few minds and perhaps influence policy however indirectly.

The crux of my argument is that information and communications technology (ICT) plays a supportive role in an economy. Not unlike in a body, where the nervous system though critical is worthless unless the musculo-skeletal is robust, the digital network is worthless unless there is an underlying non-digital economy of stuff such as manufacturing, agriculture, and services. You need to have factories and farms, roads and railways, schools and shops, houses and hospitals — not just broadband digital 3.5G MP3 camera phones for surfing the web.

Not paying attention to the fact that the “digital economy” has as its foundation the “stuff economy” has perverse consequences of providing the illusion of progress while the system insistently regresses. For instance, unlike in those bad old Pre-internet days, today you can visit the web site for the railways in India and make your train reservation in about a half hour. You no long have to stand in line for hours on end to get to the ticket counter and find out that there are no seats available for weeks on end. The website will tell you that the trains are full after half an hour.

The illusion of progress — at least to those lucky few who have web access — is short-lived when you realize that though you can attempt to book the seats online, the underlying system has not changed much, if at all. The so-labeled “super fast express” trains make their way at a stately 80 kms an hour average, pretty much what they were capable of doing forty years ago. Thirty years ago, the Shinkansens were doing 200 kms an hour and today they exceed 300 kmph. But in India, we maintain a dignified traditional 80 kms an hour for decades on end.

What India needs to pay attention to is the underlying hard economy which is the infrastructure upon which the soft economy of internet and services can ride. In this one, I will briefly focus on one bit of the hard economy: the railroad transportation system.

The big picture shows India to be a very large country with a massive population. To feed, clothe, and house this billion plus population requires lots of stuff. For obvious reasons very large number of people and goods have to be moved efficiently over long distances. There are three primary methods for this: roads, railways, and air.

Let’s take air first. Air transportation is relatively simple and for long distances it is expedient. It is also grossly expensive for a poor economy such as India. Besides, it is totally dependent on fossil fuels and this makes it seriously polluting. Air transportation is OK for moving rich people over long distances but for bulk transportation of goods, and for bulk transportation of not-rich people, it is not a good solution. Thus, for moving about 300 million really affluent people over long distances, air transportation makes sense, as in the US. Even in the US, bulk transportation does not use air. They use the roads and rails.

Next consider roads. Roads are expensive to build and extremely expensive to operate. For moving people, the best roads can at most do an average of 80 kms per hour over long distances under ideal conditions. Private cars are expensive to own and they use polluting fossil fuel. Indians cannot afford cars because we are too poor and there are too many of us. Besides we are seriously dependent on external supplies for fuel. Finally, roads are notoriously unsafe as compared to air or rail.

Common carriers such as buses are also not the right solution for India over long distances. A recent journey of 500 kms by a luxury bus took 15 hours. The bus was luxurious but the road was pitiable and the overall experience put the fear of travel in me. I would have preferred to take a slow train but severe capacity limitations ruled out that option.

The best solution for India’s transportation needs is what I call an “Intergated Rail Transportation System” (IRTS) which I will outline in this piece.

First, the “R”. Steel wheel over steel rails is the most efficient method of transporting goods and people, especially when both volumes and distances are large. It is super efficient and clean because of a number of reasons. First, because steel wheels over steel rails have very low friction and with aerodynamically designed trains, you can have the least cost per ton per mile. Next, you don’t have to use fossil fuels. You can generate electricity using whatever technology and power the trains. Third, you can use the same system — the tracks and the signaling and switching system — for both passengers as well as goods.

Next, trains can be very fast compared to roads and can be compared favorably to planes over short and intermediate distances. Mumbai to Pune (a distance of about 120 kms) takes 3 hours by road, city center to city center. By a fast train, with a modest top speed of 200 kms an hour, the journey should not take more than an hour. Currently the trains take over 3 hours. And by air: about 4 hours. You drive to the airport, proceed through security, then take a flight that spends more time taxiing than flying, and arrive and then go from the airport to the city center (takes 2 hours at peak traffic time.)

Over long distances such as between Delhi and Bangalore, planes have an evident advantage for people but not for goods. But that advantage is restricted to the very rich alone in India. The average person cannot afford the round-trip fare which approximates the average annual income of about $400. Imagine how many people would fly between NY and SF if the price was about $23,000 instead of the $400 it is.

So the core of the IRTS is a very fast rail network connecting the major population centers. The backbone of the system is high speed trains that move between metros such as Mumbai and Kolkata (via Nagpur), between Delhi and Bangalore/Chennai (again via Nagpur.) These I call the “Cross Links” which are different from the “Diagonal Links” which go between Mumbai and Delhi (via Ahmedabad), Delhi and Kolkata (via Kanpur), Kolkata and Bangalore/Chennai (via Hyderabad), and Bangalore to Mumbai.

The backbone of the system is therefore the diagonal and cross links. Trains travel at 250 kms an hour and make at most one stop. Mumbai-Delhi is done in 6 hours (instead of the 18 hours currently by the fastest train.) Mumbai-Kolkata is done in 8 hours. You want to go from a town close to Mumbai to a town close to Delhi, you do the journey in three bits: two short distance segments (relatively slow) and one fast long distance train. The short distance segments will be served by the “integrated” part of IRTS.

For short distances, the road system and the existing rail system would suffice. For instance, a journey from Pune to Chandigarh would involve a bus from Pune to Mumbai, a train from Mumbai to Delhi, and then a train from Delhi to Chandigarh.

This is really a hub-and-spoke model with multiple hubs (Mumbai, Nagpur, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore), each serving a bunch of spokes that terminate in towns close to the hub.


  1. i am not sure about an integrated rail system being the best panacea – for starters air , bus and rail transport are not mutually exclusive. In fact other than the US virtually all other developed economies have the three in tandem with buses competing healthily with rail. I strongly disagree that air transport is only for the rich in India – there is a growing middle class that will increasingly prefer that to rail no matter how much the latter modernizes. Also, what happens to the state within a state otherwise known as Indian Railways? If that can be privatized we may have a starting point. BTW, the US railroad system was initially all private with government providing the land via eminent domain and sometimes dodgy acquisitions

    Comment by Vijay Dandapani — July 18, 2005 @ 2:21 pm

  2. The Indian Economy Blog

    Seven notable Indian bloggers/journalists have recently started a blog, The Indian Economy. DesiPundit wishes them luck and will keep an eye out for some excellent writing.

    Trackback by DesiPundit — July 21, 2005 @ 9:08 pm

  3. Hi Atanu
    This is interesting. The next generation rail service in India is probably overdue, but I’m sure a French style TGV would be cost effective for a nation like India. These high speed trains are enormously expensive, not any less expensive than airplane. My parents took the TGV in France and they said the tickets cost as much as a flight would. You also have to keep in mind that higher speed will really up the requirement for safety: a derailment at that speed kills all passengers. Do you really want a government owned and operated service operating at those speeds?

    Going private is another option. It isn’t quite so easy because rail service fits the model of a natural monopoly, and people will insist that either the government run it or strictly regulate it.

    One more general comment about this website: doesn’t look too much like this one?

    Comment by Michael H. — July 22, 2005 @ 8:03 pm

  4. Brilliant exposition…I agree with it….On a similar note, we have hazaar red-tape, we have infinite lack of infrastructure (inventive use of adjectives!!!), and just zero intent to do it.

    I live in Mumbai, and have heard for ages that the transport infrastructure is creaking….what do we do…nothing….I take 40 minutes to drive 7 kms which it takes to reach office.

    so much for our journey from mumbai to shangai….(that should take light years at the above speed ;-)))

    Comment by Amitabh Iyer — August 17, 2005 @ 2:21 am

  5. Excellent Work… … Only problem is that we need you in Planning Commission….

    You have correctly stated that for the country to prosper you need both hard economy as well as soft(ware) economy….. A refreshing thought compared to the facts that 99 % of the electronic media (catering to 0.5 % or Indian population – the elite) see Stock Market alone as the index of Indian Growth

    Comment by Bruno — October 19, 2005 @ 2:19 pm

  6. Introduction
    What makes Indian traffic unique is that a small group is quickly filling up road space while everyone suffers from congestion. The 20/80 rule shows how great benefits are possible by presenting SkyTran as a public transport alternative.
    20-80 Rule Applied to Urban Transport
    Author: Ankur Bhatnagar ©2006
    20-80 rule is one of the most common tools used by business consultants and analysts. It is a general principle and it means that often a large part (“80%”) of most effects or phenomenon is attributable to a very small set of reasons or factors (“20%”). It is useful because it implies that a large part of a problem can be solved by just controlling a small number of factors, or a major part of an opportunity can be quickly realised by focusing on a small set of controls.
    The numbers 20 and 80 are not to be taken literally, they just mean very small and very large respectively.
    As examples, we may often find that 80% cost of inventory for an enterprise may be due to only 20% of items; 80% of sales comes only from 20% customers; world’s 80% crude oil is produced by only 20% oil fields; 80% wealth is in the hands of only 20% population, and so on
    In this article, we see how this 20-80 rule is applicable to urban traffic, and whether this rule brings out new lessons to be learnt.
    It is well known that in India only a small fraction of people owns cars. If you peep out of your window and look at the street, you will find a very large number of cars filling up the roads, parking lots, driveways, walkways, residential areas, and almost all open space accessible to the wheels of the cars. Only a small fraction of space is actually used by buses or mini-buses that are used by poor for transport.
    Stating it in the format of the 20-80 rule, it turns out that only 20% of population (car users) end up causing 80% congestion! Most planners continue targeting the 80% population, which contributes to only 20% of congestion.
    Search for more space on public land, reservation of space for mass transport (e.g., BRT and Metro Rail), reduction of space for cars, and high costs/low ticket pricing resulting in subsidy burden. When people don’t switch from cars to mass transport, there are demands to increase the taxes on cars and fuel. And, by the way, the switch from cars to mass transport is still marginal
    Poor people were already travelling in buses. The improvement for them is only marginal. If you target solving only 20% part of the problem, in the best case, that’s what you will get. While poor have more buses, their travel speed and travel experience remains pathetic, as buses and trains simply don’t increase speed. They have rigid routes, must stop at all stations and require a lot of walking, waiting, standing, halting, and in the process, killing speed and convenience.
    The car users make shriller noises as they are made to pay still higher taxes and the road space decreases for them, or at least it doesn’t increase as much.
    Then there is a strong and valid suggestion that the cost of cars should in fact be lowered so that more people can travel faster and in comfort.
    The debate within the transport expert community ends up being chaotic, contradictory and confusing.
    The 20-80 rule tells us to look at the situation differently. It says that since 80% of the problem (congestion) is only because of 20% of users, create solutions for those 20% users rather than for 80% users who are already managed.
    Let us review the attributes of such a solution:
    1. Can it be a lightweight and cheaper solution,
    to cater to far smaller number of users.
    2. It doesn’t have to carry the bulk of traffic, although if it can, it would be an additional advantage.
    3. The two segments – the car users and mass users are two separate segments with separate needs. The former are willing to pay much higher in return of a much better service than the latter.
    4. The performance attributes of the solution must match and exceed that of cars. That means we must acknowledge the superior travel experience of a car over mass transit modes, which many planners fail to do.
    5. While providing a service superior to that of cars and therefore much better than mass transport, if it provides sufficient capacity in low cost it could result in a transport revolution for the city.
    6. This solution must be different from cars, i.e., it must not have the disadvantages associated with cars. It must not add its own congestion, must not pollute, consume lower energy and occupy minimal space.
    Not only the cost of this solution will be lower, these targeted 20% users (car users) are also those who have the paying power as they belong to the higher economic segment. That means this solution doesn’t have to be subsidised.
    The conventional approach tries to remove only 20% congestion by deploying hugely costly transit systems for the masses. If the ticket price is increased by even a rupee or two, the masses start shifting back to older modes nullifying the new initiatives. Not to mention the vociferous protests. The only alternative then is to keep the ticket prices artificially low and look for other revenue alternatives and still suffer losses.
    The obvious question is what is that solution that targets 20% upper end users and has the attributes listed above. Since this solution has to be better than the car transport, let us first see in what ways are cars better than mass transport mode. Note that we are comparing the performance criteria from the point of view of users, not planners. While planners have a long list why car is a worse transport mode than mass transit, the users have an equally long list on why they prefer cars to mass transit.

    Cars have clear advantages over mass transit in the following terms:
    1. Comfortable seated travel
    2. No waiting for the vehicle – always available
    3. No inter-modal or same mode interchange hassles
    4. Cars are faster since they don’t to stop at intermediate points except intersections and congestion bottlenecks
    5. No jostling with crowds
    6. Minimal exposure to dust and grime
    The user reaches his destination in lesser time and in a better shape more ready and productive to attend to his purpose at the destination in a car. The mass transit systems just cannot provide these benefits. Experts often undervalue them. For example, they feel that by providing air conditioning in buses or trains the travel will become convenient, even when they take away seats to make room for more people!
    A solution targeting the car user must at least match the above benefits. If this solution can achieve this, provide even better performance at low enough cost, and in capacity more than that required by top 20% population, it would be nothing short of a revolution as masses too will be able to take advantage of it.
    Among the existing alternatives there is none that can fulfil the above described need. Therefore, new ways will have to be considered. Personal Rapid Transit technology, especially SkyTran technology by UniModal is one such solution.
    SkyTran takes the travel experience to the next level. It matches and exceeds the performance criteria of a car not only from the end users’ perspective, but also doesn’t have any of the disadvantages associated with cars such as congestion, pollution, space gobbling, high accident rate. It is way cheaper than cars, and cheaper than even mass transit systems while providing capacities unmatchable by mass transit systems. It beats speed advantage of cars by orders of magnitude even if SkyTran runs at half of its rated speed of 160 km/hr. As a result, SkyTran will not only be successful in attracting car users, its advantages will flow to all sections of users.
    Also note that though at the moment decongesting is the main objective of planners, SkyTran allows them to go beyond that. In the absence of congestion people will be able to travel up to a speed benchmarked by inherent upper speed limits on city roads. However, SkyTran will allow them to travel much faster than that with much greater safety thus achieving objectives much beyond traffic decongestion.

    Comment by stanley — May 11, 2006 @ 2:55 pm

  7. Atanu Dey is absolutely right about the IRTS. Those who have commented about the efficiency of Air travel do not know what they are talking about. First of all air travel depends entirely on imported fossil fuel. The so called low cost airlines are not viable in the long term. Coming back to the railways. Technology is now available that can run faster trains on existing tracks of India. The Pendolino tilting trains can run at 250 km/hr on the existing tracks. Even with an avaerage speed of 200 km/hr these trains can cover the distance between Delhi and Mumbai in 6-8 hours and the average travelling public would prefer this mode to expensive air anyday. Besides trains can be powered by fuels available locally.

    Comment by David — August 16, 2006 @ 2:41 pm

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