January 23, 2024


Do high-speed rail projects make sense for India?

Rail travel is the lifeblood of the Indian transport sector. Lakhs of people hop on board a train every day to travel between states and cities. The Indian railways have come a long way in many aspects over the decades. There are now more trains connecting more cities than ever before. But that demand is only growing. The challenge has always been how to transport more people faster. The obvious answer is high-speed rail projects.

In recent years, there has been an impetus for trains that can travel faster. Whether it’s Vande Bharat or the bullet train project, the government sees high-speed rail as essential to complement and contribute to India’s growing economic prowess. But, are they viable for India? Are their enormous costs justified?


The Indian Railways have come a long way since the steam engine came to India in 1853. In the two decades since, major metros like Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, and Delhi were linked by an extensive rail network. In the decades since independence, successive governments have pushed forward on new tracks, but at only about 169 km a year.

The India Railways emerged as one of the world’s largest rail networks spread over 1,20,000 km. Millions of passengers and tonnes of freight pass through thousands of stations. Over the years, the railways have always been caught between being financially sustainable and catering to the masses. It’s why governments don’t usually increase fares but continue to announce new routes. Also, it’s the world’s largest commercial employer, with over 1.5 million employees.

When we talk about speed, that’s probably where the Indian railways lag compared to foreign counterparts. Not many got past 100 kmph. That changed with the Shatabdi and Rajdhani Express. There’s also the Gatimaan and Tejas Express.

The Indian Railways is looking toward the future. That involves running freight and goods trains on Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFC). There’s also the first Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS). Then there’s the highly-publicised Vande Bharat Express, introduced to much fanfare. With select routes and more rolling out, the Indian Railways saw this as the logical next step in India’s high-speed rail journey.

Since we’re talking about true high-speed rail, India has plans. A decade ago, India and Japan signed an agreement to study the feasibility of a high-speed rail system. That would become the bullet train project currently being constructed from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. Modelled after Japan’s Shinkansen bullet trains, travel time will be reduced to about two hours. The station at the Sabarmati Multimodal Transport Hub in Gujarat is expected to rival a big airport, with passengers able to connect to other destinations via metro or bus. There’ll also be premium hotels, shopping, and office spaces.

Similar plans are afoot for routes in other states. These are all immense engineering challenges and see some firsts in India, including the first undersea rail tunnel at Thane Creek. All this begs the question, should this be the top priority for India and the Indian railways? Shouldn’t we improve the existing infrastructure first?

VIEW: Need to get on the high-speed bandwagon

Despite an expanding domestic aviation market, more people depend on the Indian Railways. It’s why the government needs to upgrade and expand the existing railway infrastructure and network. There’s a need to transform it from somewhat adequate to state-of-the-art. India has high economic ambitions. Part of that is being able to transport people and goods from A to B quickly and efficiently.

If we want to compete with the likes of China, for example, high-speed rail not only makes sense but becomes necessary. In the time it takes to travel from Chennai and Bengaluru, one can cover over 600 miles from Beijing to Shanghai in China’s high-speed rail. China’s high-speed rail network is already 26,000 miles long. Meanwhile, several Vande Bharat trains don’t reach their full speed since many existing tracks don’t allow for it.

Let’s talk about the bullet train project. A strategic partnership with Japan will ensure local companies are involved in the implementation process. There’s a possibility that Japanese companies that make the equipment could set up shop in India, giving an impetus to the Make in India initiative. India has a growing population. It’s clear that the existing railway network, already overburdened, will struggle to handle the higher passenger numbers. But this also presents India as a highly lucrative market for high-speed rail.

COUNTERVIEW: Shouldn’t be the top priority

High-speed rail projects are aspirational and ambitious engineering and economic endeavours. The fundamental question is, does the end justify the means? The current regular railway infrastructure isn’t exactly world-class across the board. Why not upgrade what’s there first to serve people now? Some have argued things like the bullet train project raise questions about the government’s priorities.

Once again, let’s take the bullet train project. It hasn’t been smooth sailing. The original completion date was 2022. It’s now 2026. The 508-km Mumbai-Ahmedabad line is estimated to cost ₹1.1 lakh crore. Any delays, of which there were many due to land acquisition issues, will only push up that cost. How will this investment be recovered? It’s estimated that 50 million people will need to use it annually. A one-way ticket could cost about ₹5,000. That’s not exactly a good recipe.

While supporters of such projects argue that high-speed rail and the bullet train can be complementary to the existing rail network, it’s basically a proposition for only the affluent few. Over 90% of the population travel by sleeper class or lower class. The example of Kerala’s controversial Silver Line high-speed rail project illustrates another issue – the environment. Building such rail networks requires a lot of land and could cut through lakes and forests.

Reference Links:

  • Fastest trains in India before high-speed rail system took over – The Indian Express
  • Slow progress for India’s high-speed rail revolution – CNN
  • India’s first bullet train | On the fast track, finally – India Today
  • To Be the Next China, India Needs Faster Trains – Bloomberg
  • How high-speed railway can give impetus to ‘Make in India’ initiative – Financial Express
  • Can we justify our high-speed rail? – Deccan Herald
  • Will bullet trains ‘fast track’ India’s transportation issues? – Times of India
  • Why India’s Bullet Train Project is So Slow – The B1M

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) High-speed rail networks make sense for India.

b) High-speed rail networks don’t make sense for India.


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