Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
Indians are big losers because the Indian Railways lack drive, ambition and imagination. How? Delhi and Mumbai (1,380 km) are about as distant as Beijing and Shanghai (1,320 km). On 30th June last year, China Rail inaugurated a high-speed service which compressed travel time between the two cities to just five hours. A second-class seat on the train costs Rs 4,400 (CNY 550) and a first class seat Rs 7,500 (CNY 935). Airlines charge Rs 6,500 for the Delhi-Mumbai route. There is little advantage in flying if flight time of two hours, an equal amount of reporting time and the time spent on arriving at the airport and reaching the destination at the other end are added (because airports tend to be out of the city). Super fast trains would knock the stuffing out of air carriers. They could easily capture most of the 64,000 weekly air seats. The Center for Aviation says Beijing-Shanghai air fares slumped by half in the months following the launch of the bullet trains.
At $31 billion or Rs 1.40 lakh crore, the Shanghai to Beijing fast track is the costliest single infrastructure project in China's history, more draining than even the Three Gorges Dam. This is three times the total investment that Indian Railways made in 2011. It is possible that corruption and the rush to complete the project in 42 months inflated costs. That would still make it quite prohibitive. But the cost has to be weighed against the spin offs: the absorption of high technology, the ripple effects on the economy both during the construction phase and after, the productivity gains from saved time, enhanced safety and reduction in earth-warming emissions. Climate change concerns alone should made an economically-thriving India frown on air travel.
The enlightened ones in the railway ministry say there is little technological gain to be made from dedicated freight corridors. Hauling goods at speeds of 100 km an hour or more in special lanes does not require cutting edge skills. Instead India should invest in high-speed passenger tracks and haul goods exclusively on the ones displaced. This reportedly was the advice of 'Metroman' E Sreedharan.
High-speed travel has had unintended consequences in China. During the recent Spring Festival, about 70,000 more buses plied as migrant workers returning home found fast train ticket unaffordable. On the other hand, competition forced airlines to reduce services on certain sectors. Despite fewer seats, they had to throw in discounts to win back passengers. To make high- speed train travel inclusive, the Indian government may have to provide subsidy.
I have not studied the economics, but by running fast trains closer to each other, the railways should be able to take everybody on board. Our experience with mobile telephony and banking services shows that the poor need not settle for inferior service. Technology and competitive enterprise are egalitarian.
Politicians who resist hike in non-airconditioned passenger fares seem to have a very poor opinion of them. They refer to them as the 'masses,' as if only fit to travel densely packed like amorphous lumps. Unreserved second class fares have risen by just 6 percent in the past 18 years. Second class sleeper fares have gone up 44 percent. During this time, the wholesale prices index has jumped by 295 percent. Rail travel is perhaps the only other service in India to have become cheaper in inflation-adjusted terms, apart from print journalism in English.
There is just no way that the railways can spare the sweating. Of the 4,000 million non-suburban train passengers last year, only 2.5 percent traveled under controlled temperature. Can a charge on these 101 million passengers make up for the remaining 3,900 million? They would shift to airlines. That is why when Nitish Kumar raised fares in the late 1990s, he calibrated them in such a manner that airconditioned passengers bore a proportionately lower burden.
Three years ago, almost to the month, the Mahindras adopted Satyam Computers. They are now merging it with one of their group entities. A committee of wise men in whose foster care the government entrusted the scam-afflicted company did an excellent job of nursing it into shape and passing it on to guardianship. The government must now do a Satyam on Air India and lavish the attention it now ladles to the beleaguered airline on the Railways. If the government can rescue a private company, can it fail in its duty with a key public undertaking?