An Integrated Rail Transportation System

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.

ICT as the Nervous System

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 longer 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 70 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 70 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 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 such as can be found in the advanced industrialized economies. 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 of the railways 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.

Intergated Rail Transportation System

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 transportation cost per ton per mile. Next, you don’t have to use fossil fuels. You can generate electricity using whatever technology is most efficient and available to 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 Pune-Mumbai takes 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 (which can easily take over an hour 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 only the very rich 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 an average 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. If 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 or train 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.

Without going into details, I would like to outline some advantages of the IRTS. The obvious hurdles will also be dealt with simultaneously.


The most obvious point is that it is massively expensive to build a rail system. Even conservatively it will cost $50 billion. Here is the way out. Let it be private/public partnership. The government owns the land on which the existing rail system operates. So that could be the contribution of the public sector. The rails can be farmed out to the private sector on a “build and operate” scheme. And the rolling stock can be owned by private sector firms. These private sector firms can operate trains just as they operate airlines today. They can import the best available train technology from Japan and France just as airlines import planes from Airbus and Boeing.

The involvement of the private sector will not only free up public resources, but the increased efficiencies will propel economic growth which will increase government tax revenues.

The world is awash with liquidity these days. India needs to come up with projects which will attract these savings. Building a modern railways for India is one such project.


The IRTS will have to be built from scratch. Doing so will involve the labor of millions. Just like the interstate highway system did for the US, it will give a permanent boost the growth of the economy. Spending $50 billion will generate direct employment.

Economic Linkages

Then there are secondary effects which arise from backward and forward linkages. Forward linkages such as the development of a more efficient agricultural and manufacturing sector.

A significant portion of agriculture production is wasted as it cannot be moved efficiently enough. Manufacturing for domestic consumption and for exports is stunted because of the slow movement of goods. Both sectors will obtain efficiency gains.


India does not have state of the art railroad technology which has been developed by countries such as France and Japan. To begin with, India will have to import these and build up domestic manufacturing capacity. Since the requirements for India will be large, India has the bargaining power to insist on technology transfer. Then given that engineering and design talent is not lacking in India, it is possible that India can improve on the technology and be a leader in the field.


What we have in India is a creaky dilapidated outmoded transportation system. More than roads and airports, India needs a great rail transportation system which will form the bedrock upon which a modern Indian economy can move. It is a great challenge and if articulated well, it can galvanize the entire population. It will not be easy but then easy things are not worth doing and are rarely transformational in their impact. The movers and shakers of India should look for projects that transform, hard though they may be.

The beauty and elegance of a modern transportation system beckons. Are we up to the task?

[This post is continued at “The IRTS – Revisited“.]
{Related links: See these pictures of Shinkansen (the Bullet Trains of Japan). Wouldn’t it be amazing to have trains like these in India? Reuben at Zoostation had a bit about the new Shinkansens.}

Author: Atanu Dey


23 thoughts on “An Integrated Rail Transportation System”

  1. As a regular reader of your blog, I have begun to better understand the complexity of India and her peoples. Your argument for a major re-construction of the rail system is both clear and compelling. What is not clear is who the “we” in Are we up to the task? refers. Who would you look to to lead such an endeavour? Is the model of private/public sharing of infrastructure redevelopment possible in India?

    Graham Johnson
    Melbourne, Australia


  2. Excellent article Atanu. Have you thought about the interlinking of rivers and using the waterways? I believe that it can be done and profitable for all. I would welcome an article on the same.


  3. I quite agree with your thoughts on the rail network. For some reason the GoI seems to be loath to spend on that front, which is a pity. Off and on, I have heard of some talk on building a fast rail transport system between chennai and Blr. But nothing’s happened, as far as I know.

    I sometimes get the feeling the unwillingness to make big ticket infrastructure investments comes from a certain fear about running big budget deficits, or maybe from an under-appreciation of the secondary benefits. W.r.t infrastructure, that’s mistaken.

    There is of course the problem of chronic mismanagement (bar a few exceptions such as the Delhi Metro, I guess) of govt’s infrastructure projects.


  4. Atanu I agree and appreciate your vision for integrated rail trasport system but I feel that in more immediate term we need to revamp our road and airport infrastructure. The reasons are as follows,

    1. Indian railway system is in comparatively better situation than others like road etc, it has vast network, reliable and most importantly cost effective for poor people.

    2. Public/private partnership is very diificult at a large scale as its the largest employer in India, heavily subsidised and there is a lot of organisation legacy…I think we need massive reforms in the way the system is governed before opening it up. There are no such issues for Road/Air.

    3. Implementaion/Gestatation period for any such system will be much more than the Road/Air system.

    I feel in long run if fossil fuels make it extremely expensive for us to make use of road networks…alternate indigenous technologies will develop to make use of electricity, bio/natural gas in road transportation.


  5. Well in general I agree with the tone of the article. What I don’t agree is the cost calculations. You assume that air travel is costly based on existing air travel technology. But we know that technology adopts to our needs. Necessity is a mother of invention! The air travel technology that exists today was not like from the begining and it will not be the same tomorrow!


  6. Atanu, A Classic piece !!

    When I visited Swiss, I was overawed with the discipline it runs.. on the otherhand, I felt bad about the Indian trains.

    I wonder how all the train stations are synchronised with clock running here (to a second accuracy)and the trains follow it meticulously.

    They also build the moutain trains to Jungfrau and Titlis. It climbs wonderfully at such treacherous altitudes.

    My friend also told me about the fantastic fast train network in Sweden.
    Sure you must be knowing more from Finland. How is it Nordic Countries ?
    (though with very less population compared to India)

    It high time Govt recogonises this as our Manufacturing sector growth is highly dependent on this logistics

    You might also wonder how “well off” Indian folks are callous about the suffering of others. The lack of empathy just baffles me to no end.

    Thanks for putting this post together…. , Navin


  7. In response to Viraj:

    1. Indian railway system is in comparatively better situation than others like road etc, it has vast network, reliable and most importantly cost effective for poor people.

    The fact that roads are in a worse condition than rails is not an argument against making the rail system as efficient as possible. Indeed, if the rail system is improved, then the pressure on the roads will decrease and make it easier to fix.

    The Indian rail system is not as vast as it has been touted to be. Whenever we talk of India, we should try to put it in perspective by “normalizing” the figures. More about this later.

    2. Public/private partnership is very diificult at a large scale as its the largest employer in India, heavily subsidised and there is a lot of organisation legacy…I think we need massive reforms in the way the system is governed before opening it up. There are no such issues for Road/Air.

    Organizational legacy, is another of saying that we have been saddled with a dysfunctional system which we cannot hope to change thanks to the corruption and the nepotism introduced by Nehru.

    3. Implementaion/Gestatation period for any such system will be much more than the Road/Air system.

    A man goes to learn a language and the teacher says it will take ten years of work. The man says he would not do it. The teacher says, “Ten years from now, it will still take you ten years to learn the language.”

    It is not how long it will take; the matter is whether it is worth doing. If it is, then it will take whatever time it takes. If it is not worth doing, it is not worth doing even if it takes no time to do it.

    The argument that it is better to do something that is easy is like the drunk looking for his lost keys under the lamppost. He did not lose it there but it is easier to look for keys under the light, he reasons.

    I feel in long run if fossil fuels make it extremely expensive for us to make use of road networks…alternate indigenous technologies will develop to make use of electricity, bio/natural gas in road transportation.

    Road transportation does not have the scale economies that rails have. More about this in a followup post.


  8. Do you think the cost of such a high-speed network can be met by ticket sales? If the ticket prices are anything similar to low-end air, the project will be a disaster due to insufficient demand.


  9. I recently connected to your blog and I like the way you put your ideas across. Couple of things about this article though.

    I agree with you that India currently stands for it outsourcing service, for it’s BPO and perhaps for individuals who are doing good “abroad”. All reasons enough for why we skipped the manufacturing phase and jumped to being a service country. Also currently India needs a good RISC model (just downloaded and reading the RISC white paper) and communications should be a part of the infrastructure and not considered as a whole and soul tool which will lead India from a developing to a developed nation.

    But frankly I have some issues with the Rail system you have proposed, currently the Railways cater to millions of people who travel from variety of destinations to a variety of destinations, It is a known fact that Indian Railways are the biggest and best railway systems in the country considering the amount of traffic they carry. How many people travel between Bombay and Delhi?! as compared to say Bombay and Pune/Baroda which shall justify such implementation of such a system.

    Also current railways are heavily subsidised and private/public partnership would imply tickets to be on the expensive side.

    Air is currently becoming cheaper day by day and is favourable atleast for personal travel. For Goods Transportation, perhaps we can look at importing Carrier Airbuses or building planes which can carry a good bulk of goods.


  10. Atanu,

    Nice ideas in paper. The railway version of Golden Quadrilateral(GQ)?

    I think the problem will be patronage.
    Indian middle class generally opt for cheaper things, however bad the quality may be.

    Please explain how revenue can be generated for this.


  11. While I agree with your sentiments whole-heartedly, let’s be honest about how to generate the electricity for the rail system. Yes there are many alternate sources of energy, but you and both klnow that the short- and medium-term generation of this electricity will come from fossil fuels. That being said, you have picked the most politicially sensitive part of India’s infrastructure – how many other countries have a “Ministry of Railways” and a separate Railways budget?!!!?!?

    I think I read somewhere that the Railways is the largest employer in India, and while they have corporatised some parts (The IRCTC) the rest will, I fear remain in government hands, especially with the current lot of filthy disgusting communists.

    I envisioned privatising some of the “luxury trains” off first as well – the Shatabdis and Rajdhanis…as these are stupidly considered “only for the rich”.


  12. Dear Atanu:

    A good idea.

    I think India needs to think about other ways of solving its intra-city transportation system too.

    Coming to Bombay to Adelaide has been a shock.

    One of the good thinsg of Adelaide is the decent public transport system considering that most of the Australians own a car.

    They have a system called the o-Bahn, which is based fomr germany.

    This is a cost-effective environmentally freindly systemm.

    A bus which runs normally on the road, shifts to a concrete track and travels at 100km/hr and the comes to a normla road.

    It has provided entire suburbs to be accessible from the city.

    BTW, your IRTS is a good idea. I def. think somebody should take it up and brush up the numbers and costs.



  13. I’ve always thought about. IT/ITES has started only few years back. The export power has increased due to ITES/IT industry and all developments are focussed only towards this industry while others are not considered.
    Even agriculture has taken a back seat, worse is IT/ITES setting up offices by buying out agri lands!!


  14. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh also talks about modernizing railway system in McKinsey Quarterly.

    But our railway system also requires massive investments. We are working with the Japanese government to draw up a program in which the freight corridors between Mumbai1–Delhi, Mumbai–Chennai,2 and Delhi–Kolkata3 can be modernized. Our estimate is that that will cost about 25 thousand crore of rupees [$5.7 billion], and that’s our high priority as far as the railway system is concerned.


  15. I would like to accept most of your comments. But you are talking mostly about urban India. Still more than 60 percent of population lives in rural. How would you like to reach those masses with your model?

    And wondering wouldn’t it be hard to convince the technology/economy side of aspects to the decision makers like Lalu Prasad Yadav who can hardly read/write and wants all special trains should pass through Bihar (he made most of super fast trains to stop in every village of Bihar enroute to Delhi and Kolkata).


  16. I recently happened to board Konark express from Mumbai to Rajahmundry (my home town) on uncofirmed AC 2 tier ticket waitlisted 5, 6 and 7 and actually concluded my journey sitting near the stinkin loo of ordinary sleeper coach (that the ticket inspector suggested) for 25 hrs amidst some 210 passengers in a coach that is meant to seat 72. Its was human cargo. Well i further discovered that Konark express is surprisingly the ONE AND ONLY train for the past 35 years that connects Mumbai to south central region where most of the expat andhrites live. Worst still the train only has 14 coaches of which theres one coach each of 3 tier and 2 tier AC, 2 general coaches and 10 ordinary sleeper coaches. This express train (not superfast) traverses some 1900 KM from Mumbai to Bhubaneshwar through the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra and Orissa and takes about 36 hrs of journey time which translates to a average speed of 50kmph and i presume this is what is the average speed of any express train in India is. Superfast trains average about 65 not due to higher velocities but lesser number of halts incl. signalling halts are are thrice that of superfast trains. Heres some more disgusting facts. On any given day of the departure the train has some 300 odd passengers on unconfirmed waitlist tickets and all of them either board the reserved compartments (the smarter ones who just want to get their way) or the unreserved/general compartments.

    Now you all can make out what damn concern our ministries have for the comfort of the public and efficiency et al.. . mind boggling. Repeated letters to the rail bhavan are still not responded to. As usual i keep writing to most ministries on all matters of disgust. Even if we want to be half a good as shinkasen it will take us atleast 10 decades and by then the traction systems would have worn out completelty so in effect we can never attain those levels. This nation is a real phenomenon.

    Loknath Rao
    Mumbai, India


  17. Its really frustrating to see only one train travels from Mumbai to Bhubaneswar where as there are so many passengers travels to orissa.The pity is people adjusted with the agony.The government has deafen ear.
    Why are such negligence to Orissa?
    The service can be made better by
    1.Increasing the speed and reducing number of stops
    2.more bogies to the train more train to bhubaneswar

    Any body listening???


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