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Trains instead of planes

By Bholenath Vishwakarma

India is the fastest-growing aviation market in the world. But only 2% of people travel by air. High-speed rail networks for distances upto 600 km could cut emissions by 90%, while also being more efficient and affordable to the common man

Urban transport systems affordable to the common man

A study conducted by the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) shows that domestic air travel in India is on the rise, thanks to a booming and consistent economy. In December 2011, the number of people travelling by air was 5.63 million. This took the number of domestic flyers in 2011 to just past the 60 million mark, up 16.6% from the previous year’s figure of 52 million, averaging out at 5.1 million passengers per month, and up 74% from 2006 levels. India is going to remain the fastest growing aviation market in the world, with the 2011-12 fiscal year likely to record a growth of 17-18%.

But for a few in the aviation industry, the news isn’t good. India’s premier aviation company Kingfisher, owned by high-profile tycoon Vijay Mallya, recently filed for bankruptcy, a move that was decried by many on hints that the government might offer financial help when the banks refused to lend the company any more money. Now, lenders have threatened to put Mallya’s personal property and office on the block to recover debts amounting to Rs 7,000 crore.

National carrier Air India has been in the red for a long time and is still experiencing financial and labour problems. It has to be restructured and infused with a Rs 22,000 crore high-cost working capital debt if it is to survive.

The largest standalone carrier, Indigo, with a 19.5% market share, is the fastest growing carrier simply because it’s the cheapest.

Considering all this, it is worth exploring why a developing and poor country, where less than 2% of people travel by air, has no efficient and cheap high-speed railway system.

Peter Head, recipient of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his contribution towards the development of sustainable cities advocates in his report on the creation of ecological towns that in low- and middle-income countries, new airports should be focused on international/ regional travel over approximately 600 km, and that they should be located on high-speed rail routes and connected to local urban areas with mass transit systems. Citing the example of Europe, he writes that Europe now has a viable high-speed rail network which is an attractive alternative to regional air travel for distances up to 600 km.

When high-speed rail was introduced, rail user numbers doubled and on some routes like the 300 km Paris-Brussels route, air travel dropped to a negligible level. This experience has also been confirmed in Japan. High-speed railway investment along with the capacity for rail freight movement with links built directly to city edge consolidation centres is an efficient way forward. Indeed, this is the one area where the ecological footprint of urban centres can be reduced.

Scientific studies have predicted that air travel emissions are going to be one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions in the atmosphere. One has only to look up on a clear day to see crisscrossing contrails (vapour trails that are long thin artificial clouds that sometimes form behind aircraft) being formed in the wake of high-flying planes.

Taking a train instead of a plane could cut almost 90% of carbon emissions. In a study, Eurostar -- the high-speed railway service connecting London with Paris and Brussels -- shows that taking the train to Paris instead of flying cuts CO2 emissions per passenger not just by a measly 10% or 20%, or even 50%, but by a staggering 90%! That’s not to mention time saved in avoiding stringent post-9/11 security checks where it could take two hours to check in for an hour’s flight.

Incidentally, the environmental benefits of taking the train instead of a plane may be greater than 90%. Planes emit their CO2 directly into the upper atmosphere where it is likely to do over twice the damage the same quantity of CO2 emitted at ground level could do (estimates vary between two and three times the damage, but 2.7 is the factor normally used). This factor isn’t included in the Eurostar findings.

The Indian scenario is interesting because, despite being a developing country, India has leapfrogged to air travel without offering efficient high-speed rail travel as an economically viable alternative that could take the pressure off the aviation industry. Considering the fact that the four metros and 41 other million-plus cities which are business class destinations lie within 600-800 km, researchers and urban planners recommend that high-speed rail investment should be given equal priority with roads. There must be greater emphasis on efficient travel within a 300-600 km radius, as this does not just make business sense, it’s also sustainable. To have ground transport that is efficient, cheap, environment-friendly and sustainable will allow commuters to avoid costly air travel.

Over a decade ago there was talk of improving the 500 km track between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, a lucrative business travel corridor, at a cost of roughly Rs 3 crore per km. There is also renewed talk of a ‘golden rail corridor’ that could possibly travel upward of 200 km/hour. Currently, travelling the roughly 1,400 km from New Delhi to Mumbai takes almost 15-17 hours; with the new trains, travel time will be cut to just six or eight hours. Not only will this divert a huge chunk from air travel, it will also be accessible and convenient for everyone, will cut greenhouse gas emissions, and will help business in these times of recession.

Kolkata has had a metro network for a long time; Delhi for over a decade now. Similar projects have been completed in Bangalore, and the one in Mumbai is underway. We should have had these almost a decade ago (at least in all metropolitan areas) as neither technology nor finance for such projects has been wholly indigenous and has been carried out with foreign or multilateral institutional funding and imported technology. Especially considering post-liberalisation growth, rising incomes, and the possible effects of climate change. And, if not all this, to save foreign exchange on petro-products, reduce pollution and congestion, and improve access for ordinary people.

(Bholenath Vishwakarma is a Ford Foundation International Fellow and Columbia University graduate)

Infochange News & Features, August 2012