The Bullet and the Elephant Express
By Raja Murthy
MUMBAI - While China has begun to earn billions of dollars exporting high-speed bullet train technology to the United States and Europe, the struggle of Indian Railways to manage its financial woes and modernization delays serves as a stark contrast between the operators of the world's two largest railway networks.
Cash-strapped Indian Railways has asked the Indian Finance Ministry for US$8.6 billion in the annual railway budget to be released this month, more than double the allocation of $3.47 billion in the 2010 budget for modernization programs.
Though railway revenues went up by 10.40% for the period
11th to 20th January 2011 - to $570 million from $517 million during the same period in 2010 - unconfirmed insider accounts says Indian Railways faces a $547 million budgetary deficit, with losses of $875 million between April and December 2010, the first nine months of its financial year.
In contrast, China Railways, which will invest $106 billion in railway infrastructure this year, has no money worries, allowing it to expand a high-speed railway network that with a combined length of 7,531 kilometers, is longer than the rest of the world's high-speed networks put together.
China latest fast train, the CRH380A, set a new record on December 3, 2010 by clocking 486.1 kilometers an hour in its Beijing to Shanghai trial. India's fastest trains, the Rajdhani and Shatabdi categories, average about 100 km per hour on their better days.
China's Railway Ministry plans to nearly double the high-speed rail network for its sleek bullet trains to 13,000 kilometers by 2012. In the same year, India hopes only to start basic work on its first high-speed rail track between New Delhi and Mumbai. Indian Railways has commissioned international consultants for pre-feasibility studies.
India might benefit from consulting China Railways for high-speed corridors, but this lack of a neighborly railway partnership only highlights how China and India, both expected to dominate global economy by 2050, have divergent strategies for their vast rail networks, a key to economic growth.
The 157-year old Indian Railways, hauling over 13 million passengers daily and calling itself the "Lifeline of the Nation", is closely linked to the common man, with its heavily subsidized fares; it offers 25% to 75% fare concessions to 50 categories of travelers, from the physically and mentally impaired to patients traveling for medical treatment, war widows, the elderly and students, including those from overseas.
China runs 91,000 km of train tracks, compared with India's 63,327 km, and both the state-owned behemoths are their country's single largest employer. The Indian Railways pay roll has over 1.6 million entries, with an additional 300,000 jobs to be filled in the next six months, Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee declared on January 27. China's Ministry of Railways employs nearly 3.2 million people, more than the country's 2.3 million army troops.
In contrast to the flashy, high-speed Chinese train dragon, the slower Indian elephant steadily trudges with a more down-to-earth outlook. The 2011 Railway budget, presented separately to parliament in February ahead of the general budget, is expected to stress enhancing passenger safety, such as improving signaling systems and installing safety-related technology such as anti-collision devices (ACD) and a train protection warning system (TPWS).
China Railways, on the other hand, is being accused of paying more attention to on-rail showboats like the bullet trains, whose tickets cost nearly that of air fares, instead of improving services for the masses.
Such grumbles are reported louder during the just completed week-long Lunar New Year holidays, when around 230 million people have to be transported, the largest annual migration in the world.
Migrant Chinese workers can wait for as much as three days, often braving bitter winter winds and hunger, for train tickets that cost about 400 yuan (US$61), nearly one-third of a blue collar worker's monthly pay.
The stress was too much for migrant worker Chen Weiwei this January, who removed his clothes, except for grey underpants, and ran shouting around Jinhua Railway Station in eastern China's Zhejiang province. He had snapped after waiting third in a queue for 14 hours, only to be told that tickets were "sold out". Later, the station authorities magically changed the "sold out" status and gave Chen five tickets.
In contrast, the equivalent Indian worker need pay only 629 rupees (about $13) for a reserved second-class ticket with a sleeping berth on the Himsagar Express, in its three-night, 3,715-km odyssey between Kanyakumari, in India's southern-most tip, to Jammu city, in India's northern-most Jammu and Kashmir state.
Indian Railways has the world's largest online ticketing service - but insider fraud is often suspected, with tickets in very popular trains sold out almost instantly when reservations opens three months in advance.
For most trains and routes though, India's nationally computerized train booking system ensures that tickets, from anywhere to anywhere within the country, can be bought from thousands of Indian Railways counters nationwide, including in a small one-high-street town like Igatpuri, 150 km from Mumbai.
Internet booking, too, has cut short once daunting queues, saving millions of man-hours. The Centre for Railway Information Systems, created to use the latest information technology, reported 8.8 million online ticket transactions in January 2011, a 75% success rate from 11.7 million transactions attempted.
While Indian Railways benefits from the country's rich software expertise, it continues to import technology, such as coaches from Germany for the fully air-conditioned Rajdhani trains, even though it owns facilities like the Integral Coach Factory in Chennai.
China, in contrast, has done with its railways what it has done in other industrial sectors: import high technology, jiggle it a bit, label it as "advanced Chinese technology" and then export it heavily, undercutting the original foreign technology providers such as Siemens, Bombardier and Alstom.
Not surprisingly, China's largest train maker, CSR, last week said it expected profits in 2010 to have gained more than 50% last year from $254 million in 2009. CSR earned $1.24 billion in overseas sales. CSR is now the world's third-largest high-speed train producer, just behind Bombardier and Alstom.
In December, CSR also signed an agreement with General Electric for a 50-50 joint venture to manufacture high-speed trains in the United States. The $1.4 billion deal is expected to add 2,000 jobs in the US.
China is also competing with Japan, South Korea, France, Germany and Belgium to build a 1,100-kilometer high-speed railway in California, connecting San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego in 150 minutes, at a speed of 350 kph.
The Indian Railways suffers no such international competition anxieties as its Chinese counterpart, but with increasing traffic between the two nations, possibilities of a trans India-China rail network, and a New Delhi-Beijing Friendship Express by year 2025 will not be far-fetched.