An Indian Lesson For China’s High-Speed Railways

An interesting tidbit from our man in Delhi who says that the 7/23 Wenzhou train crash has struck a particular note there as India evaluates where to build its first high-speed passenger rail line.

For all its extensive rail system and extensive railway exports to elsewhere in Asia and Africa, India has been cautious about committing the considerable financial resources that are needed for such projects. But what caught our ear was our man’s description of how public the debate has been in India over high-speed rail and how independent the assessments of the feasibility of the competing projects have been.

That stands in marked contrast to the experience in China. We read daily of how former railways minister, Liu Zhijun, now removed from office and under investigation for corruption, forced through his plans to build out rapidly China’s high-speed rail network, regardless of expense, brooking no opposition and freezing out critics who said he was sacrificing safety for speed.

In the mid-2000s, our man tells us, when India’s railway ministry proposed a high-speed passenger line from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, the government had it reviewed independently by a state-owned transport consultancy, which decided the project was not economically viable as a passenger line, given India’s state of development, but could be beneficial to the country as a freight line, so the passenger plan was scrapped. No cosy arrangements there.

India’s latest effort in this area was announced last year by then railways minister, Mamata Banerjee, now chief minister of West Bengal, who proposed six possible lines. These the government has had studied over the past year by international consultants, with a choice expected shortly of which will be first to be built. The cabinet is also proposing to set up an independent agency that will monitor the implementation of whichever line is chosen.

How fast the trains will run has also been a matter of debate. Many in the railways ministry wanted to start slow, 200 km/h-250 km/h, though there has been some political pressure to go faster, 350 km/h, to show that India can bridge the technology gap as Japan has done and China had appeared to have before the Wenzhou crash confirmed the worse fears of critics.

Now, India has no high-speed passenger rail lines and China has the world’s largest network at approaching 10,000 kms. But, had China’s high-speed plans had the transparency, scrutiny and accountability that occurred in India, not only might the railways ministry not have debt of 1.25 trillion yuan ($194 billion) but the Wenzhou tragedy may never have occurred.

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