One of the hopelessly premature ideas in the BJP's election manifesto is also the nicest-sounding: a Diamond Quadrilateral, which is to be the railways' equivalent of the Golden Quadrilateral highway network that links the four major metros. The intention must be that if the Golden Quadrilateral is associated with the first BJP prime minister (Atal Bihari Vajpayee), then its Diamond equivalent in the form of a network of high-speed "bullet" trains will be associated with Narendra Modi. The other attractions of the idea are obvious: high-speed trains are always handsome showpieces, and make visually powerful statements about a country's modernity and economic development.
The trouble is that it will cost a bomb and, if not substantially subsidised by the government, could bankrupt the Railways. The Mumbai - Ahmedabad corridor of about 500 kilometres (usually mentioned as the first likely high-speed project, out of a possible seven spread across the country) was estimated two years ago to cost Rs 60,000 crore; that figure is close to Indian Railways' annual revenue from passenger fares! Costs would have gone up further with the new law on land acquisition, which would have raised land costs three-fold or more. A ticket to travel on a train built at such cost is likely to be priced at Rs 6-8 per km; that's three to four times the present cost of travel on the Shatabdi Express, and in the same bracket as air tickets.
India does not need high-speed trains that travel at 350 km per hour. What it needs first is a realistic and sensible stepping-up of speeds for the current breed of optimistically named "super-fast" trains along the main trunk routes, plus spurs like Pune-Hyderabad and Delhi-Kalka. This will not be high-cost because it will not need new track, wide arcs for turns and special rails, or a signal-free run. Taking up the speeds of inter-city Shatabdi Express trains from the present average of 70-75 km/hour to about 100 km/hour (which means the top speeds will go from 130 to 160 km/hour) will cut the Mumbai-Ahmedabad travel time from seven hours to five; a "bullet train" is supposed to make it four hours. The extra hour's saving comes at enormous cost and does not make financial sense. Similarly, most people would be happy if Delhi-Chandigarh became two-and-a-half hours, shaving an hour off present timings. The long-distance Rajdhani Express from Delhi to Mumbai could become a true overnighter. Indeed, most long-distance trains along the Quadrilateral would become overnight journeys.
Even the 100 km/hour speed objective for passenger trains will be feasible only when the new "dedicated freight corridors" get built, to allow (slower) freight and (faster) passenger trains to be put on completely separate tracks so that one does not come in the way of the other. This will not be done before 2018, and the southern freight corridors will take even longer. Separately, most level-crossings will have to be eliminated and the track fenced along most of its route. The next government will need virtually all of its life to do this preparatory work; if it is lucky, it will be able to introduce the speeding up of a few trains before it demits office. The package, taken together, would be transformation enough in five short years.
Finally, just about half the 15 million who use the railways daily on non-suburban routes travel on the trunk routes. The neglected regional and feeder services on non-metro routes account for the rest, and are in desperate need of getting upgraded, including with more frequent services, so that people don't have to travel like cattle. Indeed, worse than cattle - because they also travel on rooftops and hanging half out of coaches. Surely, these basics must come before expensive showpieces.