It is no exaggeration to say that the recent launch of the world’s fastest train service in China ‘signals the future.’ Its significance lies not merely in the impressive fact that it touched a record speed of 350 km an hour and shrunk distances but in its spotlighting how such trains can become a serious alternative to short-haul flights and long distance road travel. This assumes further importance in the light of the imperative need to cut carbon emissions urgently. Although high-speed trains, which exceeded 250 km per hour, were successfully launched as early as 1964 in Japan and adapted in France in 1981, they were not extensively explored. For many years, infrastructure and capacity improvement projects were limited to building more domestic airports and roads. High-speed trains tend to emit only one-fourth and one-third of CO2 per 100-passenger-km that aircraft and private cars do respectively. For the relevant distances, they also offer faster door-to-door connectivity than flights. They substantially improve inter-city travel options. Places as far as 800 km can be reached within an affordable time of less than three hours and this is a compelling reason to promote this energy-efficient mode of travel. As more and more passengers shift to such trains, congestion at airports and roads can be reduced and the spaces released can be efficiently used. High costs can no longer be held against high-speed trains.
The Indian Railways have recently announced that they have plans for 12 high-speed corridors with trains operating at a speed of 250-350 km per hour. As late entrants, they have the opportunity to leapfrog, learning from the successful experiences of other countries and aiming to go beyond increasing speeds. Safety must be the top priority. Japan has shown that this is possible as well as necessary for the success of the system. European countries have demonstrated that it is essential to develop the intra-city transport network and integrate it with the system so that the ridership can increase and travel can be seamless. Improving the stations, instituting sensitive pricing, and putting in place an accessible ticketing system are equally important. High-speed trains can facilitate balanced regional urban development and this is of special relevance to Indian conditions. With careful planning, urban growth can be shifted to and induced in mid-size towns connected by these trains and further crowding of large metropolitan cities avoided.