Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fast Track Mere Illusion - Neither “Fast” Nor Suitable

Even in 21st century, it takes more than 6/7 hours to reach Pathlaiya in Tarai from Kathmandu, a distance of under 70 kilometers as the crow flies. Before Mugling on Prithvi Highway was connected with Narayangarh on East West Highway, it was an arduous trip of, sort of, a whole day winding up and down steep hills. Although, Pathlaiya lies due south from Kathmandu, people now have to take a detour of over 100 km to Mungling, due west, and then retrace almost the same distance back from Narayangarh, heading east, to reach Pathlaiya. In this backdrop, people have been exploring possibility of shaving off the distance, and, also, time from such trips since some time.

Tunnel Highway to Hetauda
At one point in time, people were embroiled in a debate about connecting Hetauda from Kathmandu through a set of tunnels. Besides tunneling being exorbitantly costly (due to fragile geology of Nepal’s “young mountain”), it would have “served” as a veritable death trap, as plying the vehicles being used in Nepal’s roads now, would have resulted in asphyxiation of the passengers by the carbon monoxide, spewed by these vehicles, in the tunnels; proving that the idea is a product of “tunnel vision.” Then the powers to be decided to build, a so called, fast track road, after a feasibility study was completed on the auspices of Asian Development Bank.

Will Fast Track be “Fast”?
Now people are busy talking about fast track; forgetting (or failing to understand) that it will not be fast in reality. The design speed of this road is stated to be 80 kilometer per hour (km/h); 50 km/h in mountainous terrain. Maglev (magnetic levitation)[1] train is the newest form of surface transport mode, the highest recorded speed of which is 581 km/h. In China, the trip from Shanghai to the airport – a distance of 30 km – is covered in just 7 minutes 20 seconds, achieving a top speed of 431 km/h (268 mph), averaging 250 km/h. High speed trains have already been in use since a long time in many countries; bullet train’s best average speed is 262 km/h in Japan. Similarly, train to Lhasa travel at 160 km/h on the plain, slowing down to 120 km/h when it reaches the Qinghai-Tibet section.

Therefore, with faster and more cost effective technology already becoming available in our own neighborhood, it isn’t prudent to go for a technology that is not really fast, in the name of fast track. Nepal should use the most cost effective technology and mode of mass rapid transportation (MRT) system from amongst array of modes now in use in the world. The cost effectiveness should be measured in terms of life cycle cost, including net of positive and negative externalities of the mode and technology (including carbon emission and its local negative externalities in terms of adverse impact on health).

In view of this an attempt is being made in this article to evaluate electric train from Kathmandu to Tarai and the so called fast track and assess which mode will be best suited from the perspective of the macro economy and the commuters.

Fuel Efficiency
Even if Nepal had been endowed with a large mineral reserve of fossil fuel, it would have made economic sense to switch to rail transport instead of wheel based transport as, according to a 1995 U.S. Government estimate, the energy cost of carrying one ton of freight a distance of one kilometer averages 337 kJ for water, 221 kJ for rail, 2,000 kJ for trucks[2]. Therefore, it demonstrates downright lack of vision for Nepal to be dependent on fossil fuel for wheel based transport when (a) she doesn’t produce a drop of fossil fuel and (b) it costs just 11 percent of fuel cost of wheel based transport for train service – a saving of 89% in fuel cost. By going for train using fossil fuel Nepal could have put MRT in place and also saved 89% on fuel cost; resulting in commensurate reduction in losses suffered by Nepal Oil Corporation (NOC) as well as reduction of balance of trade and balance of payment deficit (also stemming unnecessary drain on foreign currency).

Moreover, for Nepal, the best policy is to use energy sources for transport other than fossil fuel. In other words, in the interest of self reliance too, a country like Nepal should have gone for transportation mode that is not dependent on fossil fuel which has to be transported from aboard. That is, the best mode of MRT for Nepal is electric train service; weaning Nepal away from dependency on imported fossil fuel (a firm step towards self reliance) and also availing transport service to the users at substantially lower cost (as energy cost of rail is one-ninth of wheel based transport). With the new technology of regenerative braking system becoming available, electric train can, further, be operated at lower energy cost.

It is estimated that the vehicles currently plying in Kathmandu-Pathalaiya route use about 10,000 kiloliters (kl) fuel each month (120,000 kl annually); and growing steadily. With the construction of fast track, the current fuel consumption will be reduced by 35% (in present route) – a reduction of 42,000 kl in a year. However, if electric train is to be built, the fossil fuel consumption of 120,000 kl will completely be eliminated thereby stemming drain on foreign exchange to that extent and, consequently also reducing loss suffered by NOC as well as balance of trade and balance of payment deficits of the country.

Besides, as petroleum product is a strategic commodity and any unfriendly act on the part of our neighbor have had crippling effect and the dependency has proven to be fatal. The trade embargo and blockade of transit imposed by India in late 80s succeeded in bringing Nepal’s economy to a grinding halt. From this perspective too, Nepal’s transport policy needs to be focused on self sufficiency; especially when Nepal has high potential for electricity generation.

Carbon Offset
If Nepal’s consumption of fossil fuel is to go down by 120,000 kl each year, as mentioned above, then Nepal will succeed in curtailing its emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) by 321,000 tons in a year; as 1 liter diesel emits about 2.68 kg of carbon dioxide.[3]By trading this quantum of carbon offset at the median rate of US$ 10/ton, Nepal could earn US $ 3.2 million which is equivalent to Rs 240 million at the exchange rate of Rs 75/USD. In such a scenario it isn’t wise to be building more roads dependent on fossil fuel and polluting more. Even at local level, the pollutants emitted by fossil fuel guzzling vehicles aversely impact people’s health; resulting in unnecessary medical expense and even absenteeism from work – reducing national productivity.

Capital cost
It has recently been reported that the fast track will cost about Rs 56 billion. However, according to the feasibility study and preliminary design prepared by Oriental Consultants Co. Ltd. in association with ITECO, for ADB, the cost of 4-lane “North South Fast Track Project” is Rs 69.11 billion, at the conversion rate of Rs 75/USD, as detailed below:

Cost estimate in million USD

On the other hand, in accordance with a study conducted by Messrs Shankar Nath Rimal and Birendra Keshari Pokhrel, renowned engineers, it costs only about Rs 18.46 billion to build electric train connecting Kathmandu with Tarai. Moreover, investment of Rs 69 billion is for the construction of just the road while Rs 18.46 billion spent on electric train is inclusive of track and the rolling stock to run on it. In this backdrop it doesn’t make sense for Nepal to chose “fast” track instead of electric train.

For a country like Nepal, investing Rs 69 billion just to build the road can in no case be deemed prudent when at just Rs 18.46 billion electric train service (inclusive of track and engines and bogeys to run on it) can be instituted. Nepal, instead, should invest the saving of Rs 50 billion in setting up electric train service in other areas.

Geological Encroachment – land use
The fast track is envisaged to have 4 lanes that will be 21 meters broad; as lesser number of lanes will slow down the traffic – defeating the very purpose. But encroachment of this scale in the hilly terrain is inadvisable in view of high potential for landslides that will be triggered by explosion undertaken to build the road. Whereas electric train will need only 11 meter.

Besides, capacity enhancement in future will only be possible by increasing the number of lanes; entailing further increases in the land requirement from 21 meter to 30 meter. This will be needed every 10 years. But in the case of electric train capacity enhancement will simply mean increasing frequency of the train service, adding bogeys on existing engines and eventually addition number of trains; two tracks will easily serve for more than 100 years.

Passenger Fare
The fast track has been deemed feasible on the condition that passengers continue to pay same fare as now, although service providers will be able to save substantially on fuel consumption, vehicle wear and tear, etc. Whereas, electric train will cost just about one-third of current bus fare. Therefore, from the perspective of passengers and cargo, electric train is better mode of MRT than fast track.

Facilities to Commuters
In the case of electric train there will be no need to disrupt travel for amenities like visits to restaurants and rest rooms. Additionally internet service can be availed by installing wireless in the passenger compartments. These will not be possible in the fast track.

With the opening of just a track of a future highway, people start building houses and shops along the alignment which results in unplanned urbanization with resultant constraints like lack of necessary services and amenities. In the case of electric train, urbanization can be pre-planned in and around train stations. The likely alignment of fast track has already been ravaged by speculative land prices which should not be allowed to go out of hand.

Upon completion of the fast track due to high probability of haphazard urbanization coupled with driver error, accident rate (and fatalities) will also sky rocket. However, in the case of electric train, with no haphazard urbanization possible, chances of accidents could easily be controlled. And driver error could be reduced in the case of electric trains with automation and remote control.

Commute time
Presently, cargo to Nepal is being transported part of the way in trains and some part in container trucks; entailing loading and unloading in a number of places (defined as transfer cost) and also requiring additional time (transport of a tanker of petroleum product from Raxaul to Amlekhgunj – a distance of about 25 km – takes about 20 hours). With electric train, cargo can directly be transported to Kathmandu, for example, from Kolkata or Mumbai, thereby avoiding transfer time and cost.

Transportation is not merely wheel based surface transport. Transportation is rather moving cargo and passengers from one place to other. The mode could be water based like ships. In surface transport, besides wheel based, it could be train and it even could be suspended in the air from cable like ropeway, cable car etc. Moreover, as Nepal enjoys high competitive/comparative advantage due to the potential for electricity generation in huge quantum, the best mode of transport for Nepal is electric train, ropeway, cable car etc. and even in the case of wheel based mode, she should opt for electric vehicles (including bikes) and even hybrid cars, instead of conventional fossil fuel guzzlers. Unfortunately for Nepal, the policy makers and bureaucrats are unable to see beyond their collective noses and every time a reference is made to transportation, they start digging up roads. However, it has been amply demonstrated above that electric train is the best mode of MRT for Nepal, instead of so called “fast” track.

Moreover, as the policy makers are already talking of train service in north-south highways, Prithvi highway, east west highway, and even connecting Kathmandu with Khasa in Tibet by train, it doesn’t make sense at all to be digging one more road in the name of “fast” track which is not fast in reality. Besides, from the perspective of fuel economy, carbon trading potential, capital cost, geological encroachment, passenger service and fare (including for cargo), travel time, planned urbanization along the alignment, possibility of reduced accident rate, etc. fast track isn’t appropriate for Nepal.

We are building a “new” Nepal and, if a transportation mode expected to be fast isn’t fast, then an oxymoron as such doesn’t deserve to be built in the new Nepal. We should rather go for electric train.

[1]It is a system of transportation that suspends, guides and propels vehicles, predominantly trains, using magnetic levitation from a very large number of magnets for lift and propulsion. This method has the potential to be faster, quieter and smoother than wheeled mass transit systems. The power needed for levitation is usually not a particularly large percentage of the overall consumption; most of the power used is needed to overcome air drag, as with any other high speed train.


Published in Vol. 1, Issue 3 (December 2009 – January 2010) of Greatway magazine


pralad sharma (timalsina said...

thats not ktm- pathliya i think thats ktm - Nijgadh

Steven Dale said...

If you're interested, Ratna, in alternative modes of transportation (like cable cars and aerial trams) you may want to check out

sangeet said...

I think one should go on researching Alternative fuel for overcoming the problems because Investing such a big amount of money especially in a country like our's is quite......unproductive,one can take example of TROLLY BUS....