Sunday, January 17, 2010

The real fast track

We should be looking to electric trains, not another road, to solve our transport problems

It takes about six to seven hours to reach Pathlaiya in the Tarai from Kathmandu, a distance of under 70 kilometres as the crow flies. Although Pathlaiya lies due south of the capital, we detour over 100km to the west to Mugling before heading back east through Narayangarh to reach Pathlaiya. No wonder, then, that the idea of a fast track road has been mooted for some time.

The debate got off to a rather ludicrous start, with some proposing connecting Hetauda to Kathmandu through a set of tunnels. Besides tunneling being exorbitantly costly and dangerous given Nepal’s fragile geology, it would have been a veritable death trap with the quality of vehicles that ply our nation’s roads. This ‘tunnel vision’ was then supplanted by the proposal to build a fast track road following a feasibility study by the Asian Development Bank.

The hype and assumptions surrounding the North-South Fast Track Project, however, have obscured a much more appealing and sensible option – an electric train service linking Kathmandu to the Tarai.

The first assumption here is that a fast track road really will be fast. But with design speeds of 80km/h (50 km/h in mountainous terrain), it doesn’t even come close to magnetic levitation trains that can reach 581 km/h. High-speed trains have already been in use for a long time: bullet trains in Japan average 262 km/h in Japan, and the train from Beijing to Lhasa reaches 160 km/h on the plains, slowing down to 120 km/h in the Qinghai-Tibet section. Faster and more cost-effective technology is already available in our neighbourhood. According to a 1995 U.S. Government estimate, the energy cost of transporting a ton of freight a distance of one kilometer averages 337 kJ for water, 221 kJ for rail, and 2000 kJ for trucks. It doesn’t make sense for Nepal to go for wheel-based transport when she doesn't produce a drop of fossil fuel, and trains running on fossil fuels would save 89% in costs. Electric trains are an even better proposition, as they would draw on our hydro-potential, reduce our dependency, and eliminate the annual fossil fuel consumption on the Kathmandu-Pathlaiya route of 120,000 kilolitres.

The knock-on effects of cutting fossil fuel consumption, quite apart from the obvious benefits on health and productivity, would be that Nepal would curtail itsemissions of greenhouse gases by 321,000 tons a year. Trading this carbon offset could be worth US$3.2 million a year.

Electric trains may seem like a fantasy for a country as impoverished as Nepal. But while the North-South Fast Track Project is estimated to cost Rs 69.11 billion, a study conducted by Shankar Nath Rimal and Birendra Keshari Pokhrel reveals an electric train service connecting Kathmandu to the Tarai would cost just Rs 18.46 billion. While the investment of Rs 69 billion would be just for the road, the costs of the electric train service are inclusive of the track and the rolling stock to run on it. The savings of Rs 50 billion could be invested in setting up electric train services in other areas. Land use is another point on which electric trains trump roads. The fast track road would have four lanes with a width of 21 metres. Encroachment on this scale in hilly terrain is inadvisable in view of the high potential for landslides. But a track for an electric train would only be 11 metres wide. Besides, capacity enhancement means totally different things for roads and rail tracks. While roads can only be widened, with increased costs and risks, electric train capacity enhancement can be achieved by simply increasing the frequency of train services or the number of trains.

What of the customers who are to benefit from the fast track road? Both options save on commuter and cargo time, though electric trains will (as noted above) be significantly faster. Alas, it’s assumed commuters will continue to pay the same fare as now, although service providers will save substantially. It is estimated electric train fares will cost just a third of bus fares. With in-train restaurants and restrooms, travel need no longer be disrupted, and even wireless internet could be installed. And as we know too well, inaugurations of new roads are inevitably followed by a rise in accidents. With electric trains, urbanisation can be planned around stations and driver error can be reduced with automation and remote control, reducing the frequency of accidents. Nepal’s future is electric, given the comparative advantage we have in hydroelectric potential. Unfortunately for us, every time a reference is made to transportation, our policymakers and bureaucrats start digging up roads. We are building a new Nepal and an oxymoron such as the North-South Fast Track Project doesn’t deserve the attention it has received, let alone the funding.
Ratna Sansar Shrestha
Published in Nepali Times # 485 (January 15-21, 2010)

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