Why the SilverLine project makes sense for Kerala

The SilverLine project to be constructed by the Kerala government will connect Thiruvananthapuram in the south to Kasargode in the north. The high-speed train will cover 530 km in four hours at a maximum speed of 200 km/h. The project has received its share of criticism, largely from political circles, but also from certain academic sections.

For Kerala, with its congested road network, building a fast and environmentally sustainable high-speed rail link must certainly be seen as a good governance response. Indeed, a study of the INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution) plans under the Paris Climate Agreement is instructive in this context. The EU mobility study notes that high-speed rail is the least polluting option among all long-distance transport modes.

Critics have advanced three main arguments, namely its alleged negative impact on the environment, its financial unsustainability and its technical inadequacy.

The most pressing environmental issue we face is climate change. Building capacity now to achieve a carbon-neutral world over the next three to four decades is a critical part of any nation’s national strategy. In this context, the SilverLine project scores highly against India’s climate target of achieving net zero emissions by 2070.

The impact of HVT is no longer a theoretical expectation. We have more than 60 years of experience in Japan with the Shinkansen or “high-speed train” (1964), more than 40 years in Europe (France 1981) and more than a decade with the largest LGV network in the world. (China 2008). Let’s remember the driving forces behind Japan’s decision to develop the Shinkansen. Against the backdrop of the global oil crisis, energy-insecure Japan wanted to develop an energy-efficient public transport system that would also address national concerns about unbalanced regional growth. After the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, additional efforts were made to increase the speed of the various series of Shinkansen in order to achieve the goals of energy efficiency and CO2 emission reduction. The trains of the current series of N700 high-speed trains consume half the energy consumed by the first series of trains and run 32% faster.

Recent impact assessment studies focus mainly on China’s approximately 25,000 km HSL. A study published in Nature indicates that the new high-speed roads resulted in the reduction of 11.183 million tons of CO2 equivalent of GHG emissions or 1.33% of GHG emissions in the transport sector in China.

Creating a modern, industrially competitive Japan despite its minimal natural resources would not have been imaginable without a transformative transportation arrangement like the Shinkansen. It is also important to note here that the HSR program was developed and implemented by Japan National Railways at a time when it was experiencing immense financial difficulties.

Large-scale infrastructure projects are not based solely on considerations of short-term financial viability. When the London Underground was designed, it was not considered financially viable. Today, the economic activities of London are inconceivable without it. Green technologies that we consider cheaper than fossil fuel technologies were initially not financially viable and could not survive without government subsidies.

This notion of development should be the standard against which large projects such as SilverLine should be measured. There are many international examples of the role played by large, capital-intensive infrastructure projects in the transformation of city and country, regions and nations.

(The author is member for science, technology and industry, Kerala State Planning Board)

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