Nepali Times
The real fast track


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 tunnel ling 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 kilometre 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 we don't produce a drop of fossil fuel, and trains running on fossil fuels could 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 to health and productivity, would be that Nepal would curtail its emissions 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 road commuters will continue to pay the same fares 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 is a senior water resource analyst

1. Arthur
It easy too run trains North South or East West along a flat terrain like the Terai. But it is not so easy to run trains up and down hills. Trucks can run on roads with much steeper grades than trains. Kathmandu is not just North of the Terai, but also more than 1,000m higher than the Terai. How did it become cheaper to build a train track when it would normally be more expensive?

2. Johann
Since when did Arthur suddenly become a transportation expert? That's the trouble with these guys, they are opinionated know-it-alls. The cost takes into account the gradient and the extra distance to lose altitude. And how are trains cheaper? Didn't you read this paragraph: 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.

3. Hero Heeralal
You're not serious, with 8 hours of load shedding daily, and I hear rumors of added two hours, where's the juice for electric trains. "We don't produce a drop of fossil fuel", but we do not produce a drop of electricity either. And who's gonna manage the system? The government? Remember Sajha Yatayat and it's demise? Or better still, the Trolley Bus System - that was electric wasn't it? Why do intellectuals come up with these pipe dreams - I bet you're lazy in your analysis.

4. nick meynen
finally, this is the kind of article i'm waiting to read for several years now. Can somebody please make Ratna minister of transportation, hydro electric development and climate change as soon as possible?

5. Surendra Shakya
Definitely fast track train would be a better option. I hail from Hetauda and I would gladly board a train than anything on wheels. The traffic situation in Nepal could also improve if we could reduce the "bad" drivers who ply between Kathmandu and Hetauda.

6. Arthur
Johann, yes I read exactly the paragraph you quoted and since it says the construction costs alone for the railway are much cheaper than for the road I naturally asked the question. If I was a "know it all" I would not need to ask the question. Since you claim to know that the figures are correct, perhaps you could answer the question? I had not been able to find anything but 5 press and blog reports from google of the two names. Perhaps you could find the actual engineering studies and explain why they they produce such an unusual and unexpected result. Or do you just believe whatever you read?

7. Ganesh
With 12 hour load shedding, expect to arrive at your destination 24 hrs later. So, is it going to be by bus or train? Nepali leaders are day dreamers only, nothing more - don't expect anything out of them.

8. ram lal
Let's count the chickens after they are hatched. First, just get down to produce the damn bijuli for all citizens.

9. Johann
Arthur, it's the study by Shankar Nath Rimal and Birendra Keshari Pokhrel. The cost estimates are accurate,and highly feasible. But you wouldn't know, would you, since you depend on google blogs searches for your info.

10. R RAI
Good idea but how about electric cars,small and smart ones, for the valley before the fast electric train?

11. Bipa
Even if the study is correct and the idea is workable our damn politicians and policy implementors won't allow such wonderful projects to work. Why? Just because they won't have much chance to get commission. No projects will be approved that doesn't result in commission. And this wonderful idea will remain a distant dream of a few well wishers of Nepal only. So sad. Wish we had a way to realize this...

12. sammysenior
Bloody one liner intellectuals! No I am not talking about the writer, he sounds wise. I am talking about the wannabe-never-gonna-be ones here who get the trip by thrusting their trap crap onto us readers. You all seriously need to get a life. We are a third world country and we need infrastructure, badly, just build everything, roads, trains, flyovers, water canals, electric ropeways, everything, damn it.

13. Vanquished
Well, why not. but all this yap yapping is plain bullshit. For all I can tell, even the "fast track" road will take another 10 years to build, and then the eventual cost will be 10 times as much, too little too late....

14. Jay
Hope is essential and this is what the article injects. But first take care of the bandhs (Support "Die Band Die" on FB) and then control corruption. Even if we do have investors interested in building such facilities, the politicians will kill it. The demand for commission from these f*&^% politicians (Desh Drohi haru) are so exorbitant that everyone turns away, let alone being corruption free. Until we get a new breed of power players who are interested in the country's development and just annihilate the current ones, it will just be a long hard winding road.

15. OmarDai
Hahhaaaa, electric train in Nepal...LOL. Our internationl peers are Somalia, Haiti, East Timore, Laos so on and so forth, we should be discussing things that are in common with our peers such as garbage disposlas, household power supply, clean water etc and not issues that are beyond our brain capacity. It is now indisputable that collectively as a nation we have a big mouth and peanut size brain as proven by our stints with monarchy, dictatorship, multiparty democracy, and communism and that anarchism is the only system that works best right now in Nepal. So, point is we talk too much but do very little with our hands. All we need to do is to stop listening to Bhashans and just move our freakin hands, use them all the time, do anything just do not remain idle. Down with Nepali Mouth, Long Live Nepali Hands.....

16. Sagar
Everyone holds true to the opinion they present. We all live in this country and experience the daily hardship as clearly outlined above. Nevertheless, hope is what we live by and only if we could all incessantly live to realize those hopes and dream we can not only discuss the things common with our peers [the likes of HIPC such as Somalia, ETimor, Haiti, Laos] but really lead them. Change must come, change we will! Dream big and make every little effort to work towards that dream.

17. john
Company called Benchmark Nepal had finished its feasibility studies and was ready to built the Birjung- Kathmandu Railway , but then the project never got approval because "loktantra" came and it was sin to award project owned by Durbar related people.

18. Arthur
Johann, I know the names of the authors (though not necessarily the right spelling for google). Even though little is actually done to act on the many expert reports paid for by donors, they do at least provide some useful background information about Nepal that I can learn from. That is why I googled those names to look for the report. If you have a link to it please provide it here. If there is no link for it so that one can actually study the details and answer questions like mine, how can anyone possibly just accept your claim that "the cost estimates are accurate,and highly feasible"? Adding that anyone who does not simply take your word for it must be a "know it all" does not help. The only thing that could make it look as though you actually MIGHT know what you are talking about is if you can provide the link. If you cannot you will have proved that you make big claims about matters you know nothing about. Or if the report is not available on the web then the authors will have proved that it is just for press releases and not for anyone to take seriously.

19. Decent
Cant we express decent manner objection of analysis ? Some time, I wonder where those Intelligentia has gone to correct these people?

20. harka
In the meantime till the Train and the fast Track arrive lets enjoy the 8 hrs load shedding to be increased to 12 hrs a day. At least we nepalese are doing someting to save Planet EARTH.... These days i try to look at the bright side no use whinging

21. T. Norkyel
Ratna Sansar seems to be the wrong name for this author. "Ratna" means precious and "sansar" means world. This author is neither precious with his contradictory words (I mean electric train in a nation that is reeling with power rage) and "sansar" is what he has not seen. This guy is "kuwa ko baykota" that translate into the frog in the well who knows nothing beyond the fringes of the well.

22. hange
With the electric train displacing the trucks, we get to trade the carbon that we don't produce as indicated in the article. But, wait there's more! With our 12 hour black-outs, we'll be saving bijuli as well! It's a win-win situation. All we have to do is have the Kathmandu-to-Paithlaya train"running" downhill when the lights are out and the return trip up from the Tarai scheduled for when the lights are on. Bingo, problem solved! :)

23. Rolpali Kanchhi
We need independence on energy first. Do NOT dream or talk about exporting the hydro-electricity to India. Do NOT export even a KW. We need it all. We just have a potential of 45000MW. Even if all electricity was generated and we were to be richer, then 45000MW will NOT be enough for us. We need to harness all hydro-power and use that for each and every transport, be it a car, or truck or train. We need to use it for all household and commercial use. Do NOT export to India. And yes, we need roads, trains, airports, rope-ways, water-ways. We need everything. Talk is cheap. Just do it. Start with small hydro-projects first because they don't need much time in planning, designing and building. Don't dream about the big ones right now that take 20 to 30 years. Even if we build 1000 of average 10MW powerhouses all over Nepal, then that's 10000MW right there. This can all be achieved in 2 years time. And imagine how many jobs can be created in a short span of time. Why send our young lads to the desert for work?

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)