Is India on Track to High Speed Rail

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train-inaugurationEven though Prime Minister Narendra Modi has flagged off the first ever express train (fully air-conditioned) from Naharlagun in Arunachal Pradesh to New Delhi bringing North-East closer to the rest of India, there is not much update available about the status of high-speed trains envisioned by successive governments, including the UPA, and promised by BJP’s Modi in run up to the last general elections. Except the successful trial run – touching a speed of 160 km an hour – from New Delhi to Agra last year, no much action has been seen on the ground notwithstanding different projects that are underway and various agencies that are in action.

Introduction of bullet trains starting off on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad sector and an ambitious plan to have a Diamond Quadrilateral network of high speed rail connecting major metros and growth centres were announced by DV Sadananda Gowda, former Railway Minister in the Modi cabinet in the 2014 Rail Budget. Gowda spoke of efforts to increase the speed of trains in select sectors to up to 200 km per hour. The Rail Budget identified nine sectors in this regard that included the prestigious Delhi-Agra rail line and the busy Delhi- Chandigarh and Mumbai-Ahmedabad sectors. Besides, the speed of trains is to be increased to 160-200 km in the Delhi-Kanpur, Nagpur-Bilaspur, Mysore-Bangalore-Chennai, Mumbai- Goa, Chennai-Hyderabad and Nagpur- Secunderabad sectors.

An endowment of Rs. 100 crore was made in the Budget for the High Speed project to the Railway Vikas Nigam Limited/High Speed Rail Corridor for taking further steps. While bullet trains will require completely new infrastructure, higher speed for existing trains will be achieved by upgrading the present network, Gowda had said. Promising to ensure better rail connectivity in the country, Gowda had asserted, “The government needs Rs. 9 lakh crore for funding Diamond Quadrilateral.”

Gowda’s successor, Suresh Prabhu, later directed officials to fast-track projects related to high-speed trains at speed of 300 Kmph and raising speed of existing trains to 160-200kmph. The high-speed projects — 543 km Ahmedabad-Mumbai corridor, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious plan of Diamond Quadrilateral, and nine corridors identified for running semi-high-speed trains — were even  discussed in detail with RVNL CMD Satish Agnihotri and his team of officials.

Meanwhile, noting that high-speed train projects will be an extremely expensive proposition, a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways asked the Railway Ministry to do a costbenefit analysis about spending limited resources on high-speed projects rather than routing them to pending projects. “If the amount equivalent to that proposed for bullet trains is used for executing the long-pending railway projects, the benefits for the general public will be more,” the Committee said in a report tabled in Parliament in December last year. It noted that Bullet train projects are highly capital intensive and require substantial support from the Centre for their implementation. As per reports, the Railways have 368 ongoing or pending projects to the tune of about Rs. 4 lakh crore.

The panel, headed by former Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi, however, lauded the proposal to introduce a high-speed train on the Mumbai- Ahmedabad sector. While Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) is studying this particular highspeed corridor, the Chinese are helping the Railways study the Mumbai- Chennai route. The proposed Mumbai- Ahmedabad corridor is expected to cost about Rs. 70,000 crore, according to the latest interim estimates given by JICA. RVNL has also said the  roposed train will not be priced only for premium passengers, as is the case in Japan and Europe, but have differential pricing for various segments.

Although the Diamond Quadrilateral project was confirmed as a project of priority for the new Modi government in the President’s speech, India’s quest to run trains at 160 km/h has its own critics, which point out that Delhi-Agra time savings are not based on the speed of train but based on other factors. Critics point out that the reduction in travel time due to speed is a mere three minutes, and other manoeuvrings are largely responsible for the drastic drop. Reduction of timing largely because of shifting the train’s departure point from New Delhi railway station to Hazrat Nizamuddin and doing away with the scheduled stop at Mathura reportedly account for a saving of 14 minutes, limiting the locomotive to 10 coaches – Bhopal Shatabdi has 14 – leads to a decrement of another two minutes, approximately five minutes are being saved on account of track improvements and superior infrastructure, three minutes owing to route relay interlocking at Agra, and one minute each on approval to run a passenger train on the third line at Palwal and Bhuteshwar, installation of thick web switches at four points and in putting up a track station at Chhata.

Also, India is targeting only lower end of 160–200 km/h speed of semihigh speed trains. So, the focus is to achieve 160 km/h not the 200 km/h. There is serious question being raised about the safety of the passengers as the infrastructure on which semihigh speed trains will be running may not be able to run at such high speeds, for instance it is preferred to run these trains on 60 kilogram tracks but now they are running on 52 kilogram tracks. There are multiple railway projects which are in different stages of implementation like doubling of tracks, electrification, new track laying, changing of gauge etc. But Indian railways has not come up with any guidelines to channelize all current and new efforts to run trains at semihigh speed.

Furthermore, if we talk about the feasibility of Bullet trains in India, it is an idea that appeals to the aspirational upper middle class. There needs to be a serious debate on the viability and social desirability of such a project. International experience and the numbers involved suggest India should do some hard thinking. High Speed Rail success stories are almost all from rich, high-income countries on middle distance (450-500 km) high-density routes, with some notable exceptions, especially China, always a special case.

Japan’s pioneering Shinkansen service has operated since the mid- ’60s on the high-density Tokyo-Osaka- Kyoto route and its parameters of traffic density, distance covered and tariffs have more or less set the standard for HSR the world over. South Korea runs HSR on the Seoul-Busan  corridor covering over 75 per cent of the population and around 70 per cent of both freight and passenger traffic. HSR services in Europe connect highdensity routes and have relatively high tariffs.

As per estimates, HSR in India is expected to cost around Rs. 250 crore per km, suggesting a cost of Rs. 1.2 lakh crore for Diamond Quadrilateral project. Passenger tariffs are expected to be around Rs. 8 per km or Rs. 3,200 for a 400 km ride on the one planned high-density line from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. Is Indian public willing or rather capable to shell out that much?
And at that rate, will rail be able to compete with the low cost airlines? Points to ponder, not just for people, but also for technocrats at Rail Bhavan.