IN a recent seminar organised by the Railways in Delhi, as many as 51 speakers talked about high-speed train systems; how to build, run, maintain them; and the amazing technologies they had to offer in the area of traction, signalling, rolling stock, and of course, safety.
Making use of the occasion, the Rail Minister also announced the creation of a High Speed Rail Corporation as a subsidiary of the RVNL (Rail Vikas Nigam Ltd) to take up such projects, if and when the finances are available.
Understandably, low-cost solution also implies speeds lower than that of the world-renowned bullet trains, namely Shinkansen of Japan, TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) of Europe, and CHS (Chinese High Speed) of China, which all run at speeds higher than 250 kmph, with some of them reaching 350 kpmh on short stretches.
What the Railways is aiming at is hiking its existing maximum speeds of some of its premier trains such as Rajdhani and Shatabdi, etc. from 130 kmph to a level of only 160-200 kpmh, which could result in 10 to 25 per cent reduction in transit time depending on how much of the track would be upgraded to run such trains at 160-200 kpmh.
Upgrading the entire 64,000 km of its network being out of the question, only a few sections with a potential for high passenger volumes have been identified. These are Ahmedabad-Mumbai, Howrah-Haldia, New Delhi-Agra-Jhansi-Bhopal, Delhi-Lucknow, Chennai-Begaluru-Mysore, Delhi-Amritsar, and Delhi-Chandigarh.
Among these, Ahmedabad-Mumbai already has 22 trains while Delhi-Amritsar runs 32 trains each day, most of them fully packed!
The cost of upgrading the track, rolling stock, locomotives and signalling to run trains on existing alignments would be very much lower than the price tag of Rs 150 crore per km for the viaducts alone for the 250 kmph plus variety.
Incidentally, the Japanese Shinkansens trains popularly called Bullet trains [on account of the profile of the nose of the driving cab resembling a bullet] introduced nearly half-a-century ago are closer to commuter than long-distance service.
For instance, the 500-km Tokyo-Osaka section carries more than 160 million passengers a year with over a dozen 14 car trains every hour, covering the distance in less than three hours and making daily commute a distinct possibility.
TGVs in Europe also connect major cities, most of which are now only less than three hours away, or provide overnight service between various European capitals, offering stiff competition to the airlines in city center to city center transit time.
So far about half-a-dozen studies carried out for an Indian rollout have been for the high speed viz. 250 kpmh plus variety built as elevated track on a viaduct. Very few of them have considered financial viability based not only on the projected volumes, but also the paying capacity of the passengers for the relatively higher tariff to sustain it as a profitable investment and not degenerate into a basket case, as has been the fate of Reliance’s Delhi Airport Metro line.
On the other hand the proposed low-cost high-speed corridors could also be viewed as a socially desirable investment, which would help to slow down the spiralling growth and even help to decongest Metros such as Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai by spurring the development of Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities around them.
In the process it would also help to save on the nation’s fuel bill, reduce air pollution with a more fuel efficient mode of rail transport, reduce road congestion and connected accidents. In addition, reduction of commuter fatigue is perhaps one of the single factors that is making the high- speed services of Japan, Europe and China increasingly popular.
Choice of a section could degenerate into a political one-upmanship among various states and Metros, but its success would ultimately depend on the business model developed and its financial viability, which could even attract private investment in a PPP venture, a concept being vigorously encouraged by the Planning Commission.
Ultimately success would depend on techno-economic rather than political considerations, a concept which our worthy ‘netas’ are unfortunately seldom comfortable with.
The writer is a former member (mechanical) of the Railway Board