The recent visit to China by a high-powered delegation could soon turn Indian Railways’ ‘high speed’ dreams into reality.

The delegation, under the leadership of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, included the Chairman of the Railway Board, the Managing Director of the High Speed Rail Corporation, and others.

After meeting the Chinese Prime Minister, the team interacted with officials of the Chinese Railway Corporation.

Soon, a contract with them will usher in an era of long-term technical cooperation with the Chinese Railways, which already has more than 9,700 km of new track capable of running trains at 300 kmph and over 20,000 km of upgraded track fit for 200 kmph.

Feasibility studies

Back home, over the last decade or so, each new railway minister has promised to build a high-speed corridor and, as a follow-up action, the Railway Board has been dutifully parcelling out pre-feasibility and other studies to various experts in the field and their reports have been carefully filed!

At the last count there are no less than seven of them, at various stages of deliberation, including the 450-km rail corridor of Delhi-Chandigarh-Amritsar, for which technical evaluation of offers from consultants have been completed and financial bids are being finalised.

Pune-Mumbai-Ahmedabad, a 650-km stretch, has been studied by Systra (France), Italferr (Italy), and RITES (India). A 991-km proposal for a highly ambitious Delhi-Agra-Lucknow-Varanasi-Patna has a feasibility report by Mott McDonald of the UK.

Mamata Banerjee’s pet project of a 135-km Howrah-Haldia line has been studied by Ineco, Prointec, and Ayesa of Spain, a 664-km section of Hyderabad-Dornakal-Vijayawada-Chennai studied by a consortium led by Parsons Brinckerhoff (India). Another ambitious 850-km stretch covering Chennai-Bangalore-Coimbatore-Ernakulum-Thiruvananthapuram has a report by a consortium led by JARTS (Japan Railway Technical Service) and Oriental Consultants. Last but not the least, for the 591-km Delhi-Jaipur-Ajmer-Jodhpur tenders for engaging consultants are reportedly being finalised.

Private participation

In view of the high cost of nearly ₹200 crore per km for these projects — since such high speeds need an elevated corridor and even a new alignment with the added problem of acquisition of land the Railway Ministry has now opted for finding low cost solutions.

Hiking existing maximum speeds of some of its premier trains such as Rajdhani and Shatabdi from 130 kmph to a level of only 160 -200 kpmh could result in 15-30 per cent reduction in transit time, depending on how much of the track would be upgraded. Though cost of upgrading of the track, rolling stock, locomotives and signalling is expected to be much lower than the price tag for the 300 kmph plus variety, funds could still remain a constraint, and all corridors may not be financially viable.

Perhaps, the projects could perhaps be viewed as a socially desirable investments, and even end up decongesting Metros such as Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Mumbai, by spurring development of Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities around them.

It would also help to save on the nation’s fuel bill, reduce air pollution with more fuel-efficient rail transport, reduce road congestion and connected accidents.

The reduction of commuter fatigue is perhaps is a single major factor behind the popularity of the high speed services of Japan, Europe and China. While in the US a number of projects are still on the drawing board, the booming Chinese economy has financed large scale upgradation of existing track to 200 kmph and construction of a number of high speed corridors with trains running at an optimum speed of 300 kmph.

A master plan envisages four corridors each on the north-south and east-west alignments to be completed by 2020, of which 1,433 km Beijing-Shanghai, 2,078 km Shanghai-Wuhan-Chengdu, 1,495 km Hangzhou-Shenzen, and the big daddy of them all, a 2,298 km line from Beijing to Guangzhou — equivalent to a Delhi-Bangalore trip — are already is service.

While the popularity of high-speed rail services can seldom be in doubt, only time will tell if they will prove to be financially viable. PPP initiatives in the past for Metro systems have seen some success stories and a couple of failures. A high-speed corridor on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai or Delhi-Chandigarh route with high enough volumes could prove attractive enough for some private players with deep pockets.

However, given the poor financial health of the Indian Railways, techno-economic considerations would undoubtedly have to be the deciding factor for the jump to 300 kmph. And a major hike in passenger tariff will be inescapable on such trains — a move that may be anathema to our netas !

The writer is former Member (Mechanical), Railway Board