Displaying seriousness of intent, the Centre has already floated tenders for 400 semi-speed Vande Bharat (VB) trains (now running at speeds of up to 160 km/hr) between April and July 2022. In her Budget speech, the Finance Minister had said the 400 VB trains would be ready to run in another three years. This does not include 102 VB trains for which tenders were invited in 2020 and 2021; these are expected to be commissioned by early 2024. The Centre has woken up to its error in discontinuing the production of these trains for nearly four years after two train sets were produced at the ICF, Chennai in late 2018. Now it wants to expedite the plan. The idea of super-fast passenger trains connecting Indian cities that are underserved by other means of transport is a welcome one, critical to economic development and labour mobility. But to make this happen, the trains need to be fast, punctual, comfortable and most important, cost-competitive.

The potential of VB trains to draw travellers away from road and air travel, while improving energy efficiency, is immense. The IEA observed in November 2021 that on average, rail required 12 times less energy and emitted 7-11 times less GHGs per passenger-km travelled, than private vehicles and airplanes. The popularity of the Shatabdis is already evident in sectors such as Chennai-Bengaluru where it offers stiff competition to air travel. For longer stretches (such as Bengaluru-Hyderabad, Pune-Hyderabad), with robust demand, Vande Bharat trains which are expected to run at 200 km/hr, can wean away both air and road transport users. In the 900-1,500 km range, the new trains can work as an alternative to air travel, if they can lop off about four hours of journey time and run as overnight trains. While the cost of 400 train sets is expected to exceed ₹50,000 crore, the Economic Survey 2021-22 has rightly identified Railways as an area where capex has high payoffs.

However, the VB expansion plan may not be easy to execute, especially at a rushed pace. While calling for tenders for the trains may be the easier part, ascertaining viable routes and preparing tracks for the high speeds are critical. The cost of track renewal is pegged at ₹8.5 crore per km, and an expanded outlay, perhaps beyond the current Budget’s level of about ₹13,300 crore, may be needed. The energy-efficiency argument as also their attraction to commuters will be diminished if these trains were forced to operate at lower speeds merely because of track deficiencies. Rail employees at various centres will need to be trained on operations and maintenance. The Centre has done well to stipulate that the production will take place at Railway factories in Chennai, Latur and Sonepat. However, the newer facilities need to be cranked up. About half of the 400 bids invited this year are for aluminium train sets (sleeper trains), which could entail a different design from the stainless steel sets developed by ICF Chennai. Aluminium has its merits, in terms of lightness, but it can be costly. The Centre must ensure technology transfer in the event of European bidders bagging the contract. Else, cost escalation will be difficult to avoid, derailing the entire economics of the project. Vande Bharat has been a ‘Make in India’ success story. Efforts must be made to keep it that way.