2014 was a watershed moment for Indian democracy. The year of political transition saw the National Democratic Alliance at the helm of Narendra Modi taking over Indian politics with a renewed focus on vital economic sectors to help India compete against the global economic powers. What made the vision unique was the increased focus on the railway sector, which remained stagnant despite attempts to modernise the sector. The quest for the high-speed rail network in India is one such example which emerged 50 years back with the start of Rajdhani Express, a high-speed service connecting the state capitals to the national capital and subsequently a high-speed intercity service christened as Shatabdi Express to facilitate same day return with the business and tourist segment passengers being its focus. As we fast forward into the millennium, the high-speed railway is now not only a modernisation necessity but has also emerged as a diplomatic instrument with Japan and China reaching out to the third world countries and actively participating in technology transfer While it is optimistic of India to step into the high-speed arena, the question arises – Have we taken too big a leap? Is it time to step back and put our bet on semi high-speed rail routes that require comparatively low capital investment in comparison to the envisioned high-speed rail? The following article attempts to explore India’s quest for semi high-speed rail and its implications on the much-anticipated high-speed rail.
India has been an active member of the International Union of Railways or the UIC as it is widely known. The International Union of Railways is a railway industrial body set up in 1922 to help standardise operational practices and promote active engagement amongst nations on the railway front. India joined the Union in 1957 and has been actively contributing to the Union ever since. If we look at the reasons behind India’s quest to ramp up its railway infrastructure, the very development of railways that has come to occupy the centrestage amongst members such as France, Russia, China, Japan, Germany can be considered as a prompt to India to pursue its vision. The beginnings have been modest and gradual to pick up the pace. India’s experience with speed in 1969 was an exception to the local conditions prevailing at that period when the maximum operating speed of trains did not go beyond 100 kmph. And here it was! A train with a maximum speed of 115 kmph unheard of joining the fray and helping India position itself amongst the nations with high-speed railways already operating across their network.
The start of Rajdhani turned the focus of railways to further experimenting the high-speed railway over the next three decades (1960-90) with the Railway Board increasing the speed of the Rajdhani from 120 kmph to 130 kmph in 1971, another eventful year which saw the gradual phasing out of the steam locomotive operations and a massive overhaul on the capacity front undertaken under M.S Gujral to help improve the railway operations. The Rajdhani despite all speculations and objections went on to become one of the flagship trains of Indian Railways. The project later paved way for experimenting high-speed intercity travel which saw its beginning in 1988 by the name of Shatabdi Express between New Delhi and Jhansi with the business class and the tourists being its major attraction providing same day return facility (leave in the morning, return by night)
The Dawn of a New Millennium: Opportunities and Challenges
The start of Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains were just the start of India’s renewed approach towards railways. India grew confident of establishing a high-speed rail network on par with Japan and France, which have been the precedents of high-speed rail in the past years. The buzz about high-speed trains has been in India since 2001 when Mamata Banerjee’s stint as the railway minister and subsequently in 2007 by Lalu Prasad Yadav echoing similar plans for elevating India’s position in the global railway arena with the start of a dedicated high-speed railway network, currently being worked under the banner of diamond quadrilateral spanning across 10,000 kilometres, but never materialised beyond announcements until the dawn of 2017 with India and Japan signing an agreement for establishing a high-speed rail corridor between Mumbai and Ahmedabad with Japan International Cooperation Agency being an active participant on the financial front providing grants at an interest rate of 0.1 per cent with a grace period of 50 years for repayment of the 88,000 crore loan provided by Japan out of the total cost of 1,07,000 crores.
At the first look, the project looks promising and is a positive step towards attracting investments in the railway sector from other countries. But there is another concern which comes with the high-speed rail corridor. The big question that everyone should ask – Is it desirable to undertake a project which is capital intensive and should start on a clean slate? We are talking about a project where the capital investments for track construction which is 20 times the cost of a conventional railway track. Rail track construction in India costs Rs.3-10 crores per kilometre. On the contrary, a high-speed track with a standard gauge of 4’8.5” will cost 100-200 crores per kilometre.
The cost per train set is estimated at 120 crores while an LHB coach currently being inducted costs a mere 1.8 crore. Further, let us be mindful of the fact that we are staring at an ageing infrastructure in urgent need of infrastructure which has been echoed in the Khakodkar Committee reports which yet stands to be fully implemented given the financial constraints faced by the railways. This problem has become even more prominent with the ongoing pandemic, with train operations slow to resume and limited earnings channelled through the freight segment. Is our current infrastructure not feasible to give a gradual push? If yes, how can it still be relevant to India’s ambition for a high-speed rail?
Semi- High Speed: The Answer to India’s quest for High-Speed Dream
Perhaps our concerns with the High-Speed Rail are yet to fully addressed from the perspectives of the farmers who will be the first to bear the brunt of the project with the fear of loss of livelihood and displacement looming large. However, India being a country of mixed economic perspective is capable of coming out with a breakeven solution to not only ensure stability to the affected groups but also ensure that India sees its first high-speed rail corridor start operations on time. But does that signify that we don’t explore alternatives and modernise our railway system at large? Probably the solution is around us, but we have not yet fully exploited it to our advantage. The answer to the alternative is the semi- high-speed rail which has been operational since the 1960s ad has gradually evolved to greater speeds. India while concentrating on its ambitious high-speed rail, also pushed forth its quest for semi high-speed routes with train operating at 200 kmph in past three years through the launch of trains like the Gatiman. Tejas and more recently Vande Bharat Express
The Gatiman was launched in 2016 between New Delhi and Agra with an operating speed of 160 kmph putting India amongst the nations with superfast train operations from a global perspective as defined by the International Union of Railways and simultaneously more strategic routes such as the Konkan Railway and routes with connection to places of worship were established through the launch of Vande Bharat services to Varanasi and Katra respectively. The semi high-speed might not be the grand project as we might be expecting. But we must admit to the fact that semi high-speed carry lesser risks in terms of footfall and capital investment as they do not need a complete overhaul of infrastructure, unlike the high-speed rail corridor. A semi high-speed network is also a place of lucrative investment from foreign players with Russia being the first country to show interest in establishing semi high-speed rail network as India braces for a high-speed operation in 2023.
Step Back before taking the Giant Leap
The high-speed rail corridor is by no means a pessimistic approach to modernising India’s rail infrastructure. But it is to be introspected whether the service is accessible to the Indian masses at large given the fare structuring and the pricing of tickets. In no way is this indicative of the semi high-speed being affordable to people of various socioeconomic strata. The domestic and global conditions pose a huge challenge for the prevalence of a favourable condition for India’s high-speed dream. On the contrary, when we examine the risks that come with the semi high-speed rail network, the risks are on the lower end given that no new infrastructure is required and the strengthening of the existing infrastructure will suffice the requirements of the semi high-speed rail network. The gamble for India’s semi high-speed network is justified and worth the shot as we pursue our quest for railway modernisation in the coming years.
Image Credits- PTI
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From Bankruptcy to Billions: How the Indian Railways Transformed by Sudhir Kumar and Shagun Mehrotra, Oxford University Press, 2009