AT LAST, HIGH SPEED RAILWAYS ZOOMS INTO INDIA

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Before, I start penning down about the introduction of high speed railways(HSRs) in my country, I just wanted to ask a simple question to all of my dear readers – Have you ever been to any bullet train of any other country? Well, majority of them would say yes and would remember and cherish the moment of that train trip, whether it is for business or leisure purposes. I too, have a exciting moment with the bullet trains I have gone with my parents, when I was young. I would like to share a moment to all of my readers of my blog.

During my six year stay in South-East Asia, I had hoped on to every bullet train, whether the distance was short or long. I really enjoyed the picturesque beauties outside and the speed was just so awesome! Say for an example, my father took me to a bullet train from Hong Kong to Guangzhou. The total distance was about 135 km. According to me, it could have taken 1.5 hours to reach Guangzhou. But, I was wrong, as this train completely changed my mind about the definition of a train! The train when it started from Hong Kong, zoomed past the city like a bullet coming out of a gun, with a speed of almost 300 km/h, and I reached Guangzhou in just 15 minutes. Exciting, isn’t it?

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After some memorable, exciting but tiring trips on the bullet trains, I had wished for these trains in India too. But, the government did not pay attention to the HSRs and instead, changed the infrastructure of railway stations and electrified tracks for competition with the world. Superfast expresses were introduced and their speed was restricted to about 160 km/h. Though, I welcomed the decision, but still it did not made me amused that it was not the kind of a speed that a bullet train generally has. Also, the ruling government, at that time was of the opinion that introducing HSRs would lead to derailments of trains, changing the people’s perceptions that the Indian Railways is quite unsafe and this would lead to a revenue loss for the government oriented sector.

As of today, India has the fourth largest railway network and one of the largest rail networks in the world, but does not have any HSRs lines capable of supporting speeds of 200 km/h or more. Railways have selected 10 routes on which such high speed trains would be run. The initial speed of these trains would be 160 km/h and gradually the speed would be raised up to 200 km/h or more. The Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP), which won the 2014 general elections of India, has promised to build the Diamond Quadrilateral connecting four mega cities of India- Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai located in four edges of the country with high speed trains.

HSRs in India would be a massively expensive exercise by the central government involving enormous public expenditure that India can ill afford, detracting from badly needed public investment in social infrastructure and poverty eradication, while benefiting only international corporates, local contractors and cronies, and a small number of aspirational elites indulging in luxury travel. In fact, skepticism about HSRs in India is widely shared by many transportation experts, financial institutions, and even by renowned HSR engineering companies based on assessments of costs, ridership, possible ticket prices, viability and societal benefits.

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In India, HSRs would involve completely new tracks and related infrastructure including stations and protective structures around the new tracks, new locomotives and rolling stock, and new operational systems. It is clear that existing tracks are too crowded and slow even for passenger traffic alone, except in some stretches where they have been upgraded for superfast trains like Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto with maximum speeds of 160 km/h.

A diamond quadrilateral of new HSR track would involve substantial land acquisition, huge fresh investments including large debt and interest burdens, and in turn would entail high ridership and tariffs to enable recouping of these high initial costs. Not many countries have been able to afford HSRs or meet the various conditions required, due to the financial and social burden on the economies.

As a part of the ambitious Diamond Quadrilateral project, to improve the country’s railway infrastructure, India is planning to start semi-high speed trains on nine corridors and has ambition to run bullet trains in the future. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad Corridor is the the first bullet train corridor to be officially implemented in the country in August 2014. If all goes as planned, the corridor may be operational by 2017. This corridor will be operated on broad gauge tracks. The major terminals will be at Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram, Bangalore, Chennai and Kolkata. In all, this project will cover 15 states after all the corridors under this project will be completed by 2020. Trains here will run at a speed of 200 km/h.

The first semi bullet train will run between the national capital, New Delhi to Agra, which is famous for the Taj Mahal. A feasibility study was conducted in December 2013 by Alstom, a reputed French rail transport organisation. It will be beneficial for tourists as both the cities are rich in monuments, tombs and temples. Construction of this corridor began in early 2014 and trial runs were successfully completed by Indian Railways in September 2014, attaining a top speed of 180 km/h. Currently, safety restrictions and trials are in place and it is expected to open by January-February 2015, if all trial stages have been successfully completed. Below is the picture of the semi bullet train during its trial stage.

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One of the first proposals to introduce high-speed trains in India was mooted in the mid-1980s by the then Railway Minister of India Madhavrao Scindia. A high-speed rail line between Delhi and Kanpur via Agra was proposed. An internal study found the proposal not to be viable at that time due to the high cost of construction and inability of travelling passengers to bear much higher fares than those for normal trains. The railways instead introduced Shatabdi and Rajdhani trains which ran at 160 km/h.

The Indian Ministry of Railways’ white-paper “Vision 2020”, submitted to the Parliament on December 2009, envisages the implementation of regional high-speed rail projects to provide services at 250-350 km/h, and planning for corridors connecting commercial, tourist, and pilgrimage hubs. Six corridors have been identified for technical studies on setting up of high-speed rail corridors- Delhi-Chandigarh-Amritsar, Pune-Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Hyderabad-Kazipet-Dornakal-Vijayawada-Chennai, Howrah-Haldia,Chennai-Bangalore-Coimbatore-Ernakulam-Thiruvananthapuram and Delhi-Agra-Lucknow-Varanasi-Patna.

The Indian Railways set up a corporation called High Speed Rail Corporation of India Ltd(HSRC) in July 2013, that will deal with the proposed high-speed rail corridor projects. The corporation is a wholly owned subsidiary of Rail Vikas Nigam Ltd(RVNL). It will handle tendering, pre-feasibility studies, awarding contracts, and execution of the projects. The corporation will comprise four members, all of whom will be railway officials. All high-speed rail lines will be implemented as public-private partnerships on a Design, Build, Finance, Operate, and Transfer(DBFOT) basis.

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In a feasibility study published in 1987, Research Design & Standard Organisation(RDSO) and Japan International Cooperation Agency(JICA) estimated the construction cost to be Rs 49 million per km, for a line dedicated to 250–300 km/h trains. In 2010, that 1987-estimated cost, inflated at 10% a year, would be Rs 439 million per km. Rail India Technical & Economic Service Limited(RITES) is currently performing a feasibility study. To put the construction in perspective, in the period 2005-09, Indian Railways took on the construction of 42 completely new conventional lines, a total of 4060 km at a cost of Rs 167 billion.

According to news media, the costs for constructing such rail lines in India are estimated to be Rs 700-1000 million per km. Therefore, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route of 500 km, will cost Rs 370 billion. To build and to make a profit, passengers will have to be charged Rs 5 per km and Delhi to Amritsar one-way, a distance of 450 km, will cost about Rs 2000. The Mumbai – Ahmedabad line is expected to cost Rs 650 billion.

India is considering running a high speed train using magnetic-levitation Maglev technology, after the successful implementation of the HSRs. HSR in India is still in feasibility study stage with the running of first high-speed rail in another 15 years. Japan’s new high-speed rail lines will be built to run trains above 500 km/h. In 1990s, when China was discussing the technology choice for the HSR to be built in the country, it wanted to build its high-speed railway network based on next generation railway running at 500 km/h.

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But there was no commercially run super-speed rail-line at that time. So, China choose to build it’s high-speed railway network on the 50-year old wheel-rail based technology, with a maximum speed of 300 km/h. But now, there are multiple superspeed commercial run railway lines in the world today. India may choose this technology as the standard for the high speed railway. Thus, it is hoped that if both the government and the international organisations work together, then the introduction the new HSR corridors in India will be an remarkable achievement and it will firmly put the country on the global railway map.

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