1. Is India ready for bullet trains?

Is India ready for bullet trains?

In a country where people vandalise instead of embracing technology, do we have an ecosystem in place for high-speed trains, and in an age where air travel is common, are they financially viable?

By: | Updated: September 3, 2017 2:42 AM
bullet trains, future of trains, bullet trains india, india trains, new trains india, indian railways Talgo, a superfast train, had a successful trial last year, but the Spain-based company which manufactures the train is yet to get the final nod from the Indian government. (Express Photo)

Imagine travelling at a speed of 320 kmph. Or reaching Kolkata from New Delhi (around 1,437 km) by train in just six hours as opposed to the 16 hours it takes currently on the fastest train. Sounds far-fetched, right? Not if the ambitious plans of the Indian Railways come to fruition. From semi-high-speed and bullet trains to high-tech innovations like integrated chip systems onboard trains alerting pedestrians of approaching trains, the Railways looks all set to redefine the way the majority of Indians travel today. As science and innovation grow at a lightening speed, the Indian Railways is entering uncharted territories. But are all these plans audacious, ambitious or a possible reality? The Railways certainly thinks the latter.

Ambitious plans

Talgo, a superfast train, made headlines in September last year after it successfully completed a trial run between Delhi and Mumbai in under 12 hours—four hours less than the Rajdhani. If operational, the Talgo won’t need a separate track to ply. Its lightweight design and advanced suspension technology allow it to travel faster, putting less force on tracks during high-speed manoeuvres. This also minimises the risk of accidents.

The already-operational Gatimaan Express is another feather in the Railways’ cap. The semi-high-speed train, touted to be the fastest in the country, can clock up to 160 kmph. To ensure pedestrian safety, the Delhi-Agra route—on which it runs—has been fenced off at a few places. Apart from an upgraded signalling system, the train has an automatic fire alarm and an emergency braking system, among other features.

Bullet trains, however, are the most ambitious of the lot. The Centre, in its bid to reduce the rail journey time on the Golden Quadrilateral (a network connecting Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai), is relying heavily on these trains. The first lot of bullet trains are expected to ply on six high-speed corridors by 2022-23—Delhi-Mumbai; Mumbai-Chennai; Delhi-Kolkata; Delhi-Nagpur; Mumbai-Ahmedabad; and Mumbai-Nagpur. If projections are to be believed, when these trains are launched, one might be able to reach Kolkata from Delhi in just six hours.

The Railways, on its part, has asked for various high-speed rail feasibility studies to be undertaken. In 2013, High-Speed Rail Corporation was formed to facilitate such studies. The final draft of one such study for the Delhi-Kolkata stretch is ready and proposes that with a bullet train, people will be able to travel from Delhi to Varanasi (720 km) in two hours and 37 minutes and from Delhi to Lucknow (440 km) in one hour and 38 minutes. “The study is being undertaken by three Messrs—Spain’s INECO, TYPSA and ICT (independent consultancy firms),” Anil Saxena, spokesperson, Indian Railways, told Financial Express in July. “Right now, the draft final report has been submitted to the Railways. Various divisions will now study and give their inputs, which, in turn, will be incorporated by these firms in their final report. The final report will be submitted to the Railway Board in two months and, after that, a decision on the project will be taken.” There’s been no update since.

The government is also making use of new technology to propel the Railways. There are plans for an integrated chip system made by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) to be installed in trains to alert pedestrians of approaching trains at unmanned level crossings. About 500 metres before a crossing, a hooter will be activated through the chip, warning pedestrians, as well as the train driver. The hooter will become louder as the crossing nears and will go silent once the train has passed. The Mumbai and Guwahati Rajdhani trains will be equipped with this system on a pilot basis. No time frame has been given so far for the project. “There will be hooters for 20 unmanned level crossings on Rajdhani routes for Guwahati and Mumbai,” a senior Railways ministry official involved with the project has said.

That’s not all. The Railways joined hands with Isro as early as 2015 to get online satellite images for improving safety and enhancing efficiency. Under this tie-up (yet to be implemented), geospatial services from Isro’s GPS-aided geo-augmented navigation system would provide satellite images of trains to the Railways. These images will help the Railways in monitoring the movement of trains on tracks.

In another move to reduce accidents at unmanned level crossings, the Railways last year introduced a train protection and warning system (TPWS) at an estimated cost of `2,000 crore. Under this technology, the trains will be in constant communication with train signals through sensors installed on railway tracks. The technology can control the speed of a train in accordance with the sectional permitted speed and signal aspect ahead. It automatically applies brakes, too, if the loco pilot fails to do so in time. The TPWS can, therefore, mitigate the risk of accidents/collisions due to a loco pilot’s error. A proven European train-protection technology, the TPWS is deployed in railways in countries such as the UK and Australia.

To be implemented in two phases over the next three-four years in India, the TPWS work has been sanctioned on 3,330 km of automatic signalling/high-density routes across India. The first phase (1,244 km) covers automatic signalling sections with EMU services, including routes such as Sealdah-Howrah-Khana, Delhi-Panipat, Howrah-Kharagpur and Chennai Beach-Tambaram-Chengalpattu. The second phase (2,086 km) includes routes such as Delhi-Ambala-Amritsar, Ghaziabad-Tundla-Kanpur, Kanpur-Mughalsarai, Agra-Gwalior, Mumbai Central-Virar-Vadodara-Ahmedabad and Arakkonam-Jolarpettai.

Interestingly, the technology is already operational in Chennai-Gummidipundi suburban section in Tamil Nadu (on a trial basis), Dum Dum-Kavi Subhash section of Kolkata Metro Railway, Hazrat Nizamuddin-Agra section and Basin Bridge-Arrakonam section in south India. All this sounds very ambitious and might even take the rail infrastructure in India to unprecedented heights, but the pertinent question here is: are we ready for such advanced technology? In a country plagued by train derailments, unmanned crossings and public vandalism, the question looms large.

Ground reality

The Railways is planning trains that run at an average speed of 170 kmph and can clock audacious speeds upwards of 300 kmph. However, even at a measly speed of 80 kmph, thousands of people lose their lives every year due to umanned crossings, faulty tracks, etc. On August 19, residents of Khatauli in western Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district heard a loud crash when at least a dozen carriages of the Puri-Haridwar Utkal Express ran off the tracks. Two of the coaches crashed into a residential area, hitting a house and school building. At least 21 people were killed and more than 70 injured in the accident. Local residents said human error may have caused the accident.

Reports suggested that the driver was unaware of the repair work that was happening on the tracks. Cracking the whip, the ministry sent many officials on leave and suspended some others. The Railways minister, Suresh Prabhu, too, offered to step down. The Railway Board has now appointed Ashwani Lohani, former chairman and managing director of Air India, as its chairman.

Ministers offering to quit, officials being sent on leave or suspension letters being signed, all these have now become par for the course whenever such mishaps occur. Such accidents, however, continue to take place, with many losing their lives. At a time when the government is talking about employing high-end technology in Railways, it’s sad that even existing tracks can’t be relied upon to ensure passenger safety.

And tracks are only one of the many concerns that the Railways is plagued with. In a country where a huge population resides besides the railway tracks—in slums, kachcha houses and settlements—unmanned crossings are one of the biggest challenges. There are about 10,000 unmanned railway crossings in the country, which account for around 40% of rail accidents annually. As per latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau, 26,066 people lost their lives in 2015 in rail accidents, of which 2,650 succumbed to accidents at crossings. “The Railways has a two-year plan to eliminate all unmanned crossings by 2020,” a Railways official said on the condition of anonymity. “To achieve this, overhead bridges and subways are being built. New technology is also being adopted.”

But one does wonder what’s the use of such technology if even the driver of a train isn’t informed of repair work being undertaken on tracks. Another, and even bigger, problem is the glaring lack of self-discipline among Indians. Vandalism and rowdiness are synonymous with the country’s public places, including and especially on trains. The much hyped Mumbai-Goa Tejas Express, the country’s first high-speed semi-luxurious train, returned to Mumbai in July in a mess—the passengers had thrashed the LCD screens onboard, stolen the headphones and soiled the toilets. There were, in fact, reports that the windows of the train were vandalised even before it could be flagged off.

This wasn’t the first instance of vandalism on trains in India. On December 25, 2003, Delhi was gifted with the Metro to make travel for its citizens hassle-free. And how did they greet it? They spat on its floor and walls, broke windows, uprooted handles and even scratched the interiors of the coaches to check if it was all really scratch-proof. Indian passengers also routinely refuse to cooperate with security personnel, adding to the risk of accidents.

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Money matters

There’s also the question of funding. The adoption of modern technology costs a lot of money, but the allocation from the Centre isn’t as encouraging as it should be. Of the total financial outlay of `64,771.08 crore in the Union Budget for FY18 for the Railways (under the central sector scheme), the outlay for the development of technology—signalling and telecom (only major items), replacement work, track circuiting, LED signals, automatic block signalling (ABS), block proving by axle counters, TPWS, data logger, interlocking of LC gates—is only `2,330 crore, which is less than 5% of the total outlay.

The Centre’s thinktank, Niti Aayog, on its part, has set an ambitious target for 2020. The total track length to be achieved by FY20, including commissioning of new lines, has been set at 130 lakh km—it’s currently 17.8 lakh km. Then there’s the construction of the ambitious 550-km bullet train corridor between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, just one of the six high-speed corridors identified by the Railways on the Golden Quadrilateral last year. The project is expected to cost the exchequer a mammoth `1 lakh crore, of which 80% will be financed by Japan as part of a loan taken by India at an interest rate of 0.1%. The loan repayment will start from 2038 and be completed in 2072. The remaining amount will be funded jointly by the Railways and the Maharashtra and Gujarat governments, with an expected minimum return of 8%. The time period set for the repayment looks very flexible and relaxed, but the fact remains that such a huge timespan for repayment piles up a lot of debt on India.

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Railways of tomorrow

There’s no doubt about the fact that automation is the future. If India wants to truly embrace it and move ahead, it can’t afford to just bank on policies. It needs much more. For one, it can seek inspiration from its neighbour China, which pioneered the high-speed rail system way back in the Nineties—an era when we were still coming to terms with liberalisation. Interestingly, China set the benchmark in not only adopting high-speed rail, but also innovating ingeniously, resulting in the longest (around 2,300 km) high-speed railway line in the world. Launched in 2012, the line cuts the travel time between Beijing and Guangzhou from 24 hours earlier to eight hours now.

Moving westwards, France’s Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), an inter-city high-speed rail service, bolstered Europe’s high-speed train service in 1981, with the launch of the Paris-Lyon line. It complemented the Paris-Toulouse high-speed service that was operating since 1967. Italy, too, was another early adopter, with a high-speed Rome-Florence service launched in 1977. Later, it pioneered the Pendolino tilting-train technology, which allows trains to take turns at far higher speeds than otherwise possible. The technology is now used in trains in many countries.

In India, such innovation is missing. At a time when research is being carried out to make teleportation a reality, India is still struggling with its first high-speed rail corridor. “There has to be significant effort put into the indigenisation of technology and adoption of technology,” a Railways official said on the condition of anonymity. “And we need to do that at a fast pace… else, it will be difficult for things to take off.”

Adoption of technology isn’t the only thing the Railways is struggling with. Projects are lying in limbo. Take, for instance, the Talgo, which had a successful trial last year. The Railways had plans to operate the superfast train on a lease agreement by mid-2018. It was reported, however, that Talgo, the Spain-based company which manufactures the train, is yet to get the final nod from the Indian government. Then there’s the threat from air travel. A blueprint prepared by the Railways this year says within the next three years, domestic airlines will overtake it as India’s most preferred mode of long-distance travel for upper-class passengers. “It is essential that Indian Railways addresses the two key value propositions of airlines passenger business—price and speed—immediately to sustain its core business in the passenger segment in the future,” the study says.

Clearly, a radical transformation is the need of the day. Recently, Amitabh Kant, CEO, Niti Aayog had asked the Railways to hand over some trains and infrastructure projects to the private sector. “The Indian government should hand over the operations of infrastructure projects and even trains to the private sector and limit its role to planning and development,” Kant had said.

Ajay Shukla, former Railway Board member (traffic), agrees. “For years, we have refused to see the writing on the wall. This is the global trend in developed economies, wherein the railways don’t serve long-distance passenger travel. That load is rightly taken by air,” Shukla had told The Indian Express in August. If it has to attain – and surpass – the benchmarks set by its Asian and European peers, the Indian Railways needs to not just innovate but also improvise.

How viable is bullet train?

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The introduction of bullet trains might not be a fruitful investment after all. The time taken by a bullet train to travel between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, for instance, would be two hours, whereas the time taken by air on that route is just 75 minutes. Also, a bullet train (like Japan’s Shinkansen) can, on an average, carry 1,600 passengers, but costs a lot more than, say, seven Airbus 320neo aircraft—`6,000 crore (considering one such aircraft costs `700 crore)—required to transport the same number of passengers by air. Plus, the cost of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor is more than 75% of the total capex of the Railways—`1.31 lakh crore—for FY18. These numbers pose serious questions about the feasibility of such a project.

It’s also necessary to note that a high-speed rail such as the bullet train requires an exclusive right of way corridor, with complete fencing on the entire route. In India, due to the high population density, this might pose a problem. Though Japan’s Shinkansen technology has an unblemished record of safe operations at speeds over 320 kmph, one needs to understand that it’s possible because of Japan’s stellar work ethics, training and technological capabilities.

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