Cannot bite this bullet

Written by Rajat Arora | Updated: May 29 2014, 03:00am hrs
Going by the BJP manifesto that promises to build a high-speed rail network, India would need R12 lakh crore to build 6,000 km of high speed rail corridors (being called Diamond Quadrilateral) connecting its four metropolisesDelhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennaiand other big cities.

However, looking at the financial situation of Indian Railways, which has an annual plan of a meagre R65,000 crore and an operating ratio of 90.4%, such large-scale investment seems impossible. However, if finances are made available, then building the network doesnt seem a mammoth task, as China has built over 10,000 km of high-speed track (on which trains run at 350 km per hour) in five years.

Analysts say the Narendra Modi-led BJP made such announcements without going into the cost details of the project, which is as high as R200-250 crore per km, almost impossible for India to do it on its own or through funds from multilateral funding agencies. Also it wont be operationally profitable until the ticket prices are as high as R8 per km.

Meanwhile, realising its constraints, the railway board has made a presentation for Modi and the new railway minister, to acquaint them with the actual costs involved in the high-speed railway network and the immediate alternative available. The presentation talks about the low investment plans of bringing semi-high speed (160 kmph) segments on select routes.

High speed trains might remain a dream for us given our financial health, as it costs a bomb, but we are pushing the pedal to bring semi high speed (160 kmph) to India by the end of this year. Well ask the new government to fast-track this plan and give us more budgetary support for timely implementation, said a senior railway board member.

Three semi-high speed routes, Delhi-Chandigarh, Delhi-Agra and Delhi-Bhopal, are expected to become operational by the end of this year or early next year. And all of it would be done with the same rolling stock and on existing infrastructure by modifying the system.

The cost of making the existing infrastructure fit for semi-high speed would be on an average R2 crore per km against upwards R200 crore per km for laying a new high speed railway network. For example, the Railways would have to spend only R500 crore to upgrade the 250 km Delhi-Chandigarh route to semi-high speed.

The newly formed High Speed Railway Corporation of India is conducting a traffic study on earmarked routes. There are also plans to introduce semi-high speed trains on the Ernakulam-Thiruvanathapuram, Hyderabad-Chennai and Howrah-Haldia routes.

According to railway board officials, the new train protection warning system (TPWS), upgradation of existing bridges and railway lines, eliminating level crossings and fencing thickly populated locations would help the Railways to get an average speed of 150-160 km-ph without spending too much.

The current average speed of Shatabdi trains is around 55-60 kmph and of Rajdhani, 60-70 kmph. For express trains the average speed is below 50 kmph.