Train speed has acquired a new significance for the Indian Railways (IR) of late. Last year saw India committing to build a Bullet train link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Early this year, IR launched Gatimaan Express which touched a record speed of 160 kmph in trial runs. And recent weeks have seen the Gatimaan Express record being bested by Spain-made Talgo trains which clocked 180 kmph in trial runs. While the performance of the Spanish train has raised the possibility of rail travel time being cut significantly without major infrastructure upgrade, it is yet not clear if Talgo is a doable project, with its benefits outweighing the costs.
That the train with a maximum speed of 220 kmph has drawn attention is not in doubt though. Trial runs on the
Delhi-Mumbai route saw the train touch 150 kmph, reducing travel time by 4 hours as compared to Rajdhani Express. This is significant at a time the railways have launched Mission Raftaar under which measures are being taken to raise the average speed of passenger and freight trains.
Indian Railways presently use a mix of ICF (Integral Coach Factory) and Linke Hoffman Busch (LHB) coaches, the latter being an upgraded version of ICF coaches which can sustain speeds of up to 160 kmph (with modification 200 kmph). LHB coaches are broader and longer and have a greater seating capacity as compared to Talgo coaches. These features might work against the introduction of Talgo trains, given that the Indian Railways don’t have locomotive engines to carry loads faster than 180 kmph.
“The seating capacity of unmodified Talgo coaches is half that of LHB coaches; besides most coaches have chair-car arrangement while a majority of our trains have sleeper coaches designed for long-distance travel. As Talgo coaches have a very low base they are also not suitable for the high platforms we have,” says Abhay Krishna Agarwal, Partner Infrastructure & PPP at E&Y.
However, senior railway officials say that speeds of up to 160/180/220 kmph are not the only special feature of Talgo coaches which stand out also on account of their unconventional design. “The design of Talgo coaches makes them lighter and hence 30% more energy efficient. The coaches have an independent wheel set. There are only two wheels which are shared between two coaches unlike LHB coaches which require eight wheels per coach, making them heavy and unstable on curves at high speed,” a railway official part of the test trials tells FE.
The test trials conducted by officials from Talgo and railways’ Research Design and Standard Organisation (RDSO) which ended last month were declared a success by the transporter. However, IR hasn’t made any formal commitment to Talgo for procurement of such coaches and is not sure of the way forward. “We intend to
approach the innovative council at Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP) for consultation and permission. We are looking at developing our own version of such coaches; besides we are looking at floating a tender for energy efficient faster coaches, ” a senior railway official says.
There are analysts who argue against increasing train speeds without decongestion of the railway network and upgrade of track and signalling infrastructure. “The primary challenge right now is de-cluttering of the network since it is the main hurdle in the way of higher speeds; you have more than 240 high-density routes which lead to delays in passenger and freight trains. Besides that, IR needs to look at introducing private operators for trains with prudent track access charges and a premium pricing mechanism. It needs to look at a model which will allow it to reduce the cross-subsidy burden and enhance revenues,” says Agarwal.