The dawn of a new rail era

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Published: January 11, 2016 12:15:16 AM

Bullet trains will help save on the nation’s fuel bill, reduce air pollution, road congestion and connected accidents

With the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) providing a long-term loan of R81,000 crore for the R1 lakh crore 506-km Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed corridor, the Japanese railway industry has Indian Railways firmly in its sights for the next few decades, ensuring that the valuable high-speed train—or the Bullet train—business, whenever it takes off for other corridors, comes its way.

The balance of R19,000 crore would come as equity, to be shared between Indian Railways (50%) and Gujarat and Maharashtra (33% and 17 %)—in proportion of distance covered in each state—as was the norm followed for the 720-km-long Konkan Railway Project a couple of decades ago.

The new company, the High Speed Rail Corporation set up by the Rail Vikas Nigam Limited a year ago, is expected to play a significant role going forward.

The Japanese plan not only big, but also for the long term—Maruti Suzuki being one such example, where it started almost three decades ago and has today built a commanding position in the automobile sector. By occupying the bullet train space right away, the Japanese hope to repeat the story by building on their track-record.

Having already lost out to the more aggressive European, Canadian and South Koreans players—viz ABB, Siemens, Alstom, Bombardier and Rotem—for the highly-lucrative metro coach business, now it aims to have the first-mover advantage in the lucrative high-speed sector.

Undoubtedly, a major part of the investment would be in building the elevated track, since at the proposed maximum speeds of 350kph, grade crossings would be unthinkable, while any trespassing could prove to be disastrous.

Somewhat like the Delhi Metro, the elevated track will cost a whopping Rs 250 crore per km, as against Rs 10 crore per km for a surface-level track. While the existing Ahmedabad-Mumbai alignment of the Western Railways may be followed for the most part, passing through busy cities and stretches could prove to be a bit tricky.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also committed himself to Make in India, and the proposed new facility for manufacturing the coaches may be set up in Gujarat, whose citizens will be getting the maximum benefit out of this venture—creating jobs and connecting them to the business capital of India in what would be a comfortable daily commute, among other benefits.

Interestingly, the famous Shinkansen trains in Japan began their journey in 1964 as a commuter or suburban service, very much like Mumbai’s famous ‘local’. However, unlike Mumbai local, it connects a dozen cities only along a 500-km-long Tokyo-Osaka corridor. With over a dozen 14-car trains every hour, it covers the distance in less than 3 hours, making daily commute a distinct possibility.

High speed trains would also involve an entirely new approach in coach design, as almost two-thirds of them are powered, eliminating the need for a locomotive. However, it would cost almost three times the Indian Railways’ main line coach such as LHB (Linke Hofmann Busch) design currently under production at Kapurthala in Punjab.

Given the huge investment costs, the hard part would be generating enough revenues, for which very high volumes are inescapable. The Rs 1 lakh crore estimated cost would need, even at 0.1% interest, an yearly repayment of over Rs 2,000 crore spread over 50 years.

The high-speed railway ticket could be priced the same as the highly-competitive return airfare of about R5,000 between the two cities. However, the expected yearly earnings would demand a volume of about 1,10,000 passengers a day, or 55 trains each way carrying 1,000 passengers each. This could rise to 100 trains each way, every day, to take care of operating and maintenance costs.

The feasibility report that has been prepared by JICA has recommended 12 stations—to be built at Sabarmati, Ahmedabad, Anand/Nadiad, Vadodara, Bharuch, Surat, Bilimora, Vapi, Boisar, Virar, Thane and Mumbai.
The report has estimated that fare income will be maximised if it is kept at 1.5 times that of 1A class fare of the Indian Railways. The expected daily boarding passengers would be 40,000 by 2023, when the project is likely to be operational, rising to 2,02,000 by 2053, while the maximum sectional volumes would be 36,000 and 1,86,000, respectively.

Undoubtedly, bullet trains will help save on the nation’s fuel bill; the railways is a five times more fuel-efficient mode of transport than air, and this would help reduce air pollution, road congestion and connected accidents.
In addition, the reduction of commuter fatigue perhaps is one of the single-biggest factors which is making high-speed train services of Japan, Europe and China increasingly popular. Soon, India will too see a new era of rail travel, spurring the growth of tier-2 cities on the way.

The author is former member, Railway Board

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