On Sunday, in the last of its six trial runs, the Spanish train Talgo made it to Mumbai Central from New Delhi in 11 hours and 48 minutes, touching a peak speed of 150 kph, and taking more than 4 hours off the Rajdhani’s time for the same distancecurrently.
To begin with, what is Talgo and what is it doing in India?
The Madrid-based company, established in the 1940s, manufactures intercity, standard, and high speed passenger trains. It makes both coaches and engines; coaches range from standard and high speed to very high speed coaches. Earlier this year, Talgo approached the Indian Railways with an offer to demonstrate coaches that can run at 200 kph. However, its stated USP is a patented in-house technology that allows Talgo coaches to go faster on curves than the Linke Hoffman Busch (LHB) coaches being used by the Railways currently.
Okay, how does this technology work?
Wheels of conventional coaches are joined by an axle underneath. Talgo’s wheels are mounted in pairs but not joined by an axle — instead, they are fitted individually on the coach. As a result, on a curve, the outer wheel (which has to cover a longer distance than the inner wheel) and the inner wheel are free to rotate at speeds of their own, largely foreclosing the possibility of derailment even at higher speeds. Also, the design of the coach is such that it senses the curve and shifts its weight in a manner that manages the tilt.
And how much do these coaches cost?
A figure of around Rs 7 crore per car has been mentioned informally. It must be stressed, however, that there is no serious talk of the cost yet, because the Railways are only witnessing results of trials done at the insistence of the company. The Railways did not ask for them, and their entire cost was borne by Talgo, which wanted to demonstrate its technology on existing Indian tracks. The company told the Railways that a train using its coaches can run at very high speeds even on curves, which cuts journey time significantly. An Indian engine pulled the trial train. Only officials from Talgo and the Railways’s Research Designs and Standards Organisation (RDSO) were on board. The Railways have said the trials were successful.
So why are the Railways not talking about buying these coaches?
It is important to note that these trials were essentially Talgo’s technology exhibition for Indian Railways bosses — a private company’s proactive, though entirely legitimate, pitch for business from a very large client. But there is no formal commitment from India because the Railways cannot go for single-tendering of such a huge procurement. A global tender, open to all coach manufacturers, must be floated. Also, under public procurement principles laid down by the Central Vigilance Commission, the Railways cannot have preconditions or technical specifications in tender conditions that favour one company and automatically exclude others. Incidentally, other global coach manufacturers have developed their own versions of “tilting technologies” for curve management, but they do not, unlike Talgo, have a ready stock of broad gauge coaches.
Where does the Railway Board stand as of now?
Despite the success of the trial runs, quite a few ifs and buts remain. First, the coaches that Talgo used in India are much smaller than coaches of, say, the Shatabdis — with lower floors and narrower width, which translates into lower capacity and a wider gap between the train and the platform. (See box). Even if Indian Railways were to buy from Talgo, the coaches that have been tested can’t be the ones that can be bought. While the company has assured that it can deliver coaches as per Indian needs and that these trials were just technology demonstrators, there is concern within the Railways that bigger coaches with a larger capacity may impact their performance — and in the event of that happening, it may be pointless or misleading to take a decision based on the results of these trials. The coaches used in the trials are a decade old — Talgo hired them from a Spanish railway company, which still runs some broad gauge trains. The company is incurring daily rentals on the coaches.
So how do the Railways want to take it from here on?
Considering the government highlighted the Talgo-sponsored trials as one of its achievements in two years in the printed publicity material, the Railway Board is expected to consider it seriously in its speed upgrade project. One way to progress, officials said, was to allow private operators to take Talgo trains on lease — this would take around 2 years. There was also the option of including Talgo-type coaches in the Rolling Stock Programme of 2016-17. The final scenario was to set up a JV with Talgo and manufacture the coaches in India — that could take about 5 years, officials said, while stressing that none of these timelines were part of a policy decision yet.
Even so, what can be the problems with these approaches?
Several. To begin with, even if the Railways open passenger train operations to private players, they can hardly dictate to that player which coaches to run. In any case, it is unlikely that passenger train operations will be opened to private players just to give business to one company.
The problem with forming a JV, like the Madhepura-Marhowrah loco factories, is, again, that the Railways would have to pick the JV partner through competitive open bidding, and not through unilateral selection. This is because the project will involve spending public money and resources.
Other than Talgo, what is on the Railways’s roadmap for upgrading speed?
Thanks to Minister Suresh Prabhu’s overarching Mission Raftaar, the Railways are already working on increasing average speeds in existing operations. A separate directorate called Mobility has been created, and significant reductions in journey time may not be too far away.
The commissioning of the long-awaited Dedicated Freight Corridors is just three years away. The DFC will take away 70% of freight trains from the choked Railways network on those routes. That will free up capacity to run even existing passenger trains at average speeds that would not be very far behind Talgo speeds.
The Railways have also already sanctioned procurement and manufacturing of electric Train Sets that have faster acceleration and deceleration. Their value proposition is also linked with a massive reduction of journey time.
The Railways are also investing heavily on doubling and tripling of lines, which will, again, create more, fresh capacity to increase average speeds.