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Bullet trains, in perspective

They will have to be integrated with the existing rail network.

Written by Ashwani Kumar | Updated: January 16, 2015 1:05 pm
With ‘Make in India’ the new buzzword, foreign collaborators should be encouraged to set up plants to manufacture rolling stock and other machinery for broad gauge requirements. With ‘Make in India’ the new buzzword, foreign collaborators should be encouraged to set up plants to manufacture rolling stock and other machinery for broad gauge requirements.

They will have to be integrated with the existing rail network.

Bullet trains are a marquee project for the Narendra Modi government and foreign companies are falling over themselves to get a share of the pie. But in a hurry to get bullet trains running, the government must not make strategic blunders.

Technology and financing are no longer real constraints in bringing high-speed trains to India. Competing foreign collaborators are willing to offer generous financial terms and technology transfer. The key issues are financial viability, optimal resource utilisation and benefits to the people. Answers to these questions are more involved and depend on our strategic choices. These decisions will have profound long-term implications for the commercial viability of not only bullet trains, but also the Indian Railways (IR).

It is important that bullet trains fit into our overall vision for rail transport. The vision should be to provide the country with a fast, safe and comfortable passenger rail system. Besides speeding up Shatabdi-type day trains and overnight trains, journey time for the longest-running passenger trains should be reduced to less than 24 hours. Building a few isolated high-speed corridors will not fully serve the purpose, but integrating bullet trains with the existing IR network can help provide faster, direct connections to a large number of cities in the hinterland. Improving the accessibility of smaller cities would reduce the pressure on the megacities. It can also catalyse the development of “smart cities” as envisaged in the budget.

Currently, the inter-city passenger demand estimate is the main criterion to assess the financial viability of a high-speed corridor. But integration of these corridors with the IR can help reduce journey time for a large number of existing train services. These additional network benefits can make many new high-speed corridors economically viable. Irrespective of their management structures, bullet trains should have a symbiotic relationship with the IR system by improving the efficiency of the existing rail network while gaining extra ridership by leveraging it. This requires interoperability of trains so that tracks and terminal infrastructure can be shared.

Interoperability entails a compatible choice of track gauge, train sets, locomotives, signalling and traction systems. Track gauge is the most crucial and contentious of these. The world over, standard gauge is adopted for high-speed trains. But India has a pre-existing broad gauge network. Many experts argue that the adoption of broad gauge for bullet trains would lead to higher construction costs, delays in rolling stock procurement and difficulties in technology transfer. However, the long-term costs of not adopting broad gauge for the high-speed network will be higher. There is already a project underway to convert different gauges to broad gauge, and selecting standard gauge for bullet trains would be regressive.

Though it is possible to have gauge changers and specialised rolling stock to ride over a break in gauge, it would be costly and restrictive. With “Make in India” the new buzzword, foreign collaborators should be encouraged to set up plants to manufacture rolling stock and other machinery for broad gauge requirements. Indigenous manufacturing will necessitate technology transfer, absorption and further innovation. However, standard loading gauge may be adopted for a broad gauge track, which will reduce the efforts required to customise designs for broad gauge.

Some experts cite, as a counter-example, the successful adoption of standard gauge for metro rail systems in India. This is a flawed argument, as metro rails are standalone systems while bullet trains will have to leverage the IR network to realise their full potential.

Completion of dedicated freight corridors (DFC) already under construction on the Delhi-Mumbai, Delhi-Kolkata and Delhi-Ludhiana routes will release line capacity for exclusive passenger usage on the parallel IR network. This excess capacity offers a window of opportunity to upgrade the parallel IR tracks to high-speed standards without a major disruption in existing train services. The construction of new high-speed corridors along these routes would be a waste of resources, spelling financial doom for both the IR and bullet trains. Wherever possible, existing train stations in city centres should be redesigned to handle high-speed, conventional and metro trains through a common concourse, which will give bullet trains the advantage of easy access over airlines.

This is, of course, easier said than done. Foreign collaborators will have to be more patient. A greenfield high-speed corridor with standard gauge is likely to take less time in construction (provided land acquisition is sorted out) than a brownfield project with broad gauge. Still, the government must avoid this expedient but ultimately costly temptation.

The writer, an IRTS officer, is a fellow with the future mobility group at Singapore-MIT alliance for research and technology. Views are personal

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  1. V
    Vikram
    Oct 7, 2014 at 7:01 am
    Bullet trains should not be integrated with the present system. Instead they should have a dedicated elevated track, like in the dedicated freight corridors.Most of the accidents in railways happen at the unmanned crossings and by pilot mistakes. Prevention of this should be the main consideration for while designing the high speed network.Thus any "integration" would only compromise the safety of the bullet train network and regrettably bring it on par with the existing creaking railway network.
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    1. A
      Anant
      Oct 12, 2014 at 12:55 pm
      It is regressive to imagine running bullet trains on the present system, when the system's capabilities are limited to speeds of maximum 120 kmph. Further, the logistics of managing a train at 300 kmph and one at 120 kmph on the same line is sheer madness.Bullet trains need their own dedicated tracks like the ones used by maglev to ensure their speeds are maintained. Using the current tracks which cannot support them is fatalistic. Further using bullet trains for accessing rural areas and reaching hinterlands is just plan stupid. When the costs of trains of IR today running at 60 kmph are facing mive losses due to social responsibility of reaching the rural areas, the bullet trains making stops there would be hilariously ignorant, as well as financially abysmal. Finally which rural area traveller would use bullet trains when the ticket would cost at least a minimum of lets say Rs. 50 than the ordinary cl ticket of Rs. 10?If this is the state of IRTS officers, who are far removed from reality no wonder the IR is in such losses.
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        joseph
        Oct 6, 2014 at 5:11 am
        "Competing foreign collaborators are willing to offer generous financial terms and technology.""The key issues are financial viability, optimal resource utilisation and benefits to the people."If that is the case then india should defnitely not hurry. Indian railway should make a plan for complete railway overhaul using the current infrastructure. That mean trains running at speeds of 250-300 kmph on the same tracks. Its possible. If we are able to use the current infrastructure and m produce the cost can be brought down considerably.
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        1. Archie Leach
          Oct 25, 2014 at 7:42 am
          This is where YOU have no understanding of railway operations: the current conditions of the existing railways can NEVER be used for 250-300km/h. For that type of speed it MUST REQUIRE a completely new SEPARATE set of rail tracks to operate trains at 250 to 300km/h.That is why persons with a REAL understanding about REAL railway operations understand that given the economic conditions of present India: THE DEVELOPMENT OF HIGH SPEED TRAINS IN INDIA IS COMPLETELY OUT OF THE QUESTION FOR AT LEAST A GENERATION.
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          1. S
            Siddhartha
            Nov 2, 2014 at 8:15 am
            India using BROAD GAUGE for Bullet Trains (BT) or High Speed Rails (HSR) running at 250 to 380 kph is the BEST way forward. Even though BT / HSR would need dedicated (exclusive / elevated / access restricted) tracks with new alignment to connect most major cities (say: tier one and tier two cities and most state capitals), mostly along the the "Golden Quadrilateral" (known as Diamond Quadrilateral HSR) and "North-South–East-West Corridor" (NS-EW), still they would be many financially, socially, strategically or religiously important cities with high inter-city traffic that would not be feasible to connect with exclusive HSR due to economical, geographical, social or environmental reasons but are already connected by existing India Railways (IR) Broad Gauge (BG).Ex.: Srinagar, Jammu, Shimla, Haridwar, Dehradun (North), Kanyakumari, Rameshwaram, Madhurai, Coimbatore, Pondicherry (South), Porbandar, Rajkot, Kandla, Jodhpur (West) and Silchar, Gauhati, Siliguri, Tezpur, Dimapur, Dibrugarh (East) or Ranchi, Raipur, Solapur (Middle).Such Cities can be accessed by BT / HSR using INTEROPERABILITY. i.e. for ex.: presently train journey from Kanyakumari to Jammu is 3496 kms and takes 58h 30m. But a Special Broad Gauge Interoperable BT / HSR Train can travel from Kanyakumari on existing Broad Gauge IR track at average 60 kph to nearest BT / HSR track: say Chennai (724 kms - 13 h) or Thiruvananthapuram (87 kms - 1h 40 m) then get onto the Broad Gauge BT / HSR track and travel at 350 kph (average 250 kph) until say Chandigarh [2485 kms - 10 h (42 h 40 m) from Chennai / 3092 kms - 12 h 20 m (54 h 25 m) from Thiruvananthapuram] and then continue on existing Broad Gauge IR track at about 60 kph to Jammu 377 kms - 6h. NO need to change any train. uming even around average 60 kph for existing Broad Gauge IR track and average 250 for BT / HSR track, travel time from Kanyakumari to Jammu using Special Broad Gauge Interoperable BT / HSR Train would take only 29 h via Chennai and 20 h via Thiruvananthapuram. Presently it takes 58h 30m. A clear saving of 29 h 30 m via Chennai and 38h 30m via Thiruvananthapuram. Travel Time can be further shortened by upgrading existing Broad Gauge IR track (including switches and signals) for average 120 to 180 kph and by further using optional Tilting BT / HSR Trains that can do average 160 to 200 kph on upgraded Broad Gauge IR track. This would bring down travel time from Kanyakumari to Jammu to 22 h via Chennai and 17 h via Thiruvananthapuram {4.5 / 0.5 2.5 = 7 h / 3 h} and so a clear saving of 36 h 30 m via Chennai and 41h 30m via Thiruvananthapuram.Further advantages:-Broad Gauge induced Extra Wide Carbody and Full Double Decker BT / HSR would add upto 50 % to 100% seating capacity.
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