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