There are multiple agencies working towards building high-speed rail corridors and the Railway Ministry is doing pre-feasibility studies.
That India needs high-speed rail systems — trains running at approximately 250-350 km per hour-speed is known. But, it would augur well for different agencies of the Government to identify one dense stretch, pool in all efforts to implement such a project fast. The lessons from this stretch could be applied to some other stretches.
At present, there are multiple agencies working towards building high-speed rail corridors. The Railway Ministry is doing pre-feasibility studies for six stretches across the country. Then there are some State Governments which are doing parallel exercises for running high-speed trains. The Kerala Government has commissioned a pre-feasibility study for high-speed rail (HSR) along the West coast of Kerala — Thiruvananthapuram-Kasargod. Similarly, the Haryana Government is evaluating running of high-speed trains on the Delhi-Sonepat-Panipat route.
The costs involved are huge. The Thiruvananthapuram-Ernakulam link is expected to cost in the range of Rs 40,000 crore. Similarly, the Pune-Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor is expected to cost more than Rs 50,000 crore. How will they be funded?
In this context, it is important to note that for the Railway Ministry proposals, even the cost of the pre-feasibility studies is being shared with the various State Governments, who are likely to benefit.
Given such costs, all implementing agencies have admitted that these projects will have to be taken in public-private partnership (PPP) mode with private participation. The exact model of PPP will have to be evaluated and decided. That process itself could take four years at the minimum — going by the time taken by the Government to decide such issues for railways’ factories and highways in India.
Should the whole project be given out to a consortium on design-build-finance-operate-transfer basis? Or should the project be unbundled — by breaking it up into station management, train operating companies — with the network being owned and managed by another agency?
“Which agency should run the trains? Who should then build and maintain the infrastructure,” asked Mr V. K. Dutt, former additional Member (Electrical), Indian Railways’, while speaking at a seminar on high-speed trains, jointly organised by the Institution of Engineers (India) – Delhi State Centre, IET (UK) – Delhi Local Network and Institution of Railway Electrical Engineers (IREE).
Then there are some technical issues. Should the new lines be made interoperable with the current system? Simply put, should the new rolling stock be such that they can move on the existing railway lines, something that France did? This is desirable because it would allow the new train sets to access much deeper areas on the existing network.
But this requires a lot of extra time and money because the existing railway lines and signalling systems have to be upgraded. It also means that the new network has to be built on a broad gauge — globally, the railway lines and rolling stock are on standard gauge.
Many experts who are outside the Indian Railways’ system per se, favour a non-interoperable standard gauge network.
The views of DMRC, which is doing the study for the Kerala Government, are well known. They are all for standard gauge — Mr E. Sreedharan has publicly stated his disappointment with the Indian Railways for not allowing the initial Delhi Metro network to be built on broad gauge. But Indian Railways has traditionally been quite rigid on this issue, insisting on interoperability.
What should be the proposed revenue box model? What share of the revenue can be taken out by monetising land? Who should be made to pay for the development — there have been examples like Manchester, where all beneficiaries — corporates and users — were made to share the cost.
Pricing of tickets is another issue. The high-speed trains — while requiring Government support — cannot be allowed to become a tool for populist measures.
“Do you want to target the aam admi (common man)? TGV — the high-speed train of French Railways — is approximately 20-30 per cent cheaper than some other European railways running high-speed trains. It enjoys an 80 per cent load factor,” says Mr Michel Testard, Indian Business Development Consultant to the SNCF (French Railways).
Mr Testard suggests: “Target a stretch — which is on an even terrain — that connects two cities separated by a distance of 300 km or so; and each city should have a population of at least 10 million.” The even terrain is important because of the cost implications — the cost of building one km of railway line could double in difficult terrain, such as mountainous region or those with water bodies.
These are just some key questions that have to be addressed before the projects start getting implemented. After all, it took almost 30-35 years for Delhi to get its metro system, after it was first proposed in 1972-75.