Branson on new track, eyes Railways’ high-speed service

Virgin Group’s Sir Richard Branson may be toying with the idea of investing in high-speed passenger services of the Indian Railways.

In India to relaunch Virgin Atlantic’s airlines service on Mumbai-London route, Branson said that he would certainly like to invest in the high-speed passenger services of the Railways if there were opportunities, when asked by Business Line if he would consider expanding Virgin’s exposure to rail as in the UK.

The timing could not be more perfect. The Railways is studying the feasibility of attracting private investments including for high-speed trains on six routes.

One of the options is on the lines of the UK rail market where the infrastructure ownership stays with the Indian Railways and there are train operating companies.

The six rail routes are: Pune-Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Delhi-Agra-Lucknow–Varanasi-Patna, Hyderabad-Dornakal-Vijayawada-Chennai, Chennai-Bangalore-Coimbatore-Ernakulam, Delhi-Chandigarh-Amritsar and Howrah-Haldia.

The Railways has also decided to sign an agreement with Spain for exploring the possibility of introducing bullet train service and improvement of train safety.

Branson recalled how the idea of investing in the rail sector came. “It is funny. My foray into British Rail scene was after a journalist asked me whether I would enter the railways.

“The day after I saw the news flashed in the media. It was then that I found the numbers of British Rail authorities and started calling them,” he said.

Virgin Rail — which has a 15-year train operating licence in the UK where rail services are privatised — has moved court as outbid when the licence came up for renewal.

The aviation-to-trains-to-entertainment group has a presence in India through aviation, telecom (Virgin Mobile India uses the network of Tata Teleservices), and FM radio.

Asked if Virgin Group had observed an inter-modal shift from air-to-rail given that the company had exposure in both aviation and railway sector, Branson said: “On the London-Manchester route, there has been a 90 per cent shift to rail sector from airlines.” For the long-term, he would like to stay invested in the rail business.

Branson was tight-lipped about specific, immediate investment plans in the Indian aviation sector.

While welcoming the Government’s move to relax foreign direct investment rules in domestic aviation, he said it would take a “brave man” to invest in the country’s aviation sector in the backdrop of “bleeding airlines”.