Bullet trains might yet be a far-fetched dream for the country due to high costs involved, but Indian Railways plans to roll out the desi versions of these trains in the next one year. The railways will launch semi-high-speed trains that will run at an average speed of 130 km per hour, nearly double that clocked by the Rajdhani and Shatabdi expresses, two of the fastest trains in the country at present.
Once this happens, the travel time on the 266-km Delhi-Chandigarh route should be less than two hours. Currently, Shatabdi trains cover the same route in three hours and 20 minutes.
To start with, these trains are expected to become operational on three routes — Delhi-Chandigarh, Delhi-Lucknow and Delhi-Bhopal — by the end of this year or early next year at an estimated economical cost of R2.5 crore per km. This is much lower than the cost of around R200 crore per km for building high-speed rail networks, according to an estimate by RITES, the railways’ consulting arm.
The railways plans to run one or two trains per day on these routes with a premium fare structure. The existing rolling stock and infrastructure will be used for these trains and only the system will be modified, said a senior official in the Railway Board.
“We have to be realistic and understand that we can't achieve 350 km per hour of speed overnight from the current average of 60 km per hour, irrespective of the promises in political manifestos. High speed is not the (first) priority (of railways). We, however, have to take the average speed to 130 km per hour and it would be financially feasible,” a top railway official told FE.
The second phase of these trains will be introduced in southern and eastern regions, including Ernakulam-Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad-Chennai and Howrah-Haldia.
The network of high-speed trains has been present in many parts of the world, including the Europe and Japan, for long. In recent decades, similar networks have been built in China and Korea.
The newly formed High Speed Railway Corporation is conducting a study of traffic on the earmarked routes.
“We are in the process of upgrading the system and are trying to run semi-high-speed trains by the end of this year,” Railway Board chairman Arunendra Kumar said.
According to sources, in order to introduce the proposed semi-high speed railways in a time-bound manner, the Railway Board has set in motion plans including creation of a new train protection warning system (TPWS), upgradation of existing bridges and railway lines, elimination of level crossings and fencing in thickly populated locations along the routes selected.
According to the sources, the existing rolling stock has the capability, after certain modifications, to run high-speed trains of the kind being planned even for longer routes. “Usually Shatabdis and Rajdhanis tend to clock higher speeds for a short spurt, but can't maintain a high average because of heavy traffic and the absence of advance signaling systems. A fully-automated signaling system, which would cost around Rs 1 crore per km, will ensure track clearances for 25-km stretches on the route of the running train, also ensuring smooth operations for other trains,” the official added.
The railways has already started the work of removing the level-crossing and fencing on select routes. The work on installing a fully-automated signaling system, providing real-time traffic movement, and upgrading the bridges is also expected to start soon.
However, analysts feel that with fund constraints (railways' operating ratio is an unhealthy 90.4% and this constrains replenishment of rolling stock as well). the project won't be easy for the national transporter. “We have the technical know-how to upgrade the system and it can be done with advanced signaling. But we also have to realise that we don't even have sufficient funds to maintain the existing signaling system. The first priority has to be safety be it semi high speed or otherwise,” said VP Chandan, former additional member (telecommunications), Railway Board.
Railways, currently facing a severe shortage of funds, would have to spend more than Rs 600 crore to upgrade the Delhi-Chandigarh route. “There is fund crunch, but we are expecting that the new government would be more generous in giving the gross budgetary support and waiving the dividend, which will leave us with enough funds to undertake more such projects,” said an official.