Development of long-distance train travel in India, on Indian Railways (IR) or otherwise, must be planned in a coordinated manner.
However, despite the talk of synergy in national planning, the Ministries of Railways and Urban Planning, two of the ministries directly connected with train travel, to say nothing of the ministries of Road transport and Civil Aviation, are working in silos.
Over the next decade, long-distance train travel will fall in three segments: High-Speed Rail (HSR) and the futuristic Hyperloop; semi-high speed rail and the existing express trains.
HSRs offer the possibility of city-to-city travel within 500-km. New townships developed at a distance of 100 to 150 km from a large city — a travel time of 35 to 45 mins — will help decongest our cities.
While the first HSR takes shape on borrowed technology, Indian engineers should be enabled to design, manufacture and construct a system on their own, by the time the second line is completed. Sadly, this approach is missing.
While many other DPRs for similar railway lines are being prepared, India must take up only one and consider moving forward with the others after a thorough evaluation.
Already, with its extra budgetary borrowings, the Indian Railways has largely had to fend for itself. Yet, trains like the Vande Bharat have proved to be remunerative so far. Similar trains could propel the IR towards self-sustenance.
Semi-high speed trains in the speed range of 160 to 200 kmph work best in distances of 500 km and above, where they can actually compete with air travel.
This is where India’s technological capability, like that of Vande Bharat/Train 18, must be exploited. While the ministry of Railways appears to be promoting Vande Bharat as a symbol of aspirational India, the ministry of Urban development prohibits its manufacturer (Integral Coach Factory- ICF) from competing.
Eligibility to bid for Rapid Railway Transit (RRT) projects requires experience of making 100 train set cars of 160 kmph, with 50 cars in satisfactory revenue operation for three years, whereas ICF has made only 32 so far — never mind that these coaches are in successful operation for nearly three years.
It is a travesty of the spirit of Atmanirbhar Bharat that we ignore our own factory and support multinational companies, with no innovation in India which we can be proud of.
All the proposed inter-city train set-based services, whether for IR or proposed RRT systems, should complement each other’s effort.
The infrastructure on IR for select tracks should be quickly upgraded to 160 kmph fitness. Our ICF engineers can design and develop a Vande Bharat version with aluminium body, improved bogie and, for increasing the average speed, tilting, to run these trains on the upgraded track not merely at 160 kmph, but higher speeds up to 200 kmph.
Another area where these trains can succeed are fast overnight services.
Other slower mail and express services should continue with incremental improvements as is the scenario for decades. They will not lose relevance any time soon as India remains a large country with a very diverse social sector to cater to.
(The author is a former General Manager, Indian Railways, and an independent consultant)
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