Sunday, January 27, 2013

Railways' policy uncertainties slow down bullet train project; many challenges ahead

How Railways' policy uncertainties slowed down bullet train project

After policy flip-flops over decades, here is a concrete sign of India getting its first bullet train. The Indian Railways quietly formed a company called HSRC Ltd in July last to run its dream project, high-speed rail.

And if the buzz in Rail Bhawan is anything to go by, minister Pawan Kumar Bansal has more to announce on the subject when he reads his first Rail Budget next month. Even before Indian policymakers made any formal announcement on this big-ticket project, Japan's ambassador to India Takeshi Yagi recently said in Gujarat that India's first high-speed rail would run between Ahmedabad and Mumbai.

This means a lot for business travellers shuttling between two financial hubs in western India, as rail travel would then be reduced to two hours from the existing eight. For India Inc, there is something more to cheer about. With Rail Bhawan desperately seeking Rs 20,000-crore support from potential private investors, it could well be a public private partnership project.

But that's where the challenges begin. Finding resources from private parties amid the current market mood is an uphill task. And in the run-up to the general elections, the government of the day can't be seen to have snatched social sector funds to achieve financial closure of a mammoth project that could cost over Rs 50,000 crore.

ET Magazine tracks the Indian rail's policy uncertainties, and how late-entrant China is emerging the new poster boy of global high-speed rail.

On a slow policy track

On March 10, 2006, Lalu Prasad's deputy and MoS for Railways R Velu informed Rajya Sabha that there was "no plan" for running high-speed trains in India. He proudly announced that Indian Railways had already "introduced a passenger train running at a speed of 150 km per hour" on the Delhi-Agra section.


The government quickly changed its mind. Lalu Prasad's budget speech in 2007-08 surprised many when he announced that the Ministry of Railways would conduct pre-feasibility studies for high-speed trains that would run at 300-350 km per hour. Railways approached 12 state governments asking them to participate in pre-feasibility studies. Nine gave "in-principle" nod. These were: Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Haryana, Punjab, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.


Railways' Vision 2020 document, presented to Parliament in 2009 gave a thumbs-up to high-speed dream machines but widened the speed range to 250-350 km per hour. In other words, Indian high-speed trains would be relatively slow at 250 km per hour.

Shinkansen Vs Rajdhani
How Indian Railways had a good start but preferred to remained slow over years:

1964 - Japan hogged the limelight by introducing the first bullet train in the world. The speed at 240 km per hour is not extra-ordinary by today's standard.

1969 - India too caught up with the trend and introduced fast rail travel experience by deploying the nation's first Rajdhani Express. The speed at 130 km per hour was commendable in those days.


The world moved on, and Indian Railways remained a slow moving transport system. Only in 2005-06, Shatabdi Express, the fastest of Indian trains experienced a maximum speed of 150 km per hour in Delhi-Agra segment. But, the speed was later reduced to about 130 km per hour because of what railways called "technical reasons".


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