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Last Updated : Oct 29, 2018 07:59 PM IST | Source:

Podcast | Digging Deeper - Is India ready for a bullet train? A closer look at the ambitious project

Indian Railways has an impressive story of inception and we hope, its growth will keep up with the future demands.

Moneycontrol News @moneycontrolcom

Indian railways. The eternal life line of Indians with lesser privilege. The purveyor of pain and hope during Partition and the muse of Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan. The setting for a dramatic episode in Paul Scott's Jewel In The Crown. The instrument that helped Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to reacquaint himself with the heart and soul of India on his return from South Africa. The setting for romantic songs in many films of director Nasir Hussain and most memorably Shakti Samanta's Aradhana.

And in the current scenario, an unkempt giant that has not fully woken up to its own potential.

This is Rakesh and in today's Money Control podcast, we dive deep into the question, "How do you solve a puzzle like the Indian Railways?"

We say , ''Puzzle" because beyond the aspirations of  a 2022  Fully Operational Bullet Train, lie realities like the Amritsar train tragedy on Dussehra this year, routine train accidents, inadequate and ill-maintained infrastructure that results in the crashing of overbridges  and causes tragedies like the collapse of Elphinstone railway station's foot over bridge and the ensuing stampede  in Mumbai last year.

The line between development and inclusion is also a fine one. At the time we were putting together this podcast, The Indian Express reported that two farmers from Palghar have moved the Bombay High Court contesting the Maharashtra government’s power to acquire land for the construction of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train corridor and challenged the constitutionality of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Maharashtra Amendment) Act, 2018.

In a country like India where land rights have been a contentious issue for a while, a straight forward development model cannot be pushed through without delving into the human cost incurred.

Farmers vs land acquisition

As  Indian Express has reported, farmers Sadanand Ravte (46) and Nathu Pathare (37),  have stated in their petition, filed through senior counsel Mihir Desai and lawyer Mihir Joshi, that they moved the High Court after they learnt that their land is proposed to be acquired by the state government for the bullet train project. The negotiations for acquisition of their land are currently under way.

We quote, "Ravte and Pathare have not only challenged the constitutionality of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (Maharashtra Amendment) Act, 2018 but also the exercise of powers by the Maharashtra government under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 in connection with the proposed acquisition.

They have contended that since the Rs 1.08 lakh crore high-speed rail project stretches over two states, under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 — a central legislation — the “appropriate government” to undertake the land acquisition would be the Centre and not the Maharashtra government."

The petition, according to The Indian Express,  says that the amendment as well as the actions of the state in seeking to undertake acquisition of the petitioners’ land for the project are “violative of the petitioner’s rights” and “contrary to the scheme, intent as well as purpose of the Central Act”.

Ravte owns 1 hectare of land and Pathare owns 0.81 hectare of land at Khaniwade village in Palghar.

They cultivate rice on their plots and their earnings from the produce are their sole source of income, the petition says.In a hurry to move ahead with its plans, the state government has already designated the bullet train project as being one which is in public interest. The Indian Express cites the petition again, “It is already exercising powers of the ‘appropriate government’ under the Central Act albeit without jurisdiction and in that vein is likely to exempt the acquisitions under the bullet train project from the beneficial provisions under the Central Act, depriving the petitioners of any effective compensation and other mandatory benefits."

The key word here is sustainable development

The petition says, " Section 10A inserted by the Maharashtra amendment allows exclusion of projects inter alia from being subjected to “social impact assessment”, which is contrary to the principle of sustainable development, which is an international obligation of the Union of India, and cannot be negated by way of an amendment of the present nature."
The petitioners, says The Indian Express are also seeking direction that pending the hearing and final disposal of the petition, the Respondents shall not take any coercive steps for acquisition of land for implementation of the project.
Sashi Sonawane, Palghar-based activist, is quoted by The Indian Express and says in a poignant statemen, “This land is livelihood for Ravte and Pathare. Monetary compensation will definitely not suffice… if they are unable to earn by other jobs, they can at least eat this rice to survive…”
Much to consider on the path to progress

So while our global aspirations must consider our local constraints, the much touted bullet train project seems to have hit more snags with   only a 48-km track slated to be operational by August 15, 2022 .

Multiple news sources have also reported that Indian Railways is unlikely to launch the bullet train project along the entire 508-km-long line by 2022  and The Wire reported that the national transporter has now acknowledged implementation delays on the ground and is working instead towards making sure that the section between Surat and Bilmora will be operational by 2022.

As is obvious by now, a serious conflict of interest has erupted around the issue of land acquisition with firm opposition being offered by from farmers in various states.

Godrej and Boyce Manufacturing Company Limited had also contested the acquisition of its prime 39,547 sq m property in Vikhroli for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train project in May.

Environmental concerns

The reason we are starting the Bullet Train Project, as a case study about Indian Railways is because the gap between ideation and implementation needs to highlighted.

In August this year, serious environmental concerns were also raised over the bullet train project as about 80,000 trees in reserved forests and mangroves would be cut down to make way for the high-speed corridor.

Civil society groups termed this as a “clear climate-negative action” on the part of the government, and as the Wire reported, questioned its economic viability as well in the view of  interest rate for the heavy loan repayment of the project.

Organisations like the Bhumi Adhikar Andolon, Gujarat Khedut Samaj, Kashtakari Sangathana, Maharashtra Rajya Kisan Sabha, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti   have persistently protested the  Bullet Train Project in different parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra and elsewhere on the grounds of feasibility, project cost, implementation plan, financing options and most importantly, economic and environmental common sense.

Questions have been raised about the construction of supporting pillars that are likely to puncture some of the aquifers, leading to the loss and contamination of groundwater. Add to that, as The Wire reported, lost biodiversity, pollution and climate-threatening Cabon-di-Oxide emissions as a result of energy-intensive construction practices.  The bullet train in the end won't be expensive just in terms of the massive loan incurred.

As the Wire also reported, "On the loan front, it said though Japan is lending Rs 88,000 crore at an interest rate of 0.1 percent and the payback period is 50 years with a moratorium of 15 years, the major concern is not about the interest but the relative strength of currencies – the Japanese yen and Indian rupee. As a much higher inflation economy than Japan, the Indian rupee is continuously becoming cheaper against the Japanese yen.

It is possible that in the 50-year loan repayment period, the Rs 88,000 crore loan would become three times more than the original loan amount, thereby putting a huge burden on the Indian economy."

So who does the Indian Railways serve, really?  

The most important question that needs to be asked is if this template of development is planning to serve the current base of budget conscious consumers who obviously cannot afford air travel or is it hoping to lure the rich away from air travel to train travel?

Who will travel in the bullet train if it becomes functional? A IIM-Ahmedabad study has said  that 100 daily trips at full occupancy would be required at a fare of Rs 5,000 between Ahmedabad and Mumbai to make the bullet train financially viable and it will adversely affect, reported The Wire, agriculture, horticulture and forest cover.

Reports have  quoted senior railway ministry officials who say that   land acquisition will take place with consent only but the question that should have been answered right at the onset was, just who does Indian Railways in general and this project in particular serve?

And if the investment of time, effort and resourced could not have been better utilised in improving the current infrastructure.

Miles to go before Indian Railways serve its most loyal passengers well

As Moneycontrol reported in 2017, India's railways sector has often been in the news and usually for the wrong reasons. Be it trains derailing or cases of food poisoning in the newly-launched Tejas Express,  the one to suffer is the passenger without an option to switch to other modes of transport.

The nation's railroad infrastructure, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Competitiveness Index, holds the 28th rank out of 101 countries.

India, said Moneycontrol, being a country which is highly dependent on the railways, is nowhere close to the top countries with the best railway infrastructure. The WEF Global Competitiveness Index is a comparison of more than 100 countries. The countries are scored out of 10. If a country has a score above 6, then the country is said to be developed.

We quote, "China ranks 12th in the rail infra ranking with a score of 5.3 out of 10. And on the other hand, India's lifeline sector scores 4.4 out of 10, indicating that there is a lot of bucking up to do."

Among the liabilities in the sector, said the report, are poor food quality, superfast trains frequently delayed, and the absence of an organised disaster management team.

A new perspective?

After a Cabinet Reshuffle, former Power Minister Piyush Goyal took charge of the Railway Ministry and proposed many reforms for the sector like electric locomotive trains instead of diesel and a monthly expense of Rs 1,000 crore  to renew  tracks in order to avoid derailments.

Goyal has been pushing to build electric locomotives for railways as well and claims that over Rs 16,000 crore of expenditure can be saved. Goyal said that the sector has tied up with Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) for funding.

Talks have been on also with General Electric  to set up of a diesel locomotives factory in Bihar and an electric locomotives factory.

These plans though need to be reviewed in the context of  adequate electricity supply because in that area as WEF or The World Economic Forum reports, India holds only the 80th position out of 137 countries.

Are we making proper blue prints?

As we have discussed so far, every grand scheme needs to take into consideration ground realities and be clearly cognizant of geographical, social, environmental, economic and practical frameworks.

But as we have been seeing, there has been a lot of talk about the big picture of an overhaul and very little attention paid to a detailed blueprint of how these plans will be taken from vision to implementation.

For now,  Indian Railways is busy announcing exciting plans that include using aircraft-like pressurised coaches in its trains for the Bilaspur-Manali-Leh line along the India-China border. This is the world's highest rail track and the new coaches will ensure that the passengers do not have breathing difficulties on board. reported, "At a height of 5,360 metres above the sea level, the 465-km strategically significant line to be built at a cost of Rs 83,360 crore, will see railways' first pressurised coaches which are currently used only in the Quinghay-Tibet Railway Line in China."

The line, says the report, once completed, will connect important locations between Bilaspur and Leh like Sundernagar, Mandi, Manali, Keylo and other important, Koksar, Darcha, Upshi and Karuant towns of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir en route. The project will include 74 tunnels, 124 major bridges and 396 minor bridges, according to the first phase of the survey.

The Final location survey for the project is currently underway.
India Today also has also reported that State-owned Chittaranjan Locomotive Works (CLW) has given the Indian Railways its fastest ever engine. We quite, "The modified WAP 5, which is yet to have a name is expected to travel at 200 kmph. It also comes with improved aerodynamics and has an ergonomic design, that takes care of driver comfort and safety.

The first engine of the series has been sent to Ghaziabad, its probable future base. It is expected to be used to haul trains like Rajdhani Express, Gatiman Express and Shatabdi Express. It would slash the travel and turnaround time for these trains.

Railways have been looking to increase the average speed of its trains. The new engine made by Chittaranjan Locomotive Works is a step in that direction besides the proposed bullet train and new T-18 train."

According to the report, the engine has CCTV cameras and cockpit voice recorders which will record communication between the members of the driving team. The recordings will remain saved for 90 days and can be analysed in case of emergencies and accidents which will help provide clear picture of what happened.

This engine would consume less electricity than its predecessor, thanks to a next-generation regenerative braking system.

We quote, "The new engine has been manufactured at a cost of around Rs 13 crore. However, the new design will help trains attain higher speeds. The focus on electric engines will help reduce the use of diesel and hence lessen the carbon footprint, besides slashing the huge fuel import bill. Recently, the cabinet has cleared an ambitious project for 100 percent electrification of the broad gauge of Indian Railways network."

The latest milestone

Indian Railways today, as on on October 29,  rolled out its much-awaited semi high-speed, Rs 100 crore, engineless Train-18 that  has been conceived, designed and developed in a record time of about 18 months.

The 16 coach semi-high speed Trainset consists of 16 coaches and is designed for Maximum Operating speed of 160 kmph.

Train-18: Ride is slated to retire the time-worn Shatabdi and will  run at 160 km/hr. Made by the Integral Coach Factory (ICF), Chennai , it is a triumph of a legacy that is as old as its latest achievement is new.

The Integral Coach Factory is one of the earliest production units of independent India. It was inaugurated by the first Prime Minister of India Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru on 2nd October, 1955. Later the Furnishing Division was inaugurated on 2nd October, 1962 and the production of fully furnished coaches steadily increased over the years. Spread over nearly 473 acres, it has about 11,095 workers toiling in harsh conditions to make more than 2,000 coaches every year.

Train-18's features include two Driving Trailer Coaches with Aerodynamic Driver’s Cab (Nose Cone) on both the ends which will enable quicker turn-around time at destinations. Every alternative coach is motorized, to ensure even distribution of Motive Power and Faster acceleration/deceleration, reported

We quote, "The train boasts better and modern passenger amenities such as onboard Wi-Fi infotainment, GPS Based Passenger Information System, plush interiors, diffused LED lighting, charging points beneath every seat, individual touch-based reading lights, auto sensor taps in the toilets, modern pantry and food service facilities, rotating seats to match with the direction of the train in Executive Class, Automatic Sliding Doors inside the coaches, modular luggage rack with the glass bottom and concealed roller blinds among others.

The train has been designed keeping in mind the difficulties disabled people face. The train has people with disabilities (PWD) -friendly features like PWD friendly toilets and space for wheelchairs in the coaches. The PWD passengers can even enter the driving trailer coach using the wheelchairs. The train has been fitted with an intelligent air-conditioning system that will adjust the cooling according to the climate conditions/occupancy.

The train has a seating capacity of over 1,100 people."

The train will also have enhanced safety features including precise brake control and Automated doors Control. The Automated Plug Doors Provided on the coaches will open only when the train reaches 0 km/hr speed and the train will start only after closing of all the doors.
According to Zee report, the time and energy efficient all Air-Conditioned chair-car formation is expected to replace the existing Shatabdi Express rakes for inter-city travel and considerably reduce the travelling time due to its better acceleration/ deceleration."

The train is likely to first replace Delhi-Bhopal Shatabdi Express after completing the trial successfully.

One step forward , a few backward

As the Financial Express has reported,  the Union budget of 2017 sanctioned around Rs 17,000 crore for two corridors of the quadrilateral — Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Howrah  but the actual work will only start after the dedicated freight corridors (DFCs) will become operational, expected by March, 2020.

We quote, "The other four arms of the quadrilateral are Delhi-Chennai, Chennai-Howrah, Chennai-Mumbai and Howrah-Mumbai.

More than two-thirds of the highly congested 10,000-km Golden Quadrilateral network is utilised to beyond its capacity. While this network accounts for only 20 percent of the tracks across the country, 55 percent of the traffic moves on this network alone.

The official said the shutdowns required to carry out work cannot be provided till DFCs are operational."
Niggling issues

As the big strides begin to take hold of our collective imagination,  Indian Railways has had to deal with basic problems like  losses of Rs 4,000 crore over the last three fiscal years owing to thefts.

As Business Today reported, "On one hand Indian Railways has been revamping its trains and refurbishing its stations. And on the other, inventory worth Rs 62 lakh were stolen from Indian long-distance trains just between April and September 2018. While the amount may not appear significant for operations as vast as Indian Railways, the tally of items is. Between April to September 2018 only, 79,350 hand towels, 27,545 bed sheets, 21,050 pillow covers, 2,150 pillows and 2,065 blankets were stolen amounting to Rs 62 lakh, as mentioned by Sunil Udasi, CPRO Central Railway.

The source said that trains are now equipped with facilities such as sensor-driven taps and CCTV cameras but they don't even last the maiden trip. After that the Indian Railways replaces them with cheaper options."

Change can be co created

It is important that development plans include those most affected by them but it is crucial too that the consumers for whose benefit, infrastructural changes are made, co-create the bigger change and acquire a sense of civic responsibility.

Nobody comes up looking good when uncomplimentary reports  emerge as when we learnt that post the country's first high-speed semi-luxurious train, Tejas Express' maiden run,  passengers had taken away headphones, damaged LCD screens, soiled the toilets and littered the entire train.  We learnt that most of the train's Jaquar fittings were stolen and had to be replaced with cheaper ones.

Dailies also report how the Mumbai-Manmad Panchavati Express that was upgraded with better facilities and fittings at the cost of Rs 38 crore was left vandalised, leaving behind a repair bill of Rs 9 lakh. Tray tables and upholstery were damaged, armrests were dislodged, curtains torn, and taps, trash cans, mirrors and faucets stolen.

Change hence is a two way process and both the vendor and the consumer must do their bit to maintain what has been created.
The finger-pointing that went on  after the Amritsar train tragedy that claimed 61 lives on the Dussehra day, also does nobody any favours.

Neither does the official data from the Indian Railways that states that nearly 50,000 people have lost their lives between 2015 and 2017 on railway tracks after being hit by trains.

NDTV reported, "Deaths on railway tracks occur due to trespassing, violating safety and cautionary instructions, avoiding over-bridges, using mobile phones and other electronic gadgets when crossing railway tracks.

Officials said the railways has taken corrective measures such as regular announcements through passenger address system at stations, urging passengers to use foot-over bridges (FOBs), awareness drives against trespassing were conducted, construction of boundary walls, warning signs were erected to prevent accidental deaths on railway tracks. Unauthorised trespassing on railway premises, including on tracks, is a punishable offence under Section 147 of the Railways Act, 1989."

But as the Amritsar tragedy showed, when railway systems and citizen responsibility fail to do their bit collectively, lives are lost.

Indian Railways has an impressive story of inception and we hope, its growth will keep up with the demands of the future.


First Published on Oct 29, 2018 07:59 pm
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