Why do we continue to ignore local, cost-effective solutions for Bullet trains?
In my previous note on bullet trains or high-speed rail (HSR)
, I explained how the economic rationale for HSR was weak at the present time. So what can railways do in the meantime? Is it possible to improve a network that is congested with creaking old infrastructure not designed for high speed? There are a number of low cost initiatives so far neglected that the railways can concentrate on. Here I present one such initiative.
There was wide coverage in the 2015 rail budget of the planned introduction of trainsets. Trainsets are effectively powered coaches that operate together as a unit not much different from local trains in Mumbai. These "trainsets" were meant to decrease journey times on trunk routes.
Why would trainsets decrease journey times? While not technically accurate, it is mostly because they have more power. More than helping achieve top speed, this extra power is most useful during acceleration. Currently a 1400t train powered by an electric WAP5 locomotive needs to travel 15kms just to accelerate to 130kmph from rest and to make matters worse the rate of acceleration decreases as speed increases. On the 1450kms Delhi-Kolkata route, there are more than 200 places where for a multitude of reasons (curves, points, track maintenance, and traffic) the trains need to reduce speed. This is once every 7kms on average. Given such short distances and the inability of trains to quickly accelerate, trains are rarely able to maintain their top speeds and spend a majority of time at lower speeds. How would the Mumbai locals perform if they could not accelerate quickly?
It was found that even without increasing top speeds, additional acceleration would result in journey time savings on such routes of two hours. The solution was made more appealing because no major track infrastructure upgrade would be required. However, the international companies bidding for trainsets felt that the 15 trainsets required initially was too small a number to be made in India and the project stalled.
If all that is required is more power, why not do the same differently. Instead of a 21 coach 10-12,000hp trainset, why not get 2 electric locos (WAP5 loco can deliver 6000hp peak power) in multiple unit(MU) configuration pulling a train with 21 coaches. Roughly the same results would be achieved but the cost will be Rs85 crore (2 locos+ 21 LHB coach train) against Rs180 crore (estimated) for a 21 coach trainset. And unlike the trainsets, which will take 4-5 years to begin manufacturing in India, the multiple loco trains could be running in months. That is "Achhe din" in a hurry!
By presenting similar analysis, the author had repeatedly written to the rail ministry advocating multiple unit (MU) configuration and is happy that the railways have finally started a Delhi - Mumbai Rajdhani special using dual locos in a MU configuration. The journey time has been reduced from 16 hours to 14 hours approximately.
Some corners have been cut. The route is Hazarat Nizamuddin - Bandra Terminus rather than New Delhi - Mumbai Central to remove the relatively slow end sections. The train has been shortened by a couple of coaches (shorter train means more acceleration) in order to meet 14 hour journey time target. However, even a normal length train should be good for time savings of one and a half hours. Unfortunately, the train schedule is strange.
The traditionally slowest section on the route, Kota - Vadodara is scheduled to be covered fastest - in just four hours at an average speed of more than 130kmph! Needless to say, trains get an hour late on this section every day and can only partially make up time in the Vadodara - Mumbai section. The New Delhi - Kota section on the other hand is too conservative. There has been an occasion where the train has arrived in Kota 23 minutes early and spent this time waiting in Kota to conform to the schedule while finally reaching Mumbai 23 minutes late!
This start should not fizzle out. If handled properly, this could be the beginning of a major speed up for Indian rail. At an additional cost of just Rs13 crore (cost of a single additional loco), the journey time has been reduced by nearly two hours! Adding more power this way on a train, will increase average speeds by 10 to 20%. Slower sections and routes will see larger benefits - exactly where railways need most improvement.
An additional 125-150 locos bought at a cost of less than Rs2,000 crore will reduce journey times on all Rajdhanis, Shatabdis, Durontos and other premium trains across the country.
Calculations show that by increasing average fares on long distance trains by Rs150 (Rajdhani and others) and short distance trains by Rs75 (like Shatabdi), the return on investment will be of the order of 17% even after accounting for the marginal rise in energy costs. Given these are premium, fully air conditioned trains with fares to match, this increase of fare is nominal.
The premium trains get priority over other trains even today, so making them more fast will not lead to any major scheduling conflicts. And with both the Western and Eastern Dedicated Freight Corridors (DFC) getting ready in the next two-three years, there will be even more opportunities to optimise speeds on these busy routes at least.
One overlooked fact is that this could have been done at any time - from yesterday to even decades back. While some testing, trials and certification may have been needed, fundamentally there were no technological constraints.
The railways seem to be spellbound by bullet trains, trainsets, Talgo and all the "foreign" stuff not realising the potential of its own home grown solutions. They have found Rs22,000 crore (Indian component of Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR) to spend on a single route over the next five years but projects requiring much smaller amounts with nationwide impact do not get as much attention. Overcrowding in general compartment, increased safety, significantly higher average speeds and a raft of other improvements are all achievable at low costs but are waiting for the right sponsor.
Technology has its role and the railways should continue further studies on all modern technologies with a view to incorporate them in Indian Railways. Talgo coaches are not only lighter but also have a unique tilting mechanism that allow negotiation of curves at higher speeds. If they are cost effective to manufacture, the railways should look at bringing the technology to India. High-speed rail developments need to be monitored closely with a view to implementing them when passenger numbers and economics permit. But the railways should not just look outside India for world class technology. They would do well to take a leaf out of ISRO - India's nodal space organisation. In a very high tech industry, by judiciously mixing both domestic and foreign technology, ISRO is getting world class results at Indian prices. That model is what Indian Rail needs to aim for.
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(Nemi Jain studied Engineering at IIT Bombay. He has spent a major part of his career working in banks)