Can we justify our high-speed train?

As protests against the Kerala government’s new semi-high speed rail project – the SilverLine – grow, attention is once again turning to other ambitious rail projects across the country.

Over the past ten years, the focus has been on ambitious initiatives such as high-speed trains. Continuing with these costly projects while regular rail infrastructure is collapsing and accidents are occurring raises questions about government priorities.

Does image building trump people’s needs?

At present, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High Speed ​​Rail (HSR) Corridor is being implemented with technical and financial assistance from Japan, while a Detailed Project Report (DPR) is being prepared. for six other HSR corridors. Although these projects are Center initiatives, the Kerala project is a State initiative.

Read also | Tharoor launches ‘Vande Bharat’ train in place of Silver Line in Kerala

“High-speed rail projects are all about prestige. India wants to compete with countries like China. The government also wants to introduce the novelty factor. Although it may work at first, it will not guarantee continued sales Train 18 system or Vande Bharat Express, this movement on improved conventional tracks is more appropriate,” says Chitresh Shrivastva, Rail Policy Analyst.

The estimated cost of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad project is Rs 1.1 lakh crore, for a 508 km route.

The project, which was due to be completed by 2022, has now been pushed back to 2026, mired in land acquisition delays in Maharashtra. Today, work is underway in Gujarat, where more than 97% of the land has already been acquired. But the delay could further increase the cost.

However, Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw is optimistic. “Work on the project is in full swing. Work on the pillars over a length of 13 km has already been completed. We have started to reach 5 km every month. Now we are aiming for 10 km every month,” he said.

Read also | 400 Vande Bharat trains to provide business opportunity and jobs at Rs 40,000 cr: Indian Railways officials

Vivek Sahai, former Chairman of the Board of Railways, points to the cost factor. “It has been proven that to recoup the initial investment requires 50 million passengers per year on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad route. I hope the government has taken that into consideration.

Another aspect is that seven high-speed rail projects have been approved without examining a prototype. The rush to implement multiple such projects is reckless, says Chitresh.

Already struggling with a debt burden and a poor operating ratio, the railways are under pressure to modernize their infrastructure. However, these efforts are more likely to be derailed by the prioritization of costly projects, which are undertaken without public consultation.

Last year, a parliamentary committee noted that in 2018-19, the railways built only 479 km (regular rail network) against its target of 1,000 km. The following year, the railroads did not speed up construction. Instead, he halved the goal to 500 km. The government blamed barriers to land acquisition, particularly the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013, for the delay.

The Standing Parliamentary Committee on Railways has been reporting these delays for years. In 2017, the committee flagged the 432 railway lines on hold and urged a realistic assessment of the projects, noting that 222 of them had a negative rate of return. Some of these projects have been pending for four decades.

The recommendations of the Kakodkar Committee (2012) to improve the safety conditions of Indian Railways have still not been implemented. Among other things, it recommended an advanced signaling system, the elimination of level crossings and a new statutory rail safety board – all at a cost of one lakh crore.

The severity of the recent Bikaner-Guwahati derailment could have been reduced if the train had installed Linke Hofmann Busch (LHB) coaches that prevent stacking, as recommended by the committee.

Pankaj Joshi of Urban Center Mumbai says: “While high-speed railways can provide needed access between cities that require substantial mobility such as between Mumbai and Pune or Chennai and Bangalore, the choice of locating stations between Ahmedabad and Mumbai is not natural. You don’t see the kind of mobility between the two cities.

There are other interventions that could improve the conditions of the railways. For a fraction of the cost of these high-speed trains, biodigesters could be installed on all trains in service to keep tracks and toilets more hygienic, he says.

SilverLine project

Meanwhile, the Kerala government’s semi-rapid train project – the SilverLine – aims to reduce the travel time between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasargod, a distance of 529 kilometers, to less than four hours. The journey currently takes over ten hours by road and rail.

But the project ran into several problems. On the one hand, the Center rejected SilverLine’s proposal, indicating incomplete documentation.

Residents across the state have been protesting the proposed land acquisition for more than a year, with social activists like Medha Patkar and Daya Bai lending their support to the movement.

Political parties like the Kerala Congress-led United Democratic Front and the BJP have also joined the protests.

There are also serious environmental concerns: the DPR says the SilverLine passes through environmentally sensitive areas like Vembanad Lake, India’s longest lake, while a five-kilometre tunnel is planned under the Kallayil River in Kozhikode.

The environmental impact assessment raises concerns about the provision of “adequate drainage in the slope portions to avoid waterlogging” as the embankment along the railway crosses the Watershed.

As with the Mumbai-Ahmedabad project, experts are skeptical of the ridership and cost projections made in the DPR.

Social activist R Sridhar, who has studied the project extensively, points out that the cost estimates for many components of the project were up to 75% lower in the RMR prepared in 2020 compared to the feasibility report prepared in 2019.

While the projection of the total cost of the DPR is Rs 63,491 crore, experts estimate that it would actually be more than Rs 1.25 lakh crore.

E Sreedharan, former managing director of the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation, expressed serious doubts about the cost projections. While the DPR sets the cost of the upper decks and underpasses at Rs 4,425 crore, Sreedharan says it would take at least Rs 16,000 crore to execute.

Daily ridership was also estimated at 79,934 – even higher than that of the Pune-Ahmedabad high-speed rail project.

Veteran social scientist VG Menon compared the situation to that of the Kochi Metro, which has yet to reach its projected ridership, nearly five years after its inauguration.

Some experts with whom DH spoke had noted the contradictions in the cost proposals with the higher authorities of the Parisian consultancy group SYSTRA which prepared the reports.

Another concern is more practical: where will the money come from?

The state is already mired in a financial crisis, with a public debt of around Rs 3.5 lakh crore, and literally struggling to pay even salaries and pensions.

Economist KP Kannan says that given the wave of natural calamities that have hit the state and the Covid pandemic, the government should prioritize restoring the environment and strengthening public health systems.

Issues such as last-mile connectivity and high tariffs could also keep the project out of reach for a large majority of the population. According to projections, traveling 100 km could cost almost Rs 400, making it one of the most expensive modes of transport in the state.

Is there an alternative?

Congress leader Shashi Tharoor has advocated the introduction of Vande Bharat trains in Kerala, while others have suggested bolstering existing road and rail networks or using water transport services.

Over the years, several ambitious projects like high-speed sea highway, seaplane service and airstrips in all districts have been proposed but failed to take off. Now it looks like the SilverLine is the latest to join the list.

The majority of rail passengers come from low or middle income groups. While providing affordable transportation, the government may also consider improving passenger facilities.

(With contributions from Mrityunjay Bose in Mumbai and Varsha Gowda in Bengaluru)

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