As Saturday marks the start of a second phase of trials for the fast and light-weight Spanish Talgo coaches along the 88-kilometre Mathura-Palwal route upcountry, there is a question gaining steam: is India’s quest to speed up its trains heading in the right direction?
To its credit, the nine-coach train that consumes 30% less energy demonstrated the capability to run at a top speed of 115 km per hour in the first phase of Indian trials conducted on the Bareli-Moradabad route. That stint along the 97-km stretch in Uttar Pradesh went on for a month from May 29.
The real test, though, comes in the remaining two phases of trials. One, when these coaches are put to experiment at speeds of 180 kmph on the Mathura-Palwal route between Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, and the other at 150 kmph on the southwesterly Delhi-Mumbai stretch spanning 1,384 km.
The trials are being conducted free of cost by the 1942-incorporated Spanish company headquartered in Madrid.
Speed has not quite been a thrill with the Indian Railways. Passenger trains hover at an average pace of around 55 km per hour. The country’s fastest by far has been the recently-launched Gatimaan express on the Delhi-Agra route, clocking a top speed of 160 kmph, courtesy the advanced German-design LHB coaches manufactured at production units of the Indian Railways.
Even so, track congestion is a problem. Networks are clogged, with mainline routes being over-utilised. On a majority of these routes, one train follows another after a gap of approximately five minutes. Aggravating the problem, Indian rail tracks are mixed as both goods and passenger trains run on the same line.
Talgo claims speeds can be ramped up on existing Indian tracks without track and signalling upgrades. The coaches have an unconventional design with natural tilting technology, allowing high speeds even while negotiating turns. These coaches have wheels mounted in pairs, but not joined to the axle.
The bogeys are shared among a set of coaches rather than being underneath an individual coach. This allows the rail car to move on curves at higher speeds. The European company has also offered to set up a manufacturing unit in India, if selected. The attraction in the idea notwithstanding, traffic congestion will remain a problem at least for a few more years, according to experts.
The chief commissioner of Rail Safety stipulates that trains running over 160 kmph must have tracks that are barricaded, while their engines must also be fitted with ‘cab signalling’ in driver cabins that alerts loco pilots about the signals passing by at high speeds.
With the Gatimaan track still not having been fully barricaded, it seems unlikely the Indian Railways will be able to spare funds to provide for barricading on mainline routes. Trains running at high speeds (around 200 kmph) are also required to be installed with the train protection warning system – a cost-intensive plan that has proceeded at a slow pace over the past years.
The silver lining is that the Indian Railways is at least thinking about speeding up. Semi-high speeds are being planned on eight routes. A mobility (speed) directorate was lately created at the Railway Board. The Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed (350 kmph) has been sanctioned, while feasibility studies are being conducted on several other high-speed routes.