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Debate rages on high-speed train plans

india Updated: Jun 21, 2014 00:44 IST
Srinand Jha
Srinand Jha
Hindustan Times
railways minister DV Sadananda Gowda

Having got the fare and freight hike decision out of the way, railways minister DV Sadananda Gowda is working on implementing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of constructing a “diamond quadrilateral” of high-speed trains.

Financial sanction for constructing India’s first high-speed corridor from Mumbai to Pune at an estimated cost of Rs 70,000 crore is likely to be made in his maiden budget speech next month.

Also being discussed in official circles is the “standalone solution” of importing train-sets from the European or Japanese vendors on a lease basis. If this idea goes through, these will need to modified to run at slower speeds of 130 km per hour on Indian Broad Gauge (BG) tracks, as high speeds are run on the standard gauge internationally.

As elsewhere in the world, India’s high-speed plans have evoked sharply contrary views. “High- speeds will surely address a critical futuristic need and - given India’s huge volumes of passenger traffic — it might also be possible to keep the fares low. Countries much smaller than India including Taiwan, Turkey, South Korea have developed high-speeds. It is time that India to take the technological leap”, said an official.

The idea is being strongly opposed by sections who say that “splurging money” on acquiring “fancy toys” amounts to a criminal waste of resources for the cash-strapped Indian Railways. Even the United States is struggling with the California high speed project, while Thailand is reportedly backing out on such plans.

Running approximately 17,000 trains and transporting 2.3 crore passengers each day (the population of Australia and New Zealand put together); the Indian Railways is critically short on infrastructure needs. Approximately 3,000 trains have been introduced even as just around 9,000 km of new tracks have been added to the network since 1947.

Finances are crumbling, with approximately half of the 17 railway zones having reported an operating ratio (paisa spent against every rupee earned) of more than 100% at the recently concluded annual meeting of the general managers — meaning that the railways are spending either equal or more than the money earned.

The railways has also failed to effectively address passenger safety issues, with approximately 3,000 passengers having been killed in rail-related accidents in the last ten years.

“Investing in infrastructure creation and addressing bread and butter issues of providing for a safe and affordable travel is the crying need”, an official said.

About 50% of the freight and passenger traffic is carried on 16% of its network, called the Grand Trunk routes.