MUMBAI Central Railway’s (CR) first Train 18 will ply between Mumbai and Shirdi, cutting travel time down by six hours. The semi high-speed train, which is also known as Vande Bharat Express, is expected to cover the 291-kilometre distance in three hours. Currently, the journey takes an average of nine hours by train. Shirdi is a major pilgrimage site in Maharashtra and popular with domestic tourists.“Mumbai-Shirdi route for Train18 operation on Central Railway was decided after consultation with the Railway board officials. The final route decision will be taken soon,” said a senior CR official. Train 18 will resemble Shatabdi trains and the routes under consideration are via Pune/Daund or via Manmad railway stations. The zonal railway will also finalise where Train 18’s maintenance will be carried out in the coming days. Earlier this month, during a meeting of senior CR officials, it was proposed that the semi high-speed train would leave Mumbai early in the morning, reach Shirdi in three hours and then do a return journey from Shirdi on the same day. At present, outstation trains operating on this route take upto nine hours to reach Shirdi and are overnight journeys.“Presently, the rail route does not have much passenger traffic. One major reason is due to the time taken to reach by train. With Train 18, the travel period will be shorter,” said a CR official.The ministry of Railways had held a meeting in May of all zonal railways in New Delhi to decide the routes on which Train 18 could operate. Western Railway is planning to introduce the train on the Mumbai-New Delhi route.Passenger associations have welcomed the move. “Pilgrims who travel to Shirdi by road reach in three hours. It takes six hours to complete the Shirdi visit and then return,” said Lata Argade, vice president, Mumbai Rail Pravasi Sangh. “If Train18 reaches in four hours and passengers can [also] return to the city, people will prefer to travel by rail.” At present, Train 18 operates between New Delhi and Varanasi, completing the journey of 752 km in eight hours. It has a top speed of 180 kmph, but operates on a maximum speed of 160 kmph. A new batch of these trains is under production at Integrated Rail Factory, Chennai.