High Speed – Soon Can Become a Reality in India by Pankaj Agrawal

High Speed – Soon Can Become a Reality in India by Pankaj Agrawal :He has over three decades experience in infrastructure, industry and international consultancy with main focus on railways and is presently working as Executive Director, RITES, India

Talgo trains, the name has caught the imagination of Indian people. The recent news of Talgo trains trials being conducted, have raised the expectations of Indian public to the prospects of high speed travel becoming a reality soon.

Indian Railway (IR) has so far been working with schlieren bogie design, also called ICF design, which was developed by Integral Coach Factory, Perambur, Chennai, in collaboration with the Swiss Car & Elevator Manufacturing Co., Schlieren, Switzerland in the 1950s. Many improvements were made to this technology through indigenous efforts. Next major technology induction took place in the 90s in the form of passenger coach technology from LHB, Germany and bogie of FIAT designed for 160 kmph with speed potential upto 200 kmph with an objective to realise lower coach weight and less maintenance. The roll out of this technology and replacement of ICF coaches is underway, but, this is already 20 years old now.

We have been hearing of high speed trains in India for several decades, but, on ICF coaching stock IR have been able to achieve maximum 130 kmph on mostly rajdhani routes and 140 kmph on small stretches. LHB coaches are plying at a maximum speed of 160 kmph on small sections. Overall the increase in maximum and average speeds achieved on IR has been incremental in the last over five to six decades.

In recent times, IR has embarked upon two pronged strategy under the high speed (HS) initiative. High speed @ 300 – 350 kmph on select intercity routes, with new track alignments; and upgradation of existing corridors to 160 – 200 kmph, as semi high speed which will also be facilitated by easing of existing routes, by shifting of freight traffic to dedicated freight corridors presently under construction.
IR have identified six HS corridors for which prefeasibility studies have been planned. One such corridor is Mumbai – Ahmedabad for which tie up has been made with Japan for funding as well as technology transfer with commissioning planned by 2023. The main challenges with HS development is high cost, low ridership, ticket pricing and most importantly the financial viability. As things stand now, HS corridors can come up with external technology and funding only.

Talgo trains fall under the second initiative of IR ie semi high speed. Talgo is a Spanish passenger coach manufacturer credited with technology developments in passenger travel with speeds upto 350 kmph. Talgo and IR seem to have agreed to conduct trial of Talgo trains in India with both parties bearing respective costs and no commitment by either side. Talgo trains have independent, guided wheels (less track forces), articulated bogies leading to fewer wheels, shorter and lighter coaches, low floor, better accessibility, and tilting technology.

IR tracks carry mixed traffic ie passenger as well as freight traffic and cater to speeds ranging from 60 kmph to 140 kmph. On straight track, the trains can achieve maximum speeds. But, on curvatures, speed potential is restricted due to the dynamics of curves. On curvatures outer rail is to be raised (known as cant) as compared to the inner rail to counter the effect of centrifugal force for maintaining safety and passenger comfort. But, track being a fixed structure, can be laid with a fixed cant only which may be ideal for a particular speed. At higher speed, the cant may not be adequate, leading to a situation called as cant deficiency, Higher speeds lead to higher cant deficiency, higher track forces and higher passenger discomfort. IR have permitted cant deficiency not exceeding 100 mm.

Talgo train tilting mechanism enables the coach body to tilt inward on curvatures, while the wheels negotiate the curve. This inward tilting counters the centrifugal force, reduces the track forces and improves the passenger comfort, even at higher cant deficiency. Tilting feature, thus negates the adverse effect of higher cant deficiency on the passenger comfort and enables higher speeds on the curvatures. On IR, Rajdhanis, the fastest long distance trains, operating at maximum speed of 130 kmph, realise average speeds of 70 to 80 kmph only. This is due to the need for reduction of speeds on curvatures. With tilting feature, higher speeds can be achieved on curvatures, thereby, realizing higher average speeds. This creates opportunities to convert Delhi Mumbai and Delhi Kolkata rajdhani trains which currently take about 16-17 hours, into overnight trains.

Talgo train trials are being conducted by RDSO for speeds upto 180 kmph under load, permitting higher cant deficiency, thereby achieving higher speeds on curvatures and higher overall average speeds.
If we look at the options before IR for upgrading existing routes to 160 kmph or higher, the LHB coaches are suitable, but, the track will need significant investments for upgrading. But, talgo technology by virtue of their unique tilting features can ply on IR network at 160 kmph with higher speeds on curvatures. The question is whether the story ends with the trials or can it be made a reality on IR. Some business models have been discussed below to explore the possibility of making it a reality. It should be noted that Talgo have not made these coaches specially for IR; they have taken a 32 year old Talgo rake designed for 220 kmph on rent from Spanish train operator Renfe, for conducting trials. This rake is operating on different gauge in Spain and therefore will need modification with respect to width of coach, gap with platform, floor level etc. Hence, for IR, new coaches will need to be designed, built, tested and revalidated. Before we discuss the business models, it is important to appreciate that IR being a part of Government of India, has to follow public procurement policy.

The conventional model is purchase of the coaches and technology by the IR. This is a long drawn process which involves drawing broad specifications and floating tenders for procurement. The process would also involve technology transfer, testing and approvals. This process may take several years, earlier example being LHB technology. Other model, a variant of conventional model, can be to make a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) procure and ply the train on IR. Here also the procurement process would be time consuming. Additionally, there would be issues like farebox revenue, maintenance arrangements for the train, service agreement with IR regarding use of passenger stations, priority of trains, operational arrangements etc. IR can levy some track access charge and hauling charges for operating the train on its system. This is a better option as the SPV can handle the procurement in a more focused manner. There can be arms length arrangement under which IR can demand certain performance standards from the SPV.

Other models can be under Public Private Partnership (PPP) format in which the private party owns the train and plies the train on IR under an agreement with IR. There can be a number of models under this format:

One model is Build Own and Operate (BOO) wherein the broad specifications are developed and an operator is engaged through competitive bidding process, bidding criteria being revenue share or payment of premium. The operator will have obligations to have the trials conducted, comply with technical requirements and have maintenance arrangements. Operator will also have service agreement with IR on similar lines as mentioned under SPV approach regarding farebox revenues, operational arrangements with IR. The limitation of this process is that it can be time consuming and that only one party/ technology can be finally chosen. This model can have a variant in the form of operator not operating the rake, but, leasing it to IR as dry lease or wet lease. But, since this product is not readily available in the market, leasing the coaches to IR will involve designing, manufacturing, testing and approval and will have to be long term lease.

The BOO model can also be license based. IR can, under its FDI policy, permit any operator to ply its trains on IR subject to their complying with technical requirements, operational requirements, maintenance arrangements, and payment of certain track access and haulage charges. This policy can be published and anybody complying with the provisions of the policy would be permitted to ply their trains.

This can be on the lines of “container train operator” licenses given by IR. This arrangement can lead to proliferation of technologies plying on IR, bringing in more competition and hence, better services with lower costs to the user, as has been Indian experience of opening up of airline sector. In this arrangement, the operator may be allowed the freedom to fix tariff which goes hand in hand with the traffic risk he would carry. Other option can be, the regulator fixing the tariff, based on certain laid down parameters including return on investment for the operator.

The other option under PPP format can be on the lines of Procurement Cum Maintenance Agreement (PCMA) with technology providers, under execution, for Madhepura (electric locomotive) and Marhowra (diesel locomotive) factories for procurement of new technology locomotives for IR. This model provides for leasing land to the developer to build factory with certain purchase commitments by IR, with maintenance obligation on the developer for a certain period, after which technical know how and maintenance infrastructure get transferred to IR. The private developer is allowed freedom to use spare capacity of the factory. In this arrangement, the factory is owned and run by the SPV, but, the rolling stock will be purchased and owned by IR. This model is, in reality, a mix of PPP and conventional model and incorporates the good features of both.

While the trials are underway, action should be taken to quickly evaluate multiple business models for expeditious implementation of semi high speed operation with a clear time frame in focus, else, huge efforts and the initiative taken by IR and Talgo may go waste.


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