Author : Chitresh Shrivastva, Author has published many papers on Railways

February 15, marked a gigantic technology leap never witnessed before in Indian Railways with the first self-propelled Inter City Express or Train 18 more popularly referred to as Vande Bharat Express commencing regular operations between New Delhi and Varanasi. India has attracted the attention of other nations through indigenous low-cost technology. Mostly, the Southeast Asian and Latin American countries promoting India as an emerging leader in Semi – High Speed Rail Network.

The routes that have been proposed under the ambitious plan of the Ministry in pursuit of high – speed travel, are an optimistic indication of the smaller cities standing an equal chance of getting connected through semi – high speed intercity services such as Gatiman and Train 18. The semi-high-speed concept is not just India’s motivated leap towards joining other nations in the High – Speed Rail Club, but also imbibes a potential alternative mode of travel between cities at a time when the aviation struck by safety and monetary crisis is witnessing a chaotic scene along with UDAN scheme taking a back seat.

The current plan to introduce Train 18 connecting the coastal city of Mangalore to major metropolitan cities which are also part of the golden quadrilateral and the diagonals namely Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Chennai are the next such project facilitating faster connectivity after the predecessor of high – speed railway route Konkan Railway in 1998.

Electrification lacking

Train 18 Advantages

This train 18 provides impetus to short distance travel between cities such as Bangalore and Chennai, Pune and Mumbai, Delhi and Chandigarh. It also boosts tourism in prospective towns such as Agra, Jaipur, Patna and Lucknow to mention a few in the near future.

Setbacks of Train 18:

From the initial proposals and projections, Train 18 can be looked upon as the gateway to seamless connectivity to smaller cities on a point to point basis ensuring an inclusive development of railway network. Yet every achievement is also saddled with concerns and speculations in the short and long run and Train 18 is no exception.

Karnataka in the current scenario fares poorly in the domain of electrification with just 19% of the route being electrified, while its neighbouring state Andhra Pradesh is far ahead in electrification with 2839 kilometres out of 3703 kilometres of the track being electrified which accounts for approximately 76% of the route electrification.

Have the newly proposed routes been sufficiently assessed in terms of its impact on the environment? Secondly how green is the initiative? Meaning - what will be the source of electricity generation given tidal energy as the only source of generation? Which is a costly affair and a point of concern in the case of Mangalore. It being a coastal city, the hilly terrain of the route and the ghat section along the Western Ghats would require pre-requisite infrastructure enrichment to ensure a uniform operation speed of the train.

The project also lags behind given the incomplete implementation of Uniguage Policy and the requirement of track fencing along sensitive areas through which the train is to pass inclusive of manned and unmanned level crossings is a long way to go. This was one of the major setbacks in the inaugural Train 18 run between New Delhi and Varanasi, which has indulged in numerous mishaps to which buffaloes being mowed down by the train have been the prime mishaps, seriously denting the train’s safety record and much of which has been caused by incomplete fencing of tracks along high-speed sectors.

What can be done?

There is an essential need to promote construction of segregated corridors on potential routes to facilitate greater speed and help India achieve the standards of high – speed, given that the train owing to the geographical alignments and track restrictions has an operating speed similar to that of Gatiman Express leaving no point of distinction between the two semi – high speed services.

The infrastructure deficit can result in the decline of train’s punctuality, much of which have been highlighted in the inaugural run of Train 18 and require a serious amendment to the very approach towards Vande Bharat Express fleet by striking proportionate balance amongst the train services across economic strata and streamlining the traffic management through appropriate assessment.

The economics, lastly in the case of Vande Bharat is complicated given a thin line of difference between the fares of Train 18 and airlines operating between the cities in the proposed segment, while the anticipated travel time is endowed with humungous variation given the Maximum Operating Speed of the train and the flight.

A flight journey between New Delhi and Varanasi would take an hour and 35 minutes, compared to Vande Bharat Express (Train 18) which will cover the same distance in 8 hours.

We therefore need to relook into the economics of fares and the speed that would determine the future of Train 18 and its domestic popularity rather than laying emphasis only on its success abroad.

Therefore, meticulous planning and groundwork of the infrastructural elements, a uniform gauge and elimination of level crossings  will help gain railways further reduce travel time and promote inter-regional connectivity through semi High-Speed Intercity Services in the long run.