INDIA's high-speed plans are firming up. Last year, Indian Railways (IR) took the first tangible steps along the path to high-speed by announcing plans to acquire a batch of six high-speed trains from a Japanese or European supplier - global tenders for the contract are likely to be invited soon.
This was followed in October by the finalisation of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Spain's national train operator Renfe and its infrastructure manager Adif for the development of high-speed trains, followed last month by a similar MoU with China. Pre-feasibility studies for one high-speed stretch have been completed and survey work on three other corridors is nearing completion.
In addition to this flurry of activity during the last few months, an Indo-Japan working group has been formed to develop high-speed trains and a similar pact is proposed with France, the High Speed Rail Corporation (HSRC) has been set up to implement schemes, and IR has sought cabinet approval to constitute a High Speed Rail Authority (HSRA) to provide the administrative, legal and procedural framework.
On the face of it, India appears willing to bite the high-speed bullet and is exploring various options. One is true high-speed running at 300-325km/h on standard-gauge track rather than broad gauge, which is the norm in India.
Another possibility is semi-high-speed operating at 160-200km/h. IR has drawn up a draft plan for operating semi-high-speed services along parts of the so-called Golden Rail Corridor linking some of India's main cities. A number of companies, including Japanese and French, have offered to provide the technology. "Pre-feasibility studies for the semi-high-speed will begin in early 2013," a senior IR official confirmed.
A third option would involve increasing the speed of conventional mail and express trains on existing broad-gauge tracks. A Japanese consortium is sponsoring a study into the technical modifications required to signalling systems and structures such as bridges to enable faster trains to run on the Delhi - Mumbai main line.
Constructing high-speed lines could be a way to relieve congestion on the conventional network which is becoming increasingly clogged. Only around 11,000km of new lines were built during the last 65 years, while 3000 new trains have been added to the timetable in the past three decades.
To make matters worse, the number of passengers is expected to increase from 8.9 billion in 2012-13 to 11.7 billion by 2016-17. The annual growth in passenger-km is expected to be around 10.8%, rising from 1195 billion in 2012-13 to 1760.4 billion by 2016-17.
Huge as India's transport sector is, it has been unable to keep pace with rising demand. Based on estimates of aircraft seating capacity in 2009, a study conducted by the German DLR Institute of Vehicle Concepts indicates the potential for 35 high-speed lines in India, ranging from the proposed 289km Chennai - Bangalore line to the 778km Delhi - Ahmedabad route.
Indian roads today carry 90% of the country's passenger traffic and about two-thirds of its freight, but they are responsible for approximately 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. "The time has come to invest in high-speed rail which, being energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly, is the inevitable transport alternative of the future," one official said.
Despite the flurry of activity and the clear need to expand the rail network, this could be as far as it goes for the moment. IR's finances are decidedly shaky, with the operating ratio hovering at a high of around 95% during the past few years. Due to the lack of money, the number of projects put on the pending list has grown, and the current backlog of schemes is estimated at a whopping Rs 1470bn ($US 27.7bn). There is also a huge need to expand the rolling stock and motive power fleets during the next five years, with numbers estimated at 33,066 coaches, 105,659 wagons, and 4010 locomotives.
Building the 650km Pune - Mumbai - Ahmedabad high-speed corridor, which has been identified as the first project, is estimated to cost Rs 700bn. This is three times the size of the annual budget of several Indian states, and for that money, India could meet its entire passenger coach needs for the next five years.
IR operates 19,000 trains, moving 2.65 million tonnes of freight and carrying 23 million passengers each day, so it is not surprising that some people believe it would be more prudent for IR to focus on its bread-and-butter job of providing safe, affordable and efficient travel. "Why go after fancy toys?" one official remarked.
There is also strong resistance to change within the monolithic and monopolistic railway establishment. IR has taken two steps forward and four back regarding plans to open up the sector to private investment, largely on account of what is described as the compulsions of coalition politics. Initiatives aimed at reform and modernisation have largely been stymied. Last year, railways minister Mr Dinesh Trivedi lost his job for daring to recommend in his budget speech a passenger fare increase to help fund investment.
While money might be tight and many favour investment in the conventional network, a political head of steam is building up in favour of high-speed ahead of the 2014 general election. The ruling UPA government seems determined to push ahead with the big-ticket high-speed project now that Mr Pawan Kumar Bansal of the Congress party, the leading party in the UPA coalition, has assumed charge of the railway portfolio.
India's 12th plan projections (2012-13 to 2016-17) encapsulate the goal of executing work on at least two high-speed rail corridors. "Tenders for the Pune - Mumbai - Ahmedabad corridor are being prepared," revealed a senior official dealing with the high-speed project. "The railways minister is likely to make an announcement regarding this in his budget speech in February."