JUDGING by the current political atmosphere and the pronouncements of politicians, India's plan to link Mumbai with Ahmedabad by a 505km high-speed corridor seems to be heading in the right direction. Yet this is in contrast with the reality of the situation where the pace of the project remains slow.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica), which is currently summing up its final feasibility report of the project, has estimated a cost of Rs 988.05bn ($US 15.62bn) inclusive of price escalation and interest during construction, and a seven-year construction phase from 2017 to 2023 for what will be India's first high-speed project. A corresponding Japanese loan, with the precondition that 30% of equipment is purchased from Japanese firms, is available with an interest rate as low as 0.1%. But the Indian government remains tentative and undecided on whether to push ahead.

India HSThis intransigence probably stems from the continuing dilemma within the Indian establishment concerning the project's scope and technicalities. For one, a huge battle continues to rage over gauge selection. One viewpoint refers to Russia's plan to build its first high-speed line with broad-gauge tracks and arguing that India should follow suit and build its high-speed line at 1600mm-gauge to ensure interoperability with the rest of the network. In contrast there is an argument to follow the example of Spain, where 300km/h lines use 1435mm-gauge tracks, necessitating gauge-changing equipment to access the broad-gauge network. For its part, Jica has recommended building a standard-gauge network.

Jica foresees that the line will require construction of 318km of embankments, 162km of viaduct, and 11 tunnels with a total length of 27.01km, including a 2.16km tunnel underneath Thane Creek to link Mumbai with Navi Mumbai.

If Jica's recommendations are accepted, the line, which aims to reduce the journey time between the two cities from the current seven-and-a-half hours to just two, will have 12 stations in all, with a maximum two-minute dwell time in Mumbai, Surat, and Vadodara.

The design and bidding process, according to Jica's study, will be completed by 2017, while equipment procurement will be finalised between 2018 and 2023. If work starts this year, it expects that testing and commercial operations can begin by 2024.

The project's capital cost is estimated at Rs 700.13bn, with a price escalation of Rs 172.21bn during construction, while the interest component has been assessed at Rs 115.71bn.

Developing high-speed lines has been high on prime minister Mr Narendra Modi's agenda since he assumed office in May 2014. But the project is yet to advance due to the political sensitivities surrounding it and the current condition of India's railway network.

Indian Railways (IR) currently operates 12,617 passenger and 7421 freight trains every day on a 65,436km network. The average speed of Mail and Express trains is just 54km/h, while freight trains only average 25.9km/h. In the 67 years since independence, India has added around 10,000km of additional lines to its network, while approximately 50% of passenger traffic is concentrated along a 16% section of the network in Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai. Passenger traffic is expected to grow from 8.9 billion in 2012-13 to 11.7 billion in 2016-17 and IR has a long list of pending projects including 154 new line projects, 42 gauge-conversion and 166 track-doubling schemes. However, the railway lacks the funds required to realise these projects and the benefits they will bring to their customers.

Given these challenges, some have argued that it might be more prudent for India to focus on ramping up the speed of existing trains rather than taking to the fanciful idea of running a high-speed network. However, the enthusiasm for high speed is equally strong. "India cannot remain blind to the technological advancements made across the world," one IR official said. "It is high time that the country took to the high-speed route."

Minister for railways Mr Suresh Prabhu seems to waver between the conflicting points of view on the issue. "Tackling issues of the mainline network is important," he says. "However, it is equally important for IR to take to the high speed route to meet its future needs. The Mumbai - Ahmedabad project will gather pace following the submission of Jica's final report in July."

Golden quadrilateral

While India is wavering politically on the issue, Jica's verdict on the project is eagerly awaited, not least by international companies which are looking at India's three other proposed high-speed projects that will eventually make up the "Golden Quadilateral": Delhi - Ahmedabad, Mumbai - Chennai and Delhi - Kolkata lines.

Four Chinese and two Spanish firms along with DB International and Systra have already expressed their interest in participating in the projects, while bids have already been received for planning of the Delhi - Ahmedabad, Mumbai - Chennai and Delhi - Kolkata lines.

Italy's Italferr, TUC of Belgium and the Signon Schweiz, Switzerland, are among the other global companies that participated in the bidding process along with three Chinese firms: China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group, the Third Railway Survey and Design Institute and the Siyuan Survey and Design Group. Other participating groups include Aecom Australia, Ineco, Spain and Geodata Engineering, Italy.

IR says the bids have been opened and are currently undergoing evaluation with selection made on a quality-and-cost basis.

In addition preliminary surveys on two lines will be conducted free-of-charge. China Railway Siyuan Survey and Design Group is studying the Delhi - Chennai route, while the Spanish infrastructure manager Adif will conduct a survey on the Mumbai - Kolkata corridor. Both surveys are the results of agreements signed by the respective countries with India and are likely to begin in August.

Plans for high-speed railway lines are at the core Modi's national agenda, and there is only one way for the NDA government to move in the coming months - forward. But will the government move at the speed that is being anticipated? The answer to his question is hotly anticipated, and should become clear by the end of this year.