High-speed trains of reasonable quality and comfort can be a middle-class dream and delight. Especially, in a country like India, where a burgeoning middle class is sick of travelling in smelly trains with dirty washrooms containing soiled toilet seats and often dried-up taps. No wonder, the news of Indian Railways launching the state-of-art Vande Bharat trains came as pleasant music to their ears.
On January 29, 2019, an already-running, Train 18, assembled at Chennai Integral Coach Factory (ICF), was renamed Vande Bharat Express. It was declared that in the trial runs, the Vande Bharat trains recorded a speed of 180 km speed per hour. However, as the Indian tracks are not designed for such high speeds, the authorities first capped the speed at 130 km per hour. Still, the Railway Safety Commission was dragging its feet in approving the train at that speed, and finally it was decided to run the Vande Bharat trains at an average speed of 80–90 km per hour.
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In the next four years, only six more Vande Bharat trains were launched.
But in 2023, all of a sudden, starting from January 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already flagged off as many trains till April 12. But why this penchant for personally inaugurating every train? This is because, in the heat of electoral politics, every development project turns into a ‘political bargain’. Vote considerations inevitably outweigh the developmental and even safety concerns.
Hype and reality
Even at first sight, one is struck by the mismatch between the hype and reality associated with these trains.
What strikes us first is the mockery of running these much-hyped “high-speed” trains at the low speeds of ordinary express trains. This is because the railway infrastructure on the ground is still not developed enough to run high-speed trains.
Elangovan Ramalingam, formerly a key leader of the Dakshin Railways Employees Union and currently president of the Indian Railways Pensioners’ Association, told The Federal: “First and foremost, the existing tracks are not suited for high-speed trains at the originally claimed speed of around 160–180 km an hour. Given the existing track conditions, no train in India can be run at speeds above 80–85 km per hour.”
This is the reason why Rajdhani trains — which the authorities originally claimed would have a speed of 120 km per hour — are also run at reduced speeds of 80–85 km per hour. Shatabdi expresses were also supposed to run at 100–110 km but they are also running at an average speed of 80–85 km per hour.
While normal express trains, at one-third or half the fare, run at an average speed of 40–50 km per hour, some inter-city chair cars and some trains like Coromandel Express gain speed up to 60–70 km, at least for brief stretches. What then is the big deal in paying double the cost to travel by these fancy “high-speed” trains?”
A track maintenance engineer in one of the railway zones in north India told The Federal on condition of anonymity: “If trains like Vande Bharat are to be run at the originally intended speed of 160–180 km per hour, mere upgradation of existing tracks would not suffice. These Vande Bharat and other similar high-speed trains would require two-way dedicated tracks on which other normal express trains and goods trains should not be run.”
But, in India, at present, all trains run on the same track. And separate two-way up and down tracks exist only in some short stretches. Indian Railways has taken up a project for doubling of the tracks on all major arterial routes, but the doubling work proceeds at snail’s pace.
For instance, the Demands for Grants to the Railway Ministry in the Union Budget for 2023–24 reveal that the allocation for doubling of tracks has been slashed in 2023–24 to Rs.30,749 crore (Budget Estimates) from Rs.42,492 crore (Revised Estimates) in 2022–23. As per the rail budget documents, as part of doubling of tracks, 2,800 km of new tracks would be laid in 2023–24 as against 4,500 km in 2022–23.
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But this is hardly sufficient for the safe operation of Vande Bharat trains as this would not amount to even half of the distance covered by the existing 14 Vande Bharat trains! At this rate, Indian Railways would require whopping lakhs of crores of rupees for doubling of tracks on all the routes of all the proposed 400 Vande Bharat trains.
The required investment would be more than double this figure if they were to be dedicated tracks for Vande Bharats and other high-speed trains only where normal express trains and goods trains would not be allowed to run.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has allocated Rs 1 lakh crore more for the rail budget this year. But his money is supposed to meet the cost of renovation of thousands of stations, conversion of the remaining narrow gauge into broad gauge, acquisition of new rolling stock and laying of new tracks to areas with no connectivity and all such other commitments besides investment for Vande Bharat trains.
The rail budget does not give separate consolidated figures for the total investment in the Vande Bharat project, hence any assertion on the economic viability of the entire project might be speculative. From the angle of passengers’ pockets, these trains are already proving to be unviable.
Moreover, merely upgrading the existing tracks and running Vande Bharat trains on these tracks would hold up other normal trains to make way for Vande Bharats. This would inconvenience the passengers of all other trains. In fact, there were protests on the Bangalore-Mysore route recently when normal passenger and express trains were first held up for half an hour due to a Shatabdi train and for another was held an hour by the newly-run Vande Bharat train.
The contract terms with private parties who would operate these trains specify that no trains would be run one hour before and one hour after these trains are run. One can well imagine the disruption they might cause for passengers of other trains.
Also read: Rajasthan: PM Modi flags off Ajmer-Delhi Vande Bharat Express
Any high-speed train would require erecting of walls or other foolproof fencing on both sides of the tracks in view of the cattle menace. This has been so far amply highlighted by the Vande Bharat experiment. On September 30, 2022, Prime Minister Modi flagged off a Vande Bharat train from Gandhinagar to Mumbai Central. Before a week could pass, on October 7, it ran into a herd of four buffaloes and suffered damage. Two other similar incidents followed on other routes subsequently.
Cow hits can well cause derailment as well. This underlines the need for erecting walls to prevent cattle from straying onto the tracks. The additional cost, of course, would be prohibitive and would make the Vande Bharat project an even costlier proposition.
Though Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw initially claimed that Vande Bharat trains would be manufactured entirely indigenously, the Ukraine war brought to light that import of wheels from Ukraine for Vande Bharat trains got disrupted and after trying some other East European alternatives, the Indian Railways finally settled for import of wheels from Russia despite having a state-of-the-art Wheel and Axle Plant in Yelahanka, Bengaluru.
On October 8, 2022, after the Delhi-Varanasi Vande Bharat train’s wheels got jammed, passengers had to be shifted to other trains.
Likewise, there cannot be numerous level-crossings on the tracks of high-speed trains. They will have to be replaced by overbridges or underbridges. Also, the Kavach collision-proof security system is a must for all high-speed Vande Bharat trains. However, in the 2023–24 rail budget, for railway safety works, including Kavach and for under/over-bridges, only a measly amount of Rs.7,400 crore has been allocated.
Kavach work has progressed up to 1,455 km in South-Central Railways and that explains why more Vande Bharat trains have been launched there. Kavach work is still under way on Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Howrah routes. This means Vande Bharat trains there are already running without Kavach.
Also read: PM flags off Secunderabad-Tirupati, Chennai-Coimbatore Vande Bharat trains
Glitches in economics
There are also several policy puzzles associated with the economics of the Vande Bharat project. Vande Bharat trains are an Indian Railways project. Indian Railways would invest money to manufacture the trains. But these trains would be operated not by the Indian Railways but by contracting private companies. Then again, Indian Railways would not manufacture these trains, rather they would be manufactured by the contracting private companies. There is a twist in the tale here.
The private companies would not have their own manufacturing facilities; rather, they would be handed over to the plants of Indian Railways factories like the Integral Coach Factory (ICF) and the private parties would manufacture the trains there. On what terms these Railways facilities would be handed over to the private companies and how they would carry on production of normal trains as well as let private companies manufacture these Vande Bharat trains in the same plants side by side is a mystery which Ashwini Vaishnaw has not bothered to enlighten the nation so far.
Ashwini Vaishnaw has declared some even more ambitious additional projects. One is to run the Vande Bharat 2.0 trains on liquid hydrogen fuel. Though in the rail budget 2023–24, only Rs 10 lakh has been allocated for a study of the feasibility of these liquid hydrogen trains, the Rail Minister has declared that some Vande Bharat trains would run on hydrogen fuel from this December. Some railway employees point out that the trial run of these trains alone would take a couple of years. 2024 partly explains this unseemly rush.
The picture is clear. The Railways currently is not ready with its existing infrastructure for running 400 Vande Bharat trains. But the government is arm-twisting the Railway bureaucracy to fast-forward the project. Bangalore – Mysore travel by Shatabdi Express costs Rs.380 whereas the cost by Vande Bharat is Rs.515 but the latter reduces the travel time only by around 20–30 minutes.
The cost of passenger tickets in Vande Bharat trains is quite high, almost approaching air fares in budget airlines. For instance, a ticket for the Delhi-Varanasi Vande Bharat train costs Rs.3,310 in the executive class while in the ordinary chair car it costs Rs.1,760. In contrast, a flight ticket by Indigo Airlines costs Rs.4,087; if the ticket is booked several days in advance, many travel agencies offer a cash-back ranging between Rs.600–800. The costs are thus comparable but by air the travel time can be cut to about one-fourth.
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Are such high fares sustainable in the longer run and on all the 400 proposed routes? Initially, there might be a rush of passengers who want to take a peep at the new facilities available in the ‘dream train’. But there is no guarantee that the high number of passengers would come forward to travel by Vande Bharat trains on a regular basis, especially by paying almost double the cost compared to normal express trains, to travel at the same speed and to travel at almost 80–90 per cent of the cost of budget airlines at more than triple the travel time.
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The government obviously has not learnt any lesson from the debacle of the Tejas experience. The private operators abandoned the project because of low occupancy once the novelty value evaporated.
The privately-operated Bharat Gaurav trains on religious and tourist circuits were launched in August 2022. As the private operators wanted to abandon running of the rains due to low occupancy and profitability, within six months the ticket rates were slashed by 20–30 per cent hoping to attract more passengers. But the private operators are complaining even more at a further decrease in revenue. It is only a matter of time before these trains too run aground.
Can all the 400 routes become equally profitable and economically sustainable? Has the Railways Rates Tribunal come up with any study? It seems, keeping elections in mind, only a few token services would be launched to generate high expectations. The run-up to the 2024 general elections would answer many of these questions. The government can take this gamble in the case of any other industry but not with Railways where the safety of passengers is of foremost concern.