Vande Bharat Express: On a Wing and a Prayer

The Vande Bharat Express trains may appeal to India’s chattering class but they do nothing to make Indian railways better for those who need it the most

Prime Minister Narendra Modi flags off a Vande Bharat train at New Delhi Railway Station, 15 February 2019. Photo: Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi flags off a Vande Bharat train at New Delhi Railway Station, 15 February 2019. Photo: Getty Images
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Ram Shiromani Shukla

A recent report in The Economist reflects some of the excitement generated by the Vande Bharat Express in some quarters of India, no doubt fuelled by hi-octane publicity and generous advertising.

‘A sense of wonder filled the carriage as the Vande Bharat Express raced through the flatlands of Uttar Pradesh, bound from Varanasi to Delhi, at 130 kmph… a shade faster than the Northeast Regional (train) ferries passengers between New York and Washington [Fact check: the Acela tilting trains run at maximum speeds of 250 kmph on this route]. Vande Bharat Express covers its 759 km route 130 minutes faster than the next-quickest train service.’

Reducing train travel time between Varanasi and New Delhi by two hours is pretty impressive, but on routes served by the Shatabdi Express trains, the Vande Bharat trains do only marginally better—on average, 15-20 minutes less. All the ‘cutting-edge’ hype surrounding the Vande Bharat trains will have you think otherwise, of course.

These trains are actually running at maximum speeds of 110-130 kmph and average speeds of 60-75 kmph. Experts in the know say that the claimed max. speeds of 160 kmph are not even feasible—except in some short stretches between Palval and Agra and Aligarh and Kanpur.

World class technology, in the form of LHB coaches and ABB locos, capable of running between 160-200 kmph, had arrived in India by the year 2000, but by endlessly deferring track upgrades, Indian Railways has not been able to exploit their full potential. To run at the desired average speed of 130 kmph and maximum speed 160 kmph, tracks on all trunk routes have to be upgraded, signalling improved and automated and some of the curves re-engineered.

Alok Verma, a passionate railway enthusiast and retired engineer from the Indian Railway Service of Engineers (IRSE), tweeted: “Eventually these trains will be able to raise the average speed of the fastest passenger trains by about 15-20 per cent in the next five to ten years. For this, besides track and signal upgrades, a third line will have to be added on some congested [routes… till then the) Vande Bharat [trains] will at best reduce journey time by about 5-10 per cent due to their faster acceleration and deceleration.”

By most accounts some Rajdhani Express trains, launched in 1969, can run at a maximum speed of 140 kmph; Shatabdi Express, launched in 1988, at 150 kmph; the Garib Rath, introduced in 2006, at 130 kmph and Duronto trains, launched in 2009, at 140 kmph.

But while the Shatabdi trains cost an estimated Rs 55 crore, the Vande Bharat trains cost Rs 110 crore apiece. The fares for Vande Bharat are high, which puts them out of reach of the poor. Hence, the consternation caused by the buzz that Indian Railways is toying with the idea of replacing the old Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains with Vande Bharat.

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The Vande Bharat trains do have some fancy features that dazzle passengers able to afford it—automatic doors, onboard wi-fi, infotainment on tap, collision avoidance system, coaches with vacuum-assisted Indian-style bio-toilets (in addition to Western toilets) etc, but is the government putting the cart before the horse? Are the priorities misplaced? Rather than invest in track upgrades across the country to allow speedier passenger and freight trains for all sections of society, is the government prioritising semi-high-speed trains to pander to a creamy layer of Indian passengers?

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A total of 13,169 passenger trains do daily runs in the country. There are 7,315 railway stations that cater to 22.2 million passengers every day. Will 400 fully air-conditioned Vande Bharat trains, the target over the next five years, transform public transport in India? Should the goal have been different?

A section of experts believe that powerful foreign lobbies representing the interests of airplanes, automobiles and oil companies have been trying to cripple the railways in India by preventing it from raising speed and line capacity. These lobbies are accused of having persuaded the government in 2004-06 to build the Eastern and Western Dedicated Freight Corridors instead of a 200-250 kmph line which would have benefitted both passenger and freight transport (DFCs and 200-250 kmph lines cost the same).

The same lobbies, they say, were at work when they succeeded in persuading the government in 2017, to build the standalone Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train line on the Standard Gauge instead of the cheaper and better option of upgrading the lines and also building new lines to accommodate speeds of 200-250 kmph, which would have benefitted all trains.

These lobbies are now eyeing their next prize, tweeted Verma, namely to get the Government to decide to build new 200-250 kmph lines (The Silverline Project in Kerala, the Ahmedabad - Rajkot line in Gujarat also) ... as standalone corridors on the Standard Gauge. The other express trains running on the Broad Gauge network will not be able to run on these new lines and the Indian Railways network will be stuck with its slow trains, and the highspeed trains cannot cover parts of journeys on Broad Gauge to cover a larger hinterland.

If this trend continues, believes Verma, in 15-20 years the Indian Railways will be carrying mostly freight and slow passenger trains with general and sleeper class coaches and slow trains for the poor and the middle class.

“With booming travel by car and airplanes, India's carbon footprint will enlarge, precious land will be diverted for making 6-lane highways; airports and new railway stations; congestion and air pollution in the cities will spike…”

India could have reduced the travel time of all its trains by half and trebled the number of passengers and freight trains at an investment of around Rs five lakh crore over the last 20 years to upgrade the main lines and lay new double lines. The technology is already available and very little import would have been required.

Verma points out that passenger trains would then have run at speeds of 200-250 kmph on all our important routes. The number of freight trains would also have trebled and the speed would have gone up from the existing 25 kmph to 50. The journey from Mumbai to Ahmedabad, a distance of 493 km, would then have taken just 2 hours and 30 minutes, compared to 6 hours and 25 minutes by the fastest train at present; Delhi to Mumbai (1384 km) could be covered in just 7 hours, compared to 16 hours at present.

The Railway Board had in 2016-17 declared that it would double the speed of freight trains from 25 kmph to 50 kmph and increase the average speed of express trains by 50 per cent from 50 kmph to 75 kmph in just five years.

A performance audit report by the CAG points out, though, that the speed of passenger trains has remained stagnant and the speed of freight trains actually reduced from 25 kmph to 23.6 kmph in five years, between 2016-17 and 2021-22.

(With copious inputs from Alok Kumar Verma, who tweets @TrainsAreBest)

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