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The Great Indian High Speed Rail Dream – Part 4

For all its size, scale and levels of operations, and its excellent IT initiatives, it has to be said that the Indian Railways network is hardly a beacon of technological wonder when it comes to its core operations, barely holding itself together by the hopes, wishes and prayers of a billion people and tireless, on-their-toes railway officials. So, as we roll along dreaming about high speed rail in India, it is only imperative that sometime or other we invariably hit on the most pertinent question on everyone s mind: What about our existing railway network? How can we have a state-of-the-art Bullet Train system and a crumbling conventional train network of outdated ramshackle trains in the same country at the same time? Shouldn t we improve speed/cleanliness/security/facilities/capacity/ punctuality/ first? In short, shouldn t we improve our existing Indian railways system first before trying to run Bullet trains?

The Existing Network Question

Of course we need to improve our existing railway network. But like I said in the last post[1], on the shouldn t we first develop Indian economically first? question, waiting for our existing network to become better before we start running high speed trains is fallacious. As explained here[2], most people have this pre-conceived notion that change, or progress , that is, the incremental development or betterment of any system has to proceed in a linear this-first-and-then-the-other or solve this problem/develop this first and then move on to the next manner. A legacy and hangover of our centrally planned socialist days, this worked fine in the yesteryears of history already left behind in the gutters of time, but not today, where the pace and growth of technology fueled by innovation renders today s systems obsolete tomorrow. The only way to stay ahead is to think in advance, far in advance. We simply cannot wait for our existing systems to become flawless before moving on to incremental technology. In this chapter we will see why we should opt for high speed railways while modernizing our existing railway network at the same time.

The Great Indian High Speed Rail Dream – Part 4

The mentality of opposition often stems from ignorance, which goes for this particular case also. Looking at the way people rant against HSR it would seem that we are going to run the Asansol Jhajha passenger[3] at 320 kph. High speed trains are not just fancy-looking vehicles running at high speeds but an entirely new and foreign (or better, alien) super high-technological ecosystem, as or more advanced than airplanes and airports, operating as a system completely separate from our present railways. We are NOT going to run our existing trains at 320 kph on our existing tracks. Repeat, HSR will be developed as NEW system from scratch with new tracks, routes and trains of radically different design (Click here[4] to see some of those designs). We Indians are unable to grasp this because we have never seen or experienced such tech. This is also why we try to draw parallels between our present railway systems and Bullet trains which have as much in common as an Amazon delivery drone has to an Apache M-64[5] helicopter gunship, all explained in excruciating detail in this chapter[6], for those who have missed it. And our HSR will be imported, installed and managed (at first) not by us but by those who are already running them successfully in developed countries. Why do you think the Japanese, Chinese, French and Spaniards are conducting surveys in India for high speed rail?

Shouldn t we Increase Speeds of our Existing Trains First?

Ah, speed. That favorite pet-peeve of every Indian when it comes to Indian Railways (after the toilets). Our trains seemingly are just not fast enough. There are some problems with this most commonly repeated war cry of make our trains run faster rather than buying/building bullet trains! Most people think our trains can do supersonic speeds just like a car can be speeded up by pressing the accelerator. However, it is not that simple. So how fast should our trains be? There seems to be a consensus that ideally a train journey from Delhi to Kolkata or Mumbai should be completed overnight, in 7 or 8 hours. The distance in both cases is around 1400 km. For a train to cover 1400 km in 8 hours, its average speed has be 1400/8 = 175 km/h, instead of the 84 km/h average, 17 hour journey of the Rajdhani[7] right now. To set a benchmark for the rest of this post, let us say that ideally average speeds of our trains should be this 180 kph. Now comes the problem. For a train to do an average speeds of 180 kph, its top speeds will have to be around 250 kph, the speed at which a train will have to run to complete a NDLS-BCT/HWH overnight journey with at least 3 stops. Cool! Increase the speed of the Rajdhani to 250 kph! Unfortunately, this is not possible. With our present trains, no matter what how much we strengthen our tracks and automate our signalling, the maximum speed they will ever do is 160 kph. Any train running above 200 kph is classified as a High Speed Train (Bullet Train) and requires special tracks, trains and signaling systems to run. Take a look at this chart.

The Great Indian High Speed Rail Dream – Part 4

The most commonly seen ICF-coached trains, also lovingly called the blue dabbas, whose 1960-design limit their speed to 110 kph will come under the green bar. Under the yellow come the fastest Rajdhanis, Shatabdis and Durontos whose LHB AC coaches can do max 160 kph[8] if hauled by a WAP5 or WAP7, and are already hitting 150. Orange shows the maximum limits conventional tracks and signaling systems can support (not just in India but anywhere). We can achieve these speeds of 190/110 kph by acquiring modern trainsets[9] (procuring process has already started[10]) capable of these speeds. Any speed above this (200+/120+ kph top/average) cannot be done on conventional tracks and will require new, dedicated Bullet Train-ish tracks and signalling systems to run (red).

But why do speeds above 200 kph need dedicated tracks? And why can t our trains run at speeds more than 160/190 kph? Because Physics, technology and safety. Read more about this here[11].

Fine. But why not then upgrade our network to the maximum permissible speed on conventional tracks (orange-180 kph)? Wouldn t that be easier?

It will make no difference because of two things: track selection and track congestion.

How much of our network should be upgrade to support this max 180+ kph? All 65000 km of it? Half of it? Indian Railways classify tracks on the basis of maximum speed they (might) support (in the future). Under this, Delhi-Howrah/Mumbai/Chennai and Mumbai-Howrah are classified as Category A[12] (160 kph) which come to around 14000 km in track length some and 30 other lines[13] of more tens of thousands of kilometers are classified as Category B.[14] These are the busiest and more important lines and should be the ones that need to be upgraded to 180 kph. For this, new trainsets have to be procured, entire sections of track and points and crossings have to be relaid, numerous bridges, culverts, OHE and stations have to be rebuilt and so on, which in the end it might cost us almost or even more than what would ve costed us to build dedicated real high-speed lines. And also, trains that run on both high-speed and non-high speed lines will get only part advantage of this. But that is not even the real problem.

Here is the Bhopal Shatabdi blasting past at a solid 150 kph (check the comments[15] :))

As explained in this chapter[16], only increasing top speeds of our trains will not magically cut down travel times. Our trains are not slow because of their lack of top speed but because they simply do not have enough tracks to run on. Even if we strengthen our tracks to support 180 or by some magic even 200 kph everywhere, it will not do much good because trains will still be stuck behind one another just like they are now. Though top speeds of trains are dependent on the track, signaling and equipment (locos, coaches, bogies etc), the time our trains take to cover their total distance (and hence their average speeds) are determined by their schedules (timetables), prepared taking into account the type of track, geography, number of stops, type of stations it stops at etc and how the train should run in relation to other trains on the tracks. A WAP5 locomotive and an LHB rake alone does not guarantee continuous 160 kph runs, even if the tracks support it, because too much train and too less track. Now there some more things to be considered here. The maximum top (average) speeds our present trains will ever, ever do is 160 kph (90 kph) for the (red) LHB ones and maybe 130 (70 kph) for the blue dabbas. Ever. There is no way upside of that. The second and more shocking news is that with top speeds of 100-150 kph and average speeds of 40 to 90 kph (depending on the type of service, number of stops, track, terrain, traffic etc.), our trains are already nearing those top speed limits! So, it is impossible for our trains to do a NDLS-HWH overnight journey at 250 kph, for which entirely new train systems need to be built. And those trains will be High Speed Rail or Bullet Trains , called so as per international definitions.

A little side note: Trains running at 160 kph+ cannot have open doors and windows (Physics), so anyone hoping for our normal trains to run at top speeds exceeding 130+ kph (30 kph buffer for safety reasons) can throw those to the wind blowing through those little cubbyhole windows. Only fully AC trains will ever do 160+ kph speeds.


Run all AC trains at 160 kph and non-AC trains at 130 kph max speed for ever

Run a handful of fully Air Conditioned normal trains at 180 kph at a huge cost

Run a high speed train network of 300+ kph at a huge cost

High Speed Rail is needed because conventional tracks and trains cannot support speeds more than 160 (max 180) kph and average of 90-110 kph.So should we stop at trains that travel at speeds just 30-50 kph more than our current slow trains, or should we go for real high speed trains that return 200 kph+ average (300+ top) speeds (Delhi Mumbai 4 hours)?

How Will We Improve our Existing Network Then?

Why should we wait to improve our existing network before building HSR? Why not do both at the same time? The shocking fact is in reality we do not need any increase top speeds for our trains to run faster! As explained in the entire section above and in this chapter here[17], our trains are not really slow, they are quite fast, especially the LHB ones, fast as any other train in the world. Our trains have low average speeds only because of unavailability of track (congestion) and, train design (110 kph max speed) and poor acceleration (coached train model). People say there is no magic wand that will make our trains run faster. In fact, there is one. It is called Decongestion .

How we can build HSR and improve our train speeds at the same time

  • Develop our existing railway lines to support up to 160 kph on A and 130 kph on B category lines
  • Develop Dedicated Freight Corridors[18] (already under construction[19]) and regional and local train lines so that long-distance express trains can run unhindered by locals and goods trains
  • Remove heavy loss-making and senseless[20] populist[21] trains from the network
  • Simultaneously increase capacity on all lines (doubling/quadrupling, flyovers etc)

These measures will help our trains to run at the present 110/130 kph only continuously, helping most of our trains to shave at least 10 minutes off every hour of their present timetabled travel time, or they could get 20-25% faster without increasing present top speed! This is why the current Railway Minister has made decongestion of our tracks and not introduction of new trains[22] his primary concern. Once tracks are decongested, gradually increasing track speed capacities will help reduce traveling times and increase average speeds of trains as they will be able to run without getting struck everywhere. Once we have both systems in place, they will give viable alternatives for all classes of passengers. High Speed Lines will complete a Delhi Howrah journey from anywhere between 6 to 8 hours while conventional trains will take 14 17 hours (Delhi Mumbai: 4 to 6 and 12-18 hours respectively) But the improvement of our trains does not stop there, it has to involve modernizing the visible factors of our trains as well. For this, Bullet Trains will actually help.

How Bullet Trains will Solve the Design Problems of our Trains

The major change that HSR will bring in will improve our present railway network will that our train designs will improve, which is also what the lay person means when they say that our network has to be modernized . To know how, let us get off the rails for some time and look at some buses. In the early 2000s, Volvo (buses) of Sweden came to India with their wonder machines and single-handedly revolutionized Indian surface transportation. Volvo introduced Indians to quality bus travel, who were until then traveling in ramshackle tin-can buses hammered together on truck chassis, and the brand became synonymous with luxury and comfort bus travel, like Xerox is for photocopies. Volvos were initially bought by private operators causing huge dents in earnings of state RTCs, forcing them too to upgrade their fleets to Volvos (Kerala SRTC was the first STU to buy Volvos), and hence bringing thier service at par or better than that of private operators Karnataka SRTC is the best example for this. But the real change that happened was in the bus body design.

The Great Indian High Speed Rail Dream – Part 4

A couple of years after the Volvos were introduced, quality and design of other (normal) buses, which had been stuck in the same design rut for decades all-metal boxy body shells of single-panels riveted together, small windows and twin-pane windshields, uncomfortable bench seats fixed on low platforms with protruding wheel arches and so on also started improving, both interiors and exteriors, spurred on by the Volvo design. Other bus builders started taking design cues from Volvo to build their own improved models. Aerodynamic (rounded), high-platform pseudo-integral bus bodies (with molded double panels hiding all the riveting and beams), power steering, air suspension, ergonomical seats, large windows, single windshields and even that sweeping nose below the windshield started becoming standard features, especially so among private and tour bus operators, who wanted their buses look as close a Volvo as possible. And now they have started mimicking Scania with their vertical, rounded windshields as well. This same case can be taken for cars. As soon as the Fords, Hyundais and Skodas hit our roads, Ambassadors and Padminis became extinct, and Maruti had to innovate and improve themselves to survive.

The Great Indian High Speed Rail Dream – Part 4The Great Indian High Speed Rail Dream – Part 4The Great Indian High Speed Rail Dream – Part 4The Great Indian High Speed Rail Dream – Part 4

This is all based on the theory of forced vs automatic change. Just like how the goodness of the Volvos spurred automatic change in the bus industry by causing other bus designs to improve, quality and comfort of high speed rail will cause automatic improvement in quality of our existing railway network. HSR will be the competition that will improve Indian Railways by the creation of stronger tracks, faster trains and toilets that do not stink, as it cannot be seen side by side to the shining HSR in its current decrepit state. This could be accelerated if the private sector which driven by innovation will supply modern, better and faster coaches for our traditional trains, and Indian Railways will finally stop looking like Dinosaurs. This upgrade will be automatic, as they now have an incentive to improve, because they will be dead if they don t because if not, customers will instead of crying and shouting and tweeting and writing blogs on why Indian Railways suck, will vote with their feet: they will simply quit and take their money to the Bullet Train, leaving IR to dust and doom with its non-remunerative lower class passengers, half of who do not take tickets anyway.[23]

Successful automatic system upgrades are not incremental upgrades but an entirely different system altogether. When BMTC introduced its Volvo city buses, now one of the faces of Bangalore, people said Let us first improve the quality of existing buses first, and then buy Volvos? What they don t understand is that the Volvos ARE that upgrade! Similarly, High Speed Rail IS the upgrade to Indian Railways. Did you wait for normal feature phones to get a technology upgrade to support all those fancy features or did you buy a new smartphone? Did you wait for Maruti to release a new Alto which has the features of a Swift, or did you buy a Swift? Same difference. Now let us apply this theory of forced change to a live Indian Railways example. For around two years now we have been hearing about the much-hyped Gatimaan Express which will (supposedly) run at a top speed of 160 kph between Agra and Delhi (against 150 of the Shatabdi) taking 105 minutes against the Shatabdi s 126 minutes. It still remains as elusive as the Cheshire Cat. Two increase top speed by 10 kph and save 20 minutes we have been struggling for two years and then some! The Gatimaan is an example of forced change, which shows us that trying to force our trains to run faster through forced upgrade of our network as per some development plan will not work because there is no incentive in it: no opposition to beat, no records to break, no better experience to be provided to customers, no money to be made. It is all just bureaucracy. If we already had a 300 kph Bullet Train running between Delhi and Agra, I would bet all my money (it isn t much) that the Bhopal Shatabdi would ve now been running at 200 kph top speed, because of rub off development incentivized by market development.

We Need to Move On!

We are already late and too far behind the curve and need to use all our available options to catch up with the rest of the world. In the 1980s, India helped Algeria build and develop their railway network. Today Algerian Railways is signing deals[24] with European suppliers for advanced trains[25]. India is today at that point of progression[26] where Europe and Japan were in the 1950s and 1960s, where we have to make a decision if we have to go all out for the best or cow down and settle for sub-best. If I had my way, I would ve skipped the entire wheeled high speed rail way and opted for Maglev trains running (flying?) at 650 kph, because by the time we finish building our HSR network, that is where the world will be. Again, it took us two years to upgrade just 190 km of our 65000 km network to 160 kph speed fit track. If we are going to work by budgets, planning, allocations etc to upgrade our entire network to even medium-semi-high-speed (160 kph), by the time we are done the rest of the world will be traveling by teleportation. Forget everything else. The one simple reason why we shouldn t wait for X problems to be solved before we move on to Y is because we simply cannot solve all our problems. Problems will arise constantly no matter how fast you (try to) solve them, be it for an individual or a country. Did the Japanese say Let us solve the earthquake problem first and then build the Shinkansen? If we try to solve all our problems first and then build high speed rail, we will be stuck here only with our 50 kph average speed trains as we had been for the past whatever years. Life and civilization can advance only if we keep moving on, trying to solve troubles along the way and not by pausing and putting everything on hold trying to force change into things. One of the biggest lessons of life is that there is no such thing as an Utopia where all problems are solved and the grass is green and the girls are pretty. There is no question that a thickly populated, on-the-move country like India with its booming economy needs a high-speed train network. Even though HSR is umpteen times more efficient, environment friendly, faster and comfortable than personal road transportation (cars, buses) or aviation, people oppose HSR as if it some conspiracy by the devil. Most of these are because are misconceptions, and in the next chapter, we will try to clear some of them.

Other Chapters on High Speed Rail

What are High Speed Railways or Bullet Trains ?[27]

Advantages of High Speed Railways in an Indian Context[28]

Environmental Benefits of High Speed Rail[29]

How HSR Will Economically Transform India[30]


  1. ^ last post (24coaches.com)
  2. ^ As explained here (vadakkus.com)
  3. ^ Asansol Jhajha passenger (indiarailinfo.com)
  4. ^ Click here (24coaches.com)
  5. ^ Apache M-64 (en.wikipedia.org)
  6. ^ in this chapter (24coaches.com)
  7. ^ Rajdhani (indiarailinfo.com)
  8. ^ 160 kph (www.rdso.indianrailways.gov.in)
  9. ^ modern trainsets (24coaches.com)
  10. ^ already started (economictimes.indiatimes.com)
  11. ^ Read more about this here (24coaches.com)
  12. ^ Category A (www.indianrailways.gov.in)
  13. ^ 30 other lines (www.indianrailways.gov.in)
  14. ^ Category B. (www.indianrailways.gov.in)
  15. ^ comments (www.youtube.com)
  16. ^ this chapter (24coaches.com)
  17. ^ this chapter here (24coaches.com)
  18. ^ Dedicated Freight Corridors (en.wikipedia.org)
  19. ^ already under construction (www.dfccil.gov.in)
  20. ^ senseless (erail.in)
  21. ^ populist (indiarailinfo.com)
  22. ^ introduction of new trains (24coaches.com)
  23. ^ Indian Railways will finally stop looking like Dinosaurs (24coaches.com)
  24. ^ signing deals (www.railwaygazette.com)
  25. ^ advanced trains (www.alstom.com)
  26. ^ point of progression (24coaches.com)
  27. ^ What are High Speed Railways or Bullet Trains ? (24coaches.com)
  28. ^ Advantages of High Speed Railways in an Indian Context (24coaches.com)
  29. ^ Environmental Benefits of High Speed Rail (24coaches.com)
  30. ^ How HSR Will Economically Transform India (24coaches.com)

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