In 1853, when a steam locomotive chugged out of what was then known as Bombay, for a trip to Thane, it marked a very humble beginning by a monolith that was to emerge in the next 100-odd years as the world’s eighth largest employer and the lifeline of the second most populous nation on earth.

Today, with 115,000km of tracks, ferrying close to 25 million passengers daily, Indian Railways is an amazing tale of agony and ecstasy, trials and tribulations, dream and reality … all rolled into one behemoth of an institution, a journey in itself.

Adding fresh fuel to the fire of an ever-changing, evolving saga is India’s plan to go the high-speed way — passenger trains travelling at a maximum speed of 250-300km/h.

Feasibility studies have been conducted on four proposed high-speed corridors — Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Howrah-Haldia, New Delhi-Patna and Hyderabad-Chennai — with plans for three more corridors on the drawing board.

The first major step towards realising this dream was taken during the erstwhile Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance government, with the setting up of the High Speed Rail Corporation (HSRC) of India in 2012, under the chairmanship of Satish Agnihotri.

However, according to Railway Ministry insiders, the dream project received a huge boost with new Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally taking a lot of interest in this aspirational venture.

Even before Modi was officially sworn in as the Prime Minister, three top officials from Indian Railways were instructed by Modi to visit France and carry out a reconnaissance mission with the French National Railways (SNCF).

Accordingly, a team comprising Agnihotri, Arunendra Kumar, the chairman of the Railway Board, and Girish Pillai, Railway Board director (infrastructure), were in Paris towards the end of last month.

Modi held preliminary talks with Agnihotri before the latter left for France and by the time the new prime minister was at his desk at the South Block for the first time, a blueprint for the dream project, along with a detailed report on the France recce mission, were already on his table.

On the fast track

“The new government is taking a lot of interest in the high-speed rail project and we are quite sure that once the government led by Narendra Modi settles down, things will be fast-tracked,” Agnihotri told Gulf News from New Delhi last Saturday.

“The blueprint that the HSRC has prepared is currently focusing on the Mumbai-Ahmedabad corridor. In terms of logistics and the feasibility study carried out so far, this 534-km corridor has emerged as the most viable one for a pilot project.

“Although no time-frame has been assigned to the entire project yet, it is most likely that Mumbai-Ahmedabad will be the first corridor to have India’s maiden high-speed rail link, which will then be replicated in the other proposed corridors,” Agnihotri added.

The idea of a high-speed rail link first germinated in the 1980s when the late Madhavrao Scindia was the Union railways minister in the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government.

The attempt then was to run passenger trains at a maximum speed of 160km/h. The premier Rajdhani Express trains, that connect the national capital of New Delhi to the various state capitals, has a typical maximum speed of around 130-135km/h.

Scindia’s dream to have a set of trains faster than the Rajdhanis eventually saw the birth of the inter-city, premier Shatabdi Express trains that primarily connected the metros to business points that were about six-seven hours away.

Over the years, these Shatabdi Express trains became immensely popular across all classes of passengers and their services increased manifold, though in terms of speed they did not offer anything more than the Rajdhanis.

The first attempt to break the 135km/h barrier was made with the New Delhi-Bhopal Shatabdi Express in 2006. In various stretches between New Delhi and Agra, this train was made to notch up 150km/h along fortified tracks.

“Currently, the travel time between New Delhi and Agra is about 126 minutes for a 134-km route.

“Our first aim is to bring this down to 90 minutes or less. This will be possible if we can run the Bhopal Shatabdi Express at a maximum speed of 160km/h. We have set a target of November 2014 to achieve this. Once this is successful, we will try to upgrade the Rajdhanis and Shatabdis to maximum speeds of 160-200km/h.

“The next big thing then will be to achieve the 250-300km/h mark along dedicated tracks, covering most of the major cities of India,” Agnihotri said.

Cost factor

Officials at the Railway Ministry strongly believe that foreign direct investment (FDI) in Indian Railways will play a major role in fast-tracking an Indian version of a ‘Bullet Train’. A policy decision clearing the decks for FDI in railways is a strong possibility in this year’s Railway Budget, which is due to be presented by Railway Minister Sadanand Gowda next month.

Agnihotri also said that while the cost-factor of building and operating such a capital-intensive project is a huge challenge, India’s advantage lies with economies of scale.

“India’s advantage is its huge passenger traffic. This obviously translates into economies of scale. France has a population of [60 million], while India’s population is [1.2 billion]. So we can look to maximise the benefits based on economies of scale.

“Secondly, even when the Metro Rail projects were first announced, many people were sceptical about the cost factor. People thought it would be a very expensive proposition to build, operate and even take a ride on the Metro. But see how popular these projects have turned out to be,” Agnihotri said.

He added that a high-speed rail project for India need not necessarily be a replica of what exists in the developed world. “We can bring in the necessary modifications to suit our typical needs.

“For example, instead to running a train non-stop at 300km/h between Delhi and Mumbai, we can run it at an average speed of say 200km/h with two or three stops. That way, we will be rationalising the cost factor while still offering a world-class passenger service.”

Imagine starting off with a quick breakfast in New Delhi at 9am, tucking into a hot, onboard lunch at 1pm and arriving in Mumbai around 4pm — just in time to catch the action live for an Indian Premier League match! Dream, right? But there is no harm in dreaming — and dreaming big counts.