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High-Speed Rail Operations in India: A Future Rail Transportation on Wheels of Speed & Comfort

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Introduction

According to the Ministry of Railways, a route with trains operating between 160 and 200 km/h is considered a higher-speed or semi-high-speed rail line, while the routes operating at less than 160 km/h are considered conventional rail lines. According to the UIC definition, a commercial speed of over 250 km/h for a newly built line or 200 km/h for an upgraded line is considered high-speed. As of July 2023, India has 508 km of high-speed tracks under construction, while 174 km in the Tughlakabad – Agra Cantonment support semi-high speeds.

The speed categorisation for Indian Railways is described as follows:

SpeedTypeLength
<110 km/hConventional rail67,869 km
>110 km/h and <130 km/hGroup B lines
>130 km/h and <160 km/hGroup A-lines
>160 km/h and <200 km/hSemi-High-Speed Rail174 km
>200 km/hHigh-Speed Rail508 km

Details
Indian Railways has no operational high-speed rail lines despite eight corridors being approved, with the corridor between Mumbai and Ahmedabad now under development. The Gatimaan Express and Rani Kamalapati (Habibganj)-Hazrat Nizamuddin Vande Bharat Express have a top operational speed of 160 km/h on the Tughlakabad-Agra Cantonment section of the route as of 2023. The first high-speed railway corridor (508 km) between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is now under development, with a maximum operational speed of 320 km/h planned. The corridor that shall use Shinkansen technology is being constructed and will run on a standard gauge rather than the more common broad gauge on the rest of the train network. It is estimated to take roughly three hours to carry passengers between the two cities, with ticket prices competitive with air travel.

This project was initially scheduled to be completed by December 2023, but due to land acquisition challenges and the COVID-19 outbreak, it is now estimated to be completed by October 2028. However, a section of this line between Surat and Bilimora will open in 2026. In its white paper ‘Vision 2020,’ released and submitted in the parliament on December 18, 2009, the Ministry of Railways projected the development of regional high-speed rail projects providing services at 250-350 km/h, as well as the planning of corridors connecting commercial, tourism, and pilgrimage destinations.

The newly elected government in 2014 expressed its desire to set up the Diamond Quadrilateral high-speed rail project, which had been envisaged to connect the cities of Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata, and Mumbai through a high-speed rail system. In the incoming president’s speech, this project was approved as a priority for the next government. Construction of one kilometre of high-speed railway track is expected to cost between Rs. 100 crore to Rs. 140 crore, 10-14 times the cost for conventional railway construction.

The proposed new high-speed rail lines will be standard gauge, although older tracks that could be modified to more incredible speeds will have a 5 ft 6 in (1,676 mm) broad gauge. Unless and until variable gauge systems are used, there will be no interoperability for passenger and cargo traffic between the new lines and the older upgraded tracks.

Efforts for speed enhancement: A brief history

  • 1940s & 50s – The Steam Era: During the steam era of Indian railways, trains rarely reached speeds of 90 kilometres per hour. The introduction of the WP class locomotive was only achieved in the 1940s with a commercial speed of 100 km/h. When the electrification of the Bombay Division was completed, the transition from steam technology occurred. WCP-1 class electric locomotives were used to carry the coaches at speeds greater than 100 km/h, with a theoretical top speed of 120 km/h. Because of the two World Wars, Indian Railways could not extend electrification beyond the Bombay Division, so steam locomotives dominated the lines throughout the other parts of India.
  • 1960s – Diesel Era: The age of diesel locomotives began in the 1960s when Indian Railways purchased ALCO’s WDM-1 and WDM-2 class locomotives. Although the WDM-1 locomotive failed to reach the 100 km/h mark, the subsequent WDM-2 and WDM-4 locomotives did so throughout most of the period of the decade.
  • 1970s – Electric Train Era: In March 1969, India inaugurated the Howrah Rajdhani Express, five years after Japan inaugurated the Shinkansen, the world’s first high-speed rail, which ran at twice the speed of the Rajdhani Express. With the introduction of several electrification initiatives on main routes in the 1970s, electric locomotives quickly began to replace their diesel counterparts. During the 1980s, the WAP-1 electric locomotive broke the record for the fastest locomotive in India, reaching a top speed of 160 km/h during trial runs and being licenced and permitted for commercial operations at 140 km/h. In 1989, the WAP-1 hauled Shatabdi Express from New Delhi to Jhansi was the first train to reach a top speed of 140 km/h.

WAP-5 class locomotives, India’s first AC locomotives, were imported to haul fast, short trains like the Shatabdi Express. They also had fully mounted traction motors, which reduced track impact and allowed for more incredible speeds. The first batch of these locomotives arrived in India in 1995 and reached 130 km per hour speeds. During the trial runs, this locomotive set a speed record of 184 km/h, making it the fastest in India. With a top speed of 160 km/h, the WAP-5-hauled Gatimaan Express became India’s fastest commercially operated and run train in April 2016. The Vande Bharat Express, based on MEMU, was the second indigenously developed and manufactured semi-high-speed EMU train two years later. During its trial run, this train reached a speed of 180 km/h and was designed to travel at a maximum speed of 200 km/h, but due to track speed limitations, the train’s operational speed is limited to 130 km/h.

  • 1980s Onwards – Proposals for high-speed rails: The then-railway minister, Madhavrao Scindia, proposed the Delhi-Kanpur high-speed rail line in the mid-1980s, but it was found to be financially unviable, so railways instead introduced Shatabdi trains that travelled at 140 km/h. Six elevated lines were identified in the Vision 2020 white paper 2009 for technical research on establishing high-speed rail corridors. The ‘High-Speed Rail Corporation of India Ltd’ (HSRC), founded on 25 July 2013 by Rail Vikas Nigam Ltd. (RVNL) for high-speed rail corridor projects, was replaced on 12 February 2016 by the ‘National High-Speed Rail Corporation Limited’ as the government company for high-speed rail corridor construction and operation.
  • 2017 Onwards – Construction of high-speed rail: The construction of India’s first high-speed rail route, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor, began in 2017 and is projected to be completed by 2028. The foundation stone laying ceremony occurred on September 14, 2018, in Ahmedabad, when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged off construction work in Ahmedabad. The maximum operational speed of the E5 Series Shinkansen trains is expected to be 320 km/h, with an average speed of 260 km/hr.

Network & Route

The network is designed and planned to have a top speed of 300-350 km/hr and to travel on elevated corridors to segregate high-speed train tracks to prevent trespassing. Systra, Italferr, RITES Limited, Mott MacDonald, INECO, PROINTEC, Ayesa, Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), and Parsons Brinckerhoff conducted feasibility studies.

Summary of proposed and under construction high-speed rail lines in India

Sr. No.Proposed High-Speed CorridorSpeed (In Km/Hr)Length (In Km)Present StatusPlanned Opening (As per NRP)
North
1  Delhi–Varanasi high-speed rail corridor320865DPR under preparation2031
2Delhi–Amritsar high-speed rail corridor320480Approved2051
3Delhi–Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor320886Land acquisition to begin2031
4Amritsar–Jammu high-speed rail corridor320190Proposed2051
East
5Varanasi–Howrah high-speed rail corridor320711DPR under preparation2031
6Patna–Guwahati high-speed rail corridor320850Proposed2051
West
7Mumbai–Ahmedabad high-speed rail corridor320508.18Under Construction2026 (Surat – Bilimore) 2028 (Entire Route)
8Mumbai–Nagpur high-speed rail corridor320736DPR under preparation2051
9Mumbai–Hyderabad high-speed rail corridor320711DPR under preparation2051
10Pune–Nashik rail line200235.15Land acquisition initiated2027
11Ahmedabad–Rajkot high-speed rail corridor220225DPR PreparedTBD
Central
12Nagpur–Varanasi high-speed rail corridor320855Proposed2041
South
13Chennai–Mysuru high-speed rail corridor320435DPR under preparation2031
14Hyderabad–Bengaluru high-speed rail corridor320618Proposed2041
15Silver Line (Thiruvananthapuram–Kasaragod)200529.45DPR PreparedTBD

Diamond Quadrilateral: The Diamond Quadrilateral Project is an ambitious initiative by India to connect the major cities of New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, and Mumbai with a high-speed rail network. Sections of this project are either under construction or have been approved.

High–Speed Diamond Quadrilateral: Proposed route, length and line

Sr. No.Proposed High-Speed CorridorSpeed (In Km/Hr)Length (In Km)Present StatusPlanned Opening (As per NRP)
1  Delhi – Kolkata3201576DPR under preparation2031
2Kolkata – Chennai3201500TBDTBD
3Mumbai – Chennai3201200TBDTBD
4Delhi – Mumbai3201394One Section Under Construction2031
5Delhi – Bengaluru3201900TBDTBD
6Mumbai – Kolkata3201800TBDTBD

Semi – High-Speed Rail Operations

  • 160–200 Km/Hr Track Upgrades: Indian Railways plans to enhance the speed of passenger trains on dedicated conventional tracks to 160-200 km/hr. Indian railways are also trying to upgrade current conventional lines to handle speeds of up to 160 km/hr, aiming to exceed 200 km/hr on new tracks with upgraded technology. Native organisations have already produced trains reaching up to 200 km/h. The Dedicated Freight Corridor Corporation of India is developing dedicated freight corridors across India to redirect cargo traffic away from passenger railway tracks, allowing passenger trains to reach speeds of 200 km/hr. The Indian Railways have divided the tracks into two groups. Tracks that support 110 Km/hr – 130 Km/hr are categorised as ‘Group B,’ whereas tracks that support 130 km/hr – 160 km/hr are designated as “Group A.” The routes listed below operate, are under development, or are planned to operate at speeds of 160 km/hr or above.
Upgrades to 160–200 Km/Hr Semi-High-Speed (1,676 mm (5 ft 6 in) Broad Gauge Tracks)
RouteSpeed (Km/Hr)Length (Km)OpeningNotes
Tughlakabad – Agra Cantonment1601745 April 2016First Semi-High Speed (1,676 mm Broad Gauge) Track
Delhi – Mumbai1601,384March 2024Preliminary Work Underway.
Agra Cantonment – Howrah (Kolkata)1601,446TBDPreliminary Work Underway.
Chennai – Gudur160134.3TBDDPR Submitted
Chennai – Renigunta160134.78TBDDPR Submitted
Mumbai – Howrah (Kolkata)1601,965TBDDPR Submitted
Mumbai – Chennai1601,276TBDDPR Submitted
Chennai – Howrah (Kolkata)1601,652TBDDPR Submitted
Bengaluru – Chennai160362TBDDPR Submitted
Chennai – New Delhi1602,164TBDDPR Submitted
Bengaluru – Hyderabad160632TBDDPR Submitted
Chennai – Hyderabad160715TBDDPR Submitted
Howrah (Kolkata) – Puri160502TBDDPR Submitted
New 160–200 Km/Hr Semi-High-Speed (1,435 mm (4 ft 8+1⁄2 in) Standard Gauge Tracks)
RouteSpeed (Km/Hr)Length (Km)Status
Delhi – Meerut18082Under construction
Delhi – Alwar180164Under construction
Delhi – Panipat180103Approved
Delhi – Rohtak18070Proposed
Delhi – Palwal18060Proposed
Delhi – Baraut18054Proposed
Ghaziabad – Khurja18083Proposed
Ghaziabad – Hapur18057Proposed
Delhi – Jewar18067Proposed To connect with Jewar International Airport
Hyderabad – Warangal180146Proposed
Hyderabad – Vijayawada180281Proposed
  • Regional Rapid Transit System: The Delhi-Meerut Regional Rapid Transit System (Delhi-Meerut RRTS) is an 82.15 km long, semi-high-speed rail corridor that is now under construction and will connect Delhi, Ghaziabad, and Meerut. It is one of three rapid rail lines planned under Phase I of the National Capital Region Transport Corporation’s (NCRTC) RapidX project. The distance between Delhi and Meerut would be covered in less than 60 minutes at a top speed of 180 km/h. The project is expected to cost Rs. 30,274 crore and will include 22 stations as well as two depots in Duhai and Modipuram.

The National Capital Region Transport Corporation (NCRTC) is developing the Semi-High Speed Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS) or Delhi RAPIDX to connect Delhi with its far suburbs by 8 Smart Lines with trains travelling at a maximum speed of 160 km/h. The aim and objective of RAPIDX is to minimise commuter reliance on road-based transport and improve regional connections within the National Capital Region. The RRTS system has been planned to operate underground within Delhi mainly, connecting to the Delhi Metro Rail system, offering locals a speedier alternative option to reach their destination (for example, nonstop service between Sarai Kale Khan and Kashmere Gate on the Delhi-Panipat line). In the rest of the world, comparable systems include London’s Crossrail, Paris’ RER, and Munich’s S-Bahn. The Delhi-Meerut RRTS Line is partially funded by an official development assistance (ODA) loan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

The project is now under development, with work beginning on the 82.15 km Delhi-Ghaziabad-Meerut RRTS Line first. The 17-kilometer Sahibabad-Ghaziabad-Guldhar-Duhai segment has been prioritised and is scheduled to open in 2023. Bids for the Gurgaon segment of the 164-kilometer Delhi-SNB-Alwar RRTS Line were invited in November 2019, with the first contract awarded in April 2020.

  • Vande Bharat: The Indian Railways aims to expand the rail network. As part of this progress, the national transporter has deployed the indigenously manufactured Vande Bharat trains on multiple routes in India. It is India’s first ‘Made in India’, a medium-distance semi-high speed train service. These day train services connect major Indian cities that are less than a day’s journey apart, similar to the Shatabdi Express. Due to railway track speed capacity, multiple stoppages, and traffic congestion, the operating speed of the services is limited to 160 km/h on the part of the Delhi-Bhopal route and 110-130 km/h on other services. The train, known initially as Train 18, has been designed by the RDSO and manufactured by the Integral Coach Factory (ICF). The RDSO also standardised the specifications and the requirements. It had been developed and designed for low-cost maintenance and operating efficiency. A 16-coach Vande Bharat train costs around Rs. 115 crore. The services leveraging Train 18 sets were renamed Vande Bharat Express on January 27, 2019, with the inaugural run beginning on February 15, 2019.

Further, the Indian Railways is working on a mission mode to introduce two more Vande Bharat variants by the end of FY 2023-24. The Chennai-based Integral Coach Factory (ICF) is working tirelessly to design and manufacture the Vande Bharat Sleeper and Vande Metro coaches. In addition to ICF, the Railways of India will manufacture these semi-high-speed trains in two factories: Rae Bareli’s Modern Coach Factory and Latur’s Marathwada Rail Coach Factory. As of the present time, there will be three Vande Bharat variants: (a) Vande Bharat Chair Car, (b) Vande Bharat Sleeper Car, and (c) Vande Metro.

  • All three models will improve as well as enhance the passenger experience. The Vande Sleeper version will travel for more than 550 kilometres. It will replace existing superfast trains such as the Rajdhani and Duronto. The sleeper car format is planned to be available by February 2024. The Vande Metro format will cover less than 100 kilometres. This new model will eventually replace the present suburban and non-suburban, i.e. local trains.
  • Vande Metro: Following the advanced semi-high-speed train Vande Bharat Express’s success, the railways are planning to introduce the Vande Metro trains. According to the Railway Ministry, the Vande Metro trains will be introduced in the country by December 2023. The government plans to boost and enhance the trains’ production in 2024-2025. The new train rakes will be designed to provide job seekers and students with comfortable and economical commuting. Compared to the Vande Bharat Express trains, the Vande Metro is expected to be faster. The trains shall provide passengers with an easy, fast and quick shuttle-like experience. The trains are also expected to be comparatively more minor, with around eight coaches. This is a significant change from the Vande Bharat Express’s typical fleet of 16 coaches. The Vande Metro will run between cities close to one another instead of the Vande Bharat Express trains, which generally go between cities far apart. Most of the Vande Bharat Trains now in operation in India travel for approximately 500 km.

The Railways previously stated that these trains will run between cities approximately 100 kilometres apart. However, per the most recent information, the Vande Metro will be introduced in Mumbai first. The trains will operate as part of Mumbai’s local train system. Moreover, the Railway Board has already approved the purchase of 238 trains for the local network upgrade. Unlike the Vande Bharat Express, the Vande Metro has been planned to operate very frequently. The trains have been intended to run four to five times per day. Also, these trains are anticipated to be inexpensive for daily passengers.

Super High-Speed Rail

  1. Maglev: Indian Railways examined and explored the possibility of running maglev trains to create a high-speed rail system that exceeds 500 kilometres per hour to transition from technology importer to producer and developer. Scientists from the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology exhibited a training model based on MagLev devices with a top speed of 600 km/h in February 2019. Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited signed an agreement with SwissRapide AG in September 2020 to bring MagLev metro systems to India.
  2. Hyperloop: There is currently no system in operation anywhere globally. Although human testing is being done, the suggested speed forecasts depend on considerable engineering breakthroughs and testing.
  3. Mumbai-Pune Hyperloop: A 1,000 km/h system would take 14 minutes to commute between these two cities, compared to the present 3 hours, carrying 10,000 commuters every hour (5,000 in each direction). In January 2018, Hyperloop One presented a Detailed Project Report to the Pune Metropolitan Region Development Authority (PMRDA) with three terminal end-point choices in Mumbai: Dadar, Santacruz, and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport.
  4. Amritsar-Chandigarh Hyperloop: In 2019, Virgin Hyperloop signed an agreement with Punjab to develop and establish a rail system which could cover a total distance of 226 km in 19 minutes, which would be at least ten times faster than a trip taken by existing transportation infrastructure like as road, rail, or flight.
  5. Bengaluru-Chennai Hyperloop: Hyperloop One, based in Los Angeles, reached an agreement with the Karnataka government to conduct a feasibility study for this route, which is expected to reduce travel time to twenty minutes.

Conclusion

From Mumbai’s crowded commuter trains to midnight express mail trains that resemble a city on wheels to the incredible Darjeeling & Himalayan ‘Toy Train,’ railways are one of India’s most recognisable features. Without them, it is improbable that the country would have developed into the economic powerhouse it is today. However, as the country evolves, its railways are under increasing pressure to keep up and provide faster travel and more freight capacity to serve India’s burgeoning and expanding industries. Traditional systems, some dating back to the British Empire, may have served India well. Still, they are rapidly becoming obsolete, particularly compared to India’s neighbour and rival for regional supremacy, China. The network faces infinite competing demands to keep the country moving, serving all levels of society and communities, from the most miniature rural villages to some of the world’s most densely populated cities and towns.

Made up of more than 1.25 lakh kilometres of track in total, the Indian Railways (IR) network is the fourth largest in the world, operating nearly twenty thousand trains every day and serving almost 8,000 stations. Nearly thirteen thousand locomotives are available to haul approximately eighty thousand passenger coaches and almost three million freight wagons and coaches. The first Indian railways were proposed in 1832, seven years after the Stockton & Darlington Railway, the world’s first public rail line, opened in England.

The first stretch of the Great Indian Peninsular Railway, connecting Bombay (now Mumbai) and Thane, was not open to passengers until April 1853. When it opens and begins later this decade as part of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train line, India’s first high-speed passenger railway will connect the same two cities. Although India’s railways were primarily built for military purposes by the British, Indians embraced and welcomed them like no other, resulting in virtually insatiable demand and rapid expansion in the second part of the nineteenth century. In the pre-pandemic stage in 2019-20, IR carried more than eight billion passengers and hauled nearly 1.2 billion tonnes of freight. It is the country’s largest employer and, with 1.4 million staff, is one of the largest non-military organisations in the world.

However, compared to European railways and those of China, Japan, and Korea, average speeds remain frustratingly low. A few special express trains can reach 160 kmph or higher speeds, but the national average for long-distance express is only 50 kmph. In comparison, ordinary passenger and commuter trains barely exceed 32 kmph. Goods trains often travel from 24 to 75 km per hour. Congestion will worsen over the next 30 years unless new capacity is provided.

Seven trunk routes carrying forty-one per cent of all traffic account for sixteen per cent of the overall network. A quarter of IR’s network is operating at 100% to 150% of nominal capacity, which can have far-reaching consequences nationwide if there is a breakdown or any disruption. So, there seems to be three-pronged solutions to Indian Railways. Create a new generation of high-speed passenger railways between significant cities, build thousands of miles of additional high-capacity cargo railways known as dedicated freight corridors (DFCs), and electrify 100 per cent of the existing network by 2024.

It is a massively ambitious strategy, but the first DFCs are already operational, and electrification work continues to progress quickly. Three more Dedicated Freight Corridors totalling 5,750 kilometres are planned to accompany and go alongside the first pair of routes, which is expected to be completed this year. However, like Japan and China, India sees high-speed rail as the solution to lowering travel times, increasing capacity, and accelerating economic activity. An ambitious National Rail Plan, introduced in 2021, envisions high-speed trains connecting all major cities in north, west, and South India. Cities with populations of at least one million between 300 and 700 km apart are being prioritised.

India has partnered with Japanese technology engineers and is seeking financial assistance to help develop its first line, a 508-kilometre link between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in western India. If all plans are implemented, an additional 12 routes could benefit from high-speed connections in the future decades. The National High-Speed Rail Corporation Ltd (NHSRCL), set up to finance, construct and manage India’s bullet train projects, has also gained approval for eight new lines linking New Delhi and Varanasi (958 kilometres), Lucknow-Ayodhya (123 Km), Mumbai-Nagpur (736 Km), New Delhi-Ahmedabad (886 Km), New Delhi-Amritsar (480 Km), Mumbai-Hyderabad (711 Km), Varanasi-Howrah (760 Km) and Chennai-Mysore (435 Km).

In early 2022, four more routes had been proposed, bringing the total length to more than 8,000 kilometres. If approved, lines would also be completed between Hyderabad and Bangalore (618 kilometres), Nagpur and Varanasi (855 kilometres), Patna and Guwahati (850 kilometres), and Amritsar-Pathankot-Jammu (190 kilometres), making the world’s second most extended high-speed rail network. When Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe unveiled the Mumbai-Ahmedabad project in 2017, it was hoped that bullet trains would be operational in time for the 75th anniversary of Indian independence by August 15, 2022. Still, numerous challenges and delays have pushed completion back to at least 2028.

Given the rapid development of high-speed rail projects around the world, India must make a start at some point, and that time is now. Adapting and settling new technologies and lines takes time. For example, Japan’s Hokkaido Shinkansen took forty-two years to complete. We will be left behind if we do not begin immediately. It should be noted that while we are still in the planning stages of providing rail connectivity to strategically important areas and border locations, our arch-rival and neighbouring country, China, is well on its way to commissioning its more than 40,000 km long missile carrier high-speed rail corridor connecting every part of the country with combat readiness very soon. Even a much-underrated nation coming into existence nearly forty years after Indian independence in the early 80’s of the previous century, Bangladesh is developing a high-speed rail network.

Nevertheless, seen in the backdrop of the transformation Indian Railways is going through, the government must be desperate to see its flagship rail projects complete and deliver the promised benefits soon, not only to continue the pace of economic development controlling inflation, lack of capital formation and capital deficit in the populous country of the world but also to show its rivals that it too can deliver world-class 21st-century transportation.


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