India should be looking at high-speed trains as a mass transport solution and focussing on urban rail networks

China opens about 15 Metro rail lines a year and is building expertise in operating high-speed trains, while India is only slowly warming up to mass transport solutions.

This is the contrast that France is highlighting, as its companies compete to supply a range of transport technologies and services to India. The public sector French train operator, SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français), is emphatic that the possibility of using high-speed trains as mass carriers should not be neglected.

The competition for high-speed rail also involves Korea, China, and Spain which have operational technologies. Brazil is also looking to implement high-speed rail, but has specified that only accident-free systems can submit tenders, reducing China’s prospects.

The focal point of the Indian effort is the Mumbai-Ahmedabad section, for which SNCF is conducting a feasibility study, and for which the French government has contributed €600,000 out of the estimated total cost of €1 million; there is no charge to the Indian Railways.

The study, begun in January, is expected to go on for a year and define high-speed for India (which in France is 320 km per hour for TGV trains); what kind of fares people can be charged; benchmarking of finance practices including public private partnerships; and the roadmap for manpower training.

On what separates the French high-speed train technology from the Japanese, who pioneered the system, Philippe Dumont, in-charge of issues related to transport in the Directorate of European and International Affairs, Government of France, told visiting journalists that TGV trains could be operated at a normal speed (160 kmph), and on special sections, shifted to peak speeds. This made it possible to integrate them easily with the existing railways. Costs are high for such systems, at €20 million per kilometre in normal terrain, going up to €50 million to cover tunnels, viaducts and so on. But Indian labour costs would make construction cheaper.

Operationally, high-speed trains can optimally connect cities 500 to 1,000 km apart, and in one of the best-known sectors, Paris-Lyon, the peak capacity is 12,000 passengers per hour at 1,000 people per train, providing service once in four minutes. TGV fares are not subsidised.

Six per cent of the world’s transport is on high-speed trains, and France operates 600 trains against about 100 in Japan, meeting the 300 km-plus per hour standard and remaining accident-free over a 30-year period. The Japanese rails are installed on concrete slabs, requiring higher maintenance, while the French use ballasts. Ride quality is better on the Japanese trains, however.

Mr. Dumont candidly pointed out that domestic growth prospects for rail were limited, and there was considerable interest in countries like India.

Urban rail

Alstom, the French engineering group, is firmly in place with its Rs.1,500-crore order to supply 168 coaches by 2015 and six additional cars for the Chennai Metro. It has built a Metro rolling stock factory at Sri City, Andhra Pradesh, to cater to Indian demand and will participate actively in future projects. The company competes with Bombardier, Siemens, and General Electric, among others, in Indian railway expansion projects.

On modernisation of the Indian railway system to improve service, passenger comfort and capacity, Jojo Alexander, vice-president for Strategy, Alstom, said there had to be a radical change in approach on the part of agencies such as the Research Designs and Standards Organisation of the Indian Railways. The opening of the electric locomotive tender (to international competition for supply of 1,000 locomotives) represented the first big change.

Bangalore’s model of levying a cess on petrol and diesel to raise funds for its Namma Metro Phase I was encouraging. Such internal funding was important to expand urban rail systems in India, said Sunand Sharma, president, Alstom International, India and South Asia.

The urban rail story in France is centred on improvements to quality and introduction of new options. One component is the renaissance of the tramway system. In the 1960s, all but three cities in the country — Lille, Marseille and Saint-Etienne — had done away with tram tracks to make way for cars. But in the 1970s, the oil shock and car dominance issues helped to change policy, and led to the introduction of a tax on companies to fund public transport. Tramways were reintroduced, and a recent survey showed modern trams capable of carrying over 3,000 passengers per hour per direction, cater to between 33 and 75 per cent of passenger journeys on public transport (bus, Metro and high-service bus representing the rest) outside the Paris region.

An even cheaper alternative, in service in France’s second city Lyon, is the trolley bus that uses overhead traction on the road and is similar to the conventional articulated bus. On a per kilometre basis, a tram costs a fifth of a Metro, while a trolleybus with dedicated corridor costs a fourth of a tram system, based on French costs.

(This writer was part of a group of Indian journalists invited by the Government of France.)

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