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A train to unite Kerala: on SilverLine project

“The project is fundamental to Kerala’s survival as a viable economic entity as the State is 92% urbanised.”

“The project is fundamental to Kerala’s survival as a viable economic entity as the State is 92% urbanised.”

Kerala is polarised over the proposed 530 km north-south semi-high speed standard gauge rail link costing a largely borrowed ₹64,000 crore. It proposes to connect metropolitan Kochi with the rest of the State in two hours, and Kasaragode in the north to Thiruvananthapuram in the south in four hours, reducing the pressure on linear Kerala’s heavily choked 1,800 km highways. Kerala suffers severe traffic stress due to its undulating topography and sensitive hydrology prone to recurrent floods, higher forest cover and ecologically fragile Western Ghats.

Project positives

Proponents point to the benefits of fast high quality connectivity. The new track can transport 80,000 people daily, reducing the 20,000 present passenger car trips, and 12% to 15% passenger cars sales and traffic. Kerala has a severe vehicular pressure with about 441 vehicles per 1,000 people. According to the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, the total registered vehicles in Kerala grew at a CAGR of 10.62% against the all India figure of 9.91% between 2009 and 2019. Of its 156 lakh total registered vehicles, 37 lakh are private passenger cars and SUVs, which translates to 1 private vehicle per 10 persons. Annually, 2 lakh new passenger cars/SUVs are added on the road. A vast majority of passenger cars are well over 15 years old, leading to intense pollution.

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The speeding traffic also causes 40,000 accidents per annum leading to 4,000 fatalities, a high for most Indian States. Even during the COVID slowdown, Keralites purchased 1.57 lakh (2020) of passenger cars.

The gradual shift of 15% to 25% of the present passenger car traffic to a competitive transport system is, therefore, an imperative for Kerala. It is fundamental to Kerala’s survival as a viable economic entity as the State is 92% urbanised with few rural urban distinctions in amenities and entitlements. Growth of cities and census towns is limited geographically and Kerala is fast transforming its building regime to accommodate highrises for its residential and commercial demand. Without commuting for work and swift transport of mass-consumed items, its consumption economy will stagnate. Kerala’s bounty from its large tourism industry due to the efficient movement of visitors between destinations at economic rates assumes significance as it enhances average retention and per capita spending.

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The present semi high-speed railway proposals are not entirely new. A high speed version proposed at 350 km per hour by a previous regime with a proposed outlay of ₹1 lakh crore was abandoned in favour of a suburban train project at a lower parametric cost. Opinion is divided as to whether the present rail network speed can be enhanced through doubling, improving signalling and straightening the 600 plus curvy patches. Sceptics feel that the efforts over the last 20 years have merely improved the speed marginally to 50 km per hour. SilverLine, a project of the Kerala Rail Development Corporation Ltd., promotes infrastructure developed jointly by the State and Central governments. Subsidised external finance guaranteed by the Governments could effectively bridge the transport infrastructure gap and provide the desired results.

The concerns

Critics largely cite the burden of debt financing of the project which could impact State finances substantially, potentially pressuring a variety of other investments till the project breaks even. Other worries hinge around the displacement and generous rehabilitation of about 10,000 families from the 1,200 hectares of private land it needs to acquire. Environmental concerns exist over the embankments elevating the track approximately for 300 km and availability of construction material aggregates. Kerala’s steep drainage is oriented east to west and many speculate that the embankment may enhance the intensity of ambient flooding although the project provides leeways every 500 metres. Though the project would temporarily enhance emissions in the construction phase, the green powered electric power-train is expected to replace 150 internal combustion engines, each time a train makes a trip. These deserve deeper analysis.

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The State’s investment in green power particularly in solar plants augmented by cheap solar power from national vendors through green corridors will power the variable cost of the track sustainability.

The SilverLine is, however, exclusively insufficient to answer the State’s traffic crisis. Kerala also needs to harmoniously develop its eco-friendly waterways which can decongest the clogged highways by another 15%. If the transport of hazardous goods and consumable staples shifts to an integrated navigable system, along with the new high-speed green rail, it will reduce highway congestion by 15%. Together with this, if there is an annual 5-10% conversion of vehicular traffic to electric engines, it would arguably keep the road transport corridor as well as the rail and waterway tracks reasonably patent, efficient and carbon neutral.

Integrative approach

Kerala perhaps needs an integrated sectoral appraisal and synthesis of its competing traffic corridor proposals viewed simultaneously as civic amenities and investment projects. Instead of merely looking at each project as a standalone approach, an integrative approach might address the lacunae. Perhaps a lack of a sufficiently integrated and informed discourse on the potential of the multi-modal complementarities is confounding the debate. A progressive and knowledgeable society like Kerala should engage in meaningful parleys rather than take part in highly polarised debates, leaving no space for the nuances to be explored. The present discourse, therefore, needs to deepen and broaden simultaneously.


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Printable version | May 28, 2022 6:02:06 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/a-train-to-unite-kerala/article38284064.ece