Sunday, September 25, 2011

Getting Back on Track - Railway Development in Trivandrum

After years of heady promises and Budget proposals, the development of railway infrastructure in and around Trivandrum has fallen far short of where it should be given the growth of the city, high-technology and the upcoming deep water port at Vizhinjam. With the Indian Railways facing serious resource constraints, let's take a pragmatic look at how we can achieve maximum impact with the least cost possible.
Once upon a time, I talked about how Trivandrum Central would be upgraded to a world-class rail terminus, Lalu Prasad's new mantra for the upgradation of important stations (18 in all, if I recall correctly) including New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Trivandrum. That was four years ago, and since then we have heard nothing else but for a few vague mentions in successive Rail Budgets. One would have been forgiven for thinking that the grandiose idea was mere lip-service, and now it is official. The Railways have given up on the prototypical "World-class" station, New Delhi, and decided to proceed with a much humbler, in-house upgrade. The fact that there is no confidence that the rail hub in India's Capital and largest city can be re-developed, bodes ill for the historic station in Kerala's Capital and largest city. Combined with the near-zero progress in the development of the much-touted Kochuveli Satellite Rail Terminal and the proposed railway station and yard at Nemom, not to mention the still-invisible MEMU (commuter trains on the mainline) and a long list of announced-but-still-on-paper trains, the scorecard of the Railways is looking very dismal for our city.

 Trivandrum Central (Image Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Despite being one of the busiest stations in South India (second only to Chennai) and having robust revenues (Rs 585 Crores from passengers alone in 2010-11),Trivandrum has been on the receiving end of neglect from the Railways for some time now, especially since a lot of decision making authority was shifted to Chennai from the Trivandrum Division. Even projects such as the expansion at Kochuveli, that were formally announced and alloted budgetary support, have made scant progress. Sadly, the latest effort to jump-start the development of these project by holding a meeting of the Railway Minister and his team in Trivandrum seems to have a cropper without any firm plans being put in place, save for the announcement of a yet another official to "coordinate" developmental activities in Trivandrum. Dr Shashi Tharoor did manage to take the Minister on a tour of the facilities in Trivandrum and explain the crying needs of the day to him, and one hopes that this will bear some fruit. All in all, one is left wondering why the Trivandrum Division, which earns hundreds of Crores for the Railways, is saddled with old, second-rate coaches (even for the so-called flagship Rajdhani Express!) and what can be at best described as step-motherly treatment?

Now that it is pretty clear that we cannot expect much munificence from the cash-strapped and unsympathetic Railways, it would be prudent to let go of grandiose plans like two-level platforms (yeah, we will still have to go to Europe or China to see those!) and focus on what all can be achieved at minimum expense that can have the maximum impact.
Trivandrum Central

Kerala's busiest station is congested beyond belief, its 5 platforms proving very unequal to the task of handling over 50 trains a day. To add to the congestion of a city-center station is the need to have nearly a dozen stabling lines and a Coach Care Center. At various times, it has been proposed to shift the non-operating lines and the Center to Kochuveli and Nemom, and to replace them with at least another 5 platforms. Although Kochuveli now has a couple of platforms and stabling/sick lines, these are hardly adequate even for the growing number of trains based at the station let alone for decongesting Central. And Nemon seems even further down below the horizon, at this point.

 Jam-packed! (Image Courtesy: Me @

So what are the quick-wins at Trivandrum Central?
  • Shift as many parked rakes as possible on to the unused lines at the Kochuveli goods yard and even to Kazhakkoottam and Nemom (this will necessitate additional shunting but that should be manageable on a temporary basis)
  • Construct at least two additional platforms at Trivandrum Central immediately (freeing up 4 stabling/sick lines should provide enough space for this); these could be used both for the MEMU service and for long-distance trains
  • Construct Multi-Level Car Parks (MLCPs) on the land available near the Thampanoor flyover and on Powerhouse road. These can be done on a PPP basis so that there is no capital burden for the Railways.
  • Extend the South pedestrian overbridge to cover all platforms; evaluate extending the North overbridge to the bus terminal
  • Open the North entrance (well constructed but closed ever since its inauguration a few years ago!) opposite the bus terminal, with proper access control and potentially with additional ticketing counters
  • Upgrade all platforms to the standards of Platform One with improved floors, digital signage and other amenities
  • Provide additional high-mast lighting on both sides of the Station and add more lights to the platforms
  • Provide fee Wi-fi on all platforms; this could be easily arranged through a sponsorship
These steps can be undertaken at minimal expense, and can be acted upon immediately.

On a slightly longer term, perhaps in the next four years or so, once Nemon becomes atleast partially operational, the Coach Care Center can be shifted there and the land thus freed up can be leased out to a budget hotel operator such as Tata's Ginger or Accor's ETap to set up a 150 key no-frills hotel. This would not only create a rail-hotel at no expense to the Railways, it could also bring in steady revenue through lease-rentals and/or a revenue share.

Additional land could be leased out on a long term for commercial development, such as a shopping mall, because the Railways have almost 800 feet of frontage onto the newly widened Powerhouse Road. This could help pay for further improvements at the Station. This could include setting up another three or four platforms, to take the total to ten or eleven. Two platforms can be dedicated to the MEMU/commuter services.

With its unbeatable location in the Center of the city and its proximity to other transit hubs such as the Thampanoor bus terminal, it is for certain that Trivandrum Central will continue to be the busiest station in Kerala for a long time and the best tactic for its development would be to ensure that only passenger embarkation/disembarkation happens here with all other ancillary activities such as maintenance shifted out to Nemom or Kochuveli.

Using the strategy outlined above, the outlay for the next couple of years may only be about Rs 20-30 Crores with a significant portion of the overall budget in the near future coming through PPP. It is important that all commercial development - MLCPs, hotel and commercial - be given out to private players and not done directly by the Railways or agencies like TRIDA, whose record is pretty dismal.

Kochuveli Railway Terminal
What started with a lot of fanfare as a project to develop the once-sleepy station at Kochuveli into a rail terminal which would almost completely replace Trivandrum Central as the city's main station has petered out into a crawling saga of fund-starved construction, which has only thrown up three platforms, a few sick/stabling lines and precious little else. A number of trains have started operating out of the terminal but its infrastructure continues to be woefully inadequate.
After a lot of talk in the last six years, the Railways coughed up only Rs 30 Lakhs last year, against a minimum of Rs 10 Crores needed to establish the basic infrastructure needed to handle the 28 trains that are operated from it every week. This being the case, the following would be a viable action plan for the station:
  • Complete the island platform and at least five pit/stabling lines in the coming year; this would allow for some pit lines to be freed up at Trivandrum Central
  • Complete the foot overbridge linking both sides of the terminal; there are frequent bus services along the Veli road on the other side
  • Ensure stops for as many long distance trains as possible at Kochuveli to ensure round the clock activity which would allow for amenities such as taxis, buses and food outlets to be operated viably; this would also reduce passenger congestion at Central
  • Erect high-mast lights for the terminal premises and street lighting for the approach road which needs to be widened to 3 lanes
  • Establish a MLCP on a PPP basis
  • Complete an additional 2 platforms and a total of 10-12 pit/stabling lines by 2013
This course of action would necessitate no more than Rs 10 Crores, all of which have already been allocated but is yet to physically disbursed. Over the longer term, an additional Rs 20-30 Crores would be needed for the additional platforms and pit/stabling lines.

In the meantime, 2-3 stabling lines can be developed at Kazhakkoottam station to help take the load off Central, land for this is available at the station and the expense involved in laying the lines would be minimal. Kazhakkoottam also needs improved signage and ticketing facilities, together with stoppages for more peak hour trains and more frequent bus shuttle services from and to Technopark Phases I, II and III.

Nemon Terminal

There were big plans for Nemon, halfway between Central and the proposed cargo yard at Balaramapuram (Junction?!) where the spur line from the Vizhinjam deep water port will meet the mainline. As with the other wishful plans that we have heard from the Trivandrum Division, nothing has transpired so far. The reason is again the same, no money has actually been allocated in the Budget, and on top of that, there is apparently a need to acquire a large parcel of land for the station to be developed to its full potential.
The Railways already have 30 acres of land here, which seems to be more than sufficient for the Coach Care Center (CCC) to be set up although it seems that most of the land is not along the rail line, hence the need for acquiring more land. I would hazard a guess that the maintenance facility which need not be along the rail line, as a platform needs to be, can be set up on the existing land as long as it can be connected to the main line. In comparison, the current CCC facility at Trivandrum Central occupies only about 5 acres of land in the tightly-packed complex. If land is not an impediment, this may be accomplished at a cost of around Rs 50 Crores (a rule-of-thumb figure, considering the fact that a massive coach maintenance facility in Bihar, that sprawls over 118 acres, set to be commissioned in November will cost Rs 230 Crores), invested in two or three phases. Considering the fact that all the equipment can be shifted from the existing facility, the incremental cost would be the civil work on the sheds and new tracks to park the coaches under repair. If budgetary support can be found, this project can be completed in 18-24 months, without waiting for land acquisition to inch its way to a conclusion and this would free up land at Central for commercial development.

In the longer run, additional pit and stabling lines can be added at Nemom so that all North-bound trains operating from Trivandrum Central can be parked here till they are shunted to the platforms there, converting Central to a pure "pass-through" station and freeing up land for the final build-out to 11-12 platforms. Nemon also needs pass through platforms to be used as a commuter rail facility to service the rapidly developing southern part of the metro region.
Commuter Rail, Cargo and other Initiatives

Even a year after the completion of base facilities in Kollam, the long-awaited Mainline Electric Multiple Unit (MEMU) service shows little sign of commencing operations between Neyyatinkara and Kollam, connecting Trivandrum with its southern and northern satellites, including Attingal and Varkala en route. The MEMU is basically a commuter train, such as those that form the backbone of the transport system in Mumbai, but which is capable of running on the main line instead of just on segregated commuter rail lines. The MEMU is designed to move high-volumes of commuters over relatively short distances (an hour's travel or so). It is imperative that at least 3 MEMU rakes be immediately made available so that services on the Kollam - Neyyatinkara stretch can be run every 30 minutes during peak hours (7 AM to 8.30 AM and 5 PM to 6.30 PM) and every 45 minutes to an hour off peak. The introduction of the MEMU service will allow the shuttle trains to be taken out of service and their coaches redeployed to long distance trains. The services along the Kollam-Varkala-Attingal-Trivandrum-Balaramapuram-Neyyatinkara would help in the integration of the Trivandrum metropolitan region and the merger of Kollam into it as a satellite city.

This is a nearly zero cost initiative since the MEMU infrastructure is already in place and the induction of the MEMU rakes would be in effect offset by the freeing up of the existing shuttle rakes which can be redeployed to other services.

On a longer term, the proposed Chenganoor-Adoor-Trivandrum line and/or the proposed Erumeli-Punalur-Trivandrum line can be routed to proceed via Venjaramoodu and Nedumangad to meet the mainline at Nemom. This would provide a commuter ring line to the east of the CBD where MEMUs can be operated to draw in commuters from catchments along the the M.C.Road such as Kottarakara Anchal and Adoor.

The commissioning of the Vizhinjam deep water port will definitely bring additional traffic on to the rail network around Trivandrum even if the primary purpose of the port is transshipment. There will be some hinterland cargo for direct delivery/pickup from Southern Kerala and Southern Tamilnadu, as well as from key industrial clusters like Coimbatore and Bangalore, drawn by the direct access to the biggest mainline ships that will call at Vizhinjam, instead of getting cargo transshipped via, say, Colombo. If a coal terminal is set up at Vizhinjam, and the coal is shipped out by train instead of by a conveyor belt or barges/coastal coal carrying ships, this could mean 30,000 tons or ten rakes will need to be moved daily (for a annual throughput of 10 Million tons of coal). With the rail network running well above 100% capacity at present, this would necessitate the construction of a third or fourth line. The bare minimum requirement would be the immediate doubling of the Trivandrum - Kanyakumari line, on to which the Vizhinjam port would be connected at Balaramapuram. Unfortunately, the Railways seem to be feigning ignorance of this tiny little development, even while they cleared the construction of the rail spur to the port last year. Consequently the Trivandrum Division needs to prepare a master plan for the entire network, not just for Balaramapuram station, to handle the cargo traffic due to the port that is all set to be commissioned in 2014-15, and also ask Concor to immediately conduct studies to link Vizhinjam with the Inland Container Depots (ICDs) in key locations such as Bangalore, Coimbatore and Ernakulam as well as to set up an ICD in proximity to the port.

 A Concor Double-stacked Container Train (Image Courtesy:

Finally, there is one relatively inexpensive but impactful change which the Railways need to make at the earliest. In fact, it would probably cost no more than a few dabs of paint and changes to websites. The change in question is to modify the name of Kochuveli station to Trivandrum Kochuveli (TVK?), Nemom to Trivandrum Nemom (TVN?) and Kazhakkoottam to Trivandrum Technopark (TKP?). When I last enquired about this with the Railways, they mentioned that it could be done with a simple request from the State Government. Painless changes, but ones which would spare thousands of people the trouble of figuring out the fact that a station with the code "KCVL" is actually located in Trivandrum!

Dr Shashi Tharoor has encapsulated many of the points, mentioned above, in a letter that he had sent to the Railway Minister, but these initiatives now need to be pursued with renewed vigour well in advance of the Rail Budget due in February 2012. The State Government too needs to move on from symbolic gestures like hosting the Railway Minister at Trivandrum and create a time-bound game-plan to take a priortized list of projects to pursue with the Railways using its new clout at the Center (being of the same flavor as the Central Govt.) as well as getting all 20 MPs from Kerala on board. Simply put, the initiatives listed above will not cost the Railways more than about Rs 100 Crores over the next 3 years, and this must be put in perspective with the Rs 900 Crores that the Trivandrum Division earned in 2010-11, Rs 600 Crores of which was from passenger traffic alone. By developing additional passenger and cargo capacity, the Railways stand to double or triple this figure and hence, what is proposed is a big win-win.

It's all very good to have ambitious visions for the development of the rail infrastructure in and around Trivandrum, but in today's resource constrained context for the Railways, and given the urgent need for many of these projects, it is most pragmatic to go in for the easy-wins first and to proceed on a track which minimizes immediate expenses and which tries to find revenues to feed costs along the way. Fingers crossed on many of these proposals making coming to fruition, in which case the Railways stand to keep playing an important role in and benefiting from the development of Trivandrum.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

P.P.S: Thanks, Dr Tharoor!

Just a quick note to thank Dr Tharoor for his feedback on the main article about Vizhinjam. More than being the MP of Trivandrum, Dr. Tharoor is now on the Director Board of VISL, perhaps smartest move the new Government has made with respect to the project. Even before joining the Board, he has been very active in supporting the project during the tenure of the previous Government, having brought in the Port of Barcelona to advise and potentially partner in the project and also having used his influence in Delhi to help expedite the key environmental clearance project.

I am sure that his leadership will be key in taking Vizhinjam from planning to reality. As I mentioned towards the end of my article, the Vizhinjam port is a vision, not a mere plan. And in Dr Tharoor, I believe we have a visionary who understands the potential of the project and appreciates how much it can change the face of our city!

P.S: A UMPP at Trivandrum

A few days after I posted the previous article, in which I written that one of the key opportunity areas that the market study for the Vizhinjam port had missed was the possibility of setting up a coastal coal-fired power plant that would import its fuel through the deep-water port at Vizhinjam.

As if to underscore the necessity of such a project in maintaining energy security for Kerala into the foreseeable future, The Hindu reported on September 16 that the Kerala State Electricity Board was exploring the possibility of setting up a 1000 MW thermal power plant in Orissa adjacent to the coal fields that it had been allotted a few years ago. In the report, the Electricity Minister himself admits that the State's energy needs are likely to exceed 6000 MW by 2020 compared to the current generation capacity of just 1800 MW. This is possibly a conservative figure given the fact that the current peak demand is about 3100 MW, at a relatively low per capita consumption of about 700 KWh/year, and once this consumption rises to the global average of over 2000 KWh/year, the peak demand could be as high as 9000 MW!

This means that even if the power plant in Orissa becomes a reality (and I wouldn't bet much on that given the KSEB's dubious project execution capabilities even at home), Kerala is likely to end up with a deficit of well over 5000 MW by 2020 or so. A UMPP's typical capacity is around 4000 MW, and while some of this power may need to be shipped out in the early years of operation, Kerala alone would consume its entire output by 2020, which is not that far down the line!
One of the reasons mentioned for locating the KSEB plant in Orissa and not in Cheemeni in North Kerala, as originally envisaged, was that there were protests about its environmental impacts. If that was the case with a back-of-the-beyond location, there will surely be louder protests against a plant next to the State's capital and only metropolitan city. However, today's coal-fired plants are a far-cry from the smoke and ash spewing monstrosities that most people visualize when they hear the term "thermal power station". With state-of-the-art technology like super-critical boilers, integrated coal gasification, scrubbers, ash filters and clean imported coal (with 4 times less gas, and twice the energy content of Indian coal), a modern coastal UMPP will be much cleaner than many of the legacy industries currently operating in Kerala. The fact that no UMPP has yet been tripped up by the stringent norms of India's Environmental Clearance process is evidence enough of this. MIT's report on the Future of Coal gives more details about clean-coal technology, for those of you who may be interested in knowing more.

The bottom line is Kerala needs energy to sustain its growth as a modern, service-oriented economy and if we are to become self-dependent in this regard, a coastal UMPP is the best solution, given the fact that we have India's deepest port and an ideal strategic gateway for the import of clean, high-energy coal from Australia, Indonesia and South Africa.
The bid process for Vizhinjam is nearing its conclusion and we will know its outcome soon, I just hope that the winning bidder comes to the above conclusion as well.