Since the previous article on the High Speed Rail proposal, I have received a lot of feedback from many of you, through comments here, on SSC and on the Trivandrum Updates blog, which is the best one-stop shop for news about Trivandrum!
Let me thank everyone who chipped in and all those who didn't but still took the time to read my thoughts. While many of you supported the idea, there were a lot of folks who saw the current proposal for the bloated white whale (Moby Dick, please excuse again! that it is.
After a bit of further thought on the subject and a few discussions with like-minded friends of mine, here's a short proposal for the powers-that-be.
- Without jumping straight to the HSR option, it would do the Government well to appoint a consultant to study all options for implementing "high speed and cost-efficient travel" along the North-South axis in Kerala. This could be HSR, mixed-use rail, an Expressway or even jet-skis on our canals! The message is simple - DO NOT discount any option without studying it properly
- If Rail is selected as the best option, adopt a phased approach rather than move directly to the ludicrously expensive HSR
- Acquire a 30 m wide RoW either along the existing rail alignment from Trivandrum to Kasargode or along a new greenfield alignment (say, Trivandrum - Kottarakara - Punalur - Muvattupuzha - Kanjikode - Mallapuram - Kannur - Kasargode, with spurs to Ernakulam and Kozhikode) where the land acquisition will be the least expensive.
- Construct two electrified broad-guage lines with an operating speed of at least 200 Km/Hr
- Operate Acela-like high speed train-sets at up to 250 Km/Hr
- Also operate high-speed freight trains to between Trivandrum and Ernakulam, Coimbatore, Chennai and Bangalore with containers and perishable goods being the predominant cargo
- All existing semi-high speed trains, such as the Rajdhani, Duronto and Jan Shatabdi can be run on the new tracks as well
- In the future, say 10 years hence, if a market emerges for true HSR, two tracks, either at grade or elevated, can be constructed along the same RoW since no new land acquisition will be needed
It looks like the HSR wave in India is more a knee-jerk reaction to China's splurge on the technology rather than on economic fundamentals. I would guess that the feasibility study will point to only a few viable routes, if any, such as Mumbai - Ahmedabad, Delhi - Agra (?) and Chennai - Bangalore. These would work if the Union Government is ready to invest dozens of Billions of dollars into it. At this time, I would doubt that. For a comparison, the total cost of the National Highway Development Program may be of the order of Rs 150,000 Crores ($ 32 Billion) over the last decade or more, whereas implementing all six HSR corridors proposed now would cost at least $ 200 Billion! If the projects go out on the BOT route, it seems unlikely that there will be any takers without massive subsidies (essentially all the capital expenditure!) and if at all, only for the few routes identified above, not for less attractive ones like the stretch in Kerala.
On the other hand, the phased, hybrid rail development that I have outline above could be set in motion at much lower cost and almost immediately. The principal initial expenditure would be land acquisition. The RoW would need about (600 Km X 25 m = 15 Sq. Km = 3750 acres). If the alignment is chosen to run through sparsely populated interior areas with low land valuations, the average cost could be kept down to about Rs 1 Crore/Acre. This means that all the land could be acquired for about Rs 4000 Crores, or if it is done in two phases, Phase I (Trivandrum - Ernakulam) would cost about 1500 Crores. As mentioned in the previous article, the rail system itself would cost about Rs 5000 Crores.
Since this is not a pure HSR project, the Indian Railways could be roped in. IR does not have the funds, so the State would have to chip with most of the cash, probably through a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), which raises debt or issues bonds. Additionally, because of the freight traffic involved, agencies like ConCor and the operator of the Vizhinjam deep-water port could be roped in as equity partners. We could even try to bring in a private operator for the new rail system, who would maintain and operate the system in exchange for fees charged to the operators such as IR, Concor etc.
This would be a complex, hybrid deal with multiple stake-holders but it would probably be able to raise the funds needed in a practical period of time because it can tap more than one source. Rather than leaving the implementation to IR (whose record in Kerala is pathetic) or to a new Central Government entity (for which Kerala would be the lowest priority), this option takes the development of the system into the hands of the stake-holders who are most interested in it - the people of Kerala and key business entities like the Vizhinjam port.
Sound very logical, doesn't it. But to move to a pragmatic solution like this, the State Government needs to take a step back from its current fixation on HSR as the ONLY solution and snap out of the spell spun by DMRC, which seems to have been anointed the one-stop shop for all transportation solutions, even those with no relation to mass transit! The latter has a lot of vested interest in pushing its one-size-fits-all solution, as is evident from its proposal to use Standard gauge (used in the Delhi Metro) instead of the Broad Guage (used in the rest of the Indian railway network), which means that the two systems will never be compatible - forget having trains run on either network.
It's so early in the day for HSR (nothing more than a presentation, yet another shell company and a Face Book quip or two!) that the State Government still has the option of stepping back from economic suicide. Now, if only they would listen.......!