High-speed travel or a rushed decision?- The New Indian Express

Kerala Rail Development Corporation Limited or K-Rail is the hottest topic in the state today. Both the ruling party and the opposition are on a war path trying to make as much political mileage out of the situation as possible. Right now, the issue has been reduced to one of land acquisition and a question of rehabilitation of nearly 20,000 families. No doubt, it is a herculean task to rehabilitate these many families considering that constructing even 5,000 houses for the poor could not be completed for several years. Along with this, there are other major concerns in the proposed K-Rail such as the choice of technology, cost and schedule analysis, and finding the basic input materials. Above all, the long embankment and tunnels proposed pose serious ecological problems.

Progress of a modern civilisation is dependent on mobility and communication. Starting from the invention of the wheel to the present day rocket systems for space travel, humankind has strived to achieve higher speeds. Last three decades have seen an explosive growth in modes of transport, thanks to the application of modern science and technology. Thus, it is quite reasonable that Keralites aspire for a faster mode of transport.

Wagons running on rail tracks, for transporting coal in the mines, were invented around the late 18th century. From this, major developments took place in Europe and later in Japan, China, Korea, etc., with steam engine speeds upto 100 km/hr being achieved by the beginning of 20th century. By mid-sixties, the introduction of electric traction and diesel engines took the speed limits to 200 km/hr. Today the TGV rail in France operates at 320 km/hr. In addition to this, there are development plans in France, Japan and China to push speeds to around 500 km/hr using magnetic levitation technology. Today, in India, the Shatabdi express operates with speeds reaching 160 km/hr, and the Government of India has announced plans to introduce the Vande Bharat Express with 200 km/hr as its peak speed. All these programmes, to enable the operation of semi-high speed trains as done in other countries, are based on the existing broad gauge railway track network. Indian railway has a credible record of speeding up the trains in existing routes of Delhi, Agra, Kanpur, Jalandhar, etc. achieving 160 km/hr. Also, high-speed trains are planned along the Ahmedabad-Mumbai route to operate at 300 km/hr in a specially designed corridor. 

The proposed K-Rail for the future generations of Kerala is an outdated technology and is only a semi-high speed one running at 200 km/hr. One has to examine the true relevance of K-Rail in a scenario when The Indian Railways has plans to upgrade their system in Kerala by doubling and strengthening the lines, and modernising the signalling system. Through these modifications, peak speeds of 200 km/hr can be achieved with an expenditure of less than Rs10,000 crore with an average speed of about 150 km/hr. With this, the travel time between Kasaragod and Thiruvananthapuram can be reduced to less than five hours.
Initially, the K-Rail project was kept aside due to a huge estimated cost of around `200,000 crore and the problems associated with land acquisition. About five years later, the LDF brought out a new report showing a much reduced cost of Rs 64,000 crore. How can the estimate be brought down to one-third when a time overrun can itself lead to a 50% cost rise? NITI Aayog, in its analysis, had indicated that the project cost would be around Rs 150,000 crore. 

In the preamble of K-Rail’s project report, the main objectives are stated as ushering in a new technology of high-speed travel. The fact is that a 50-year-old technology that is becoming outdated globally is being proposed for Kerala’s future. It is for Keralites to choose whether they need a new rail system almost parallel to the existing network of The Indian Railways at an astronomical cost.
Elevated platforms and tunnels also pose technical and schedule constraints. On the whole, the estimate of five years is highly optimistic given that the high speed rail work between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is taking more than five years. 

Another advantage claimed is adopting green technology and achieving carbon neutrality. Already the trains in Kerala are running on electric traction with zero emission. A further improvement by augmenting the rooftop solar capacity can be established in the present scheme as well. Using buses, cars and auto rickshaws running on either batteries or natural gas can give the much-needed reduction in carbon emissions.

K-Rail easing travel agonies in Kerala is a myth. The population living within 10 km from the proposed railway stations is less than 40%. Hence, the majority of people will have to depend on roads. Also a major fraction of rail passenger traffic is to and from outside the state. The K-Rail does not have interoperability with the broad gauge tracks and it will only add to the agonies of long-distance travellers. For those travelling within the state, the road will continue to be the mainstay. 
With this scenario, there is no point in proceeding with K-Rail. The `200,000 crore can be better utilised for completing already planned schemes such as the six-lane highway between Kasaragod and Parasala, widening the state highways to four lanes and improving the connectivity to interior regions in Wayanad, Idukki, Malappuram, etc. Through doubling the existing rail lines and improving the signalling system that can reduce the travel time by about 40% was approved 10 years ago, it is still in the back-burner. 

Of late, the quality of higher education in Kerala is deteriorating and the employability of the students is low. Huge investments in higher education, research and skilling are very much needed. The high-quality healthcare provided by the state government is the reason for its high ranking in the health sector. However, currently, high-quality healthcare is available only from private players, whose services are unaffordable to the common people. 

Transportation is only one of the issues, whereas other vital problems such as rebuilding Kerala after the floods, providing drinking water, housing, strengthening the agriculture sector and investment in manufacturing needs attention. The savings from withholding the K-Rail can be well spent for the sustainable future of the state.

G Madhavan Nair 
Former ISRO chairman


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