Real story behind K-Rail's desperate switch to standard gauge

SilverLine Semi High-Speed Rail

Dear Shri Vijayan ji,
Kindly refer to your letter dated 27.09.2018 regarding the proposed, new, elevated semi-high-speed rail corridor between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasaragod.
This matter has been examined. The Union Ministry of Railways supports the proposed project as a stand-alone elevated rail corridor of the Government of Kerala and will render any technical advice/support as and when required in the course of the execution of the project.
Warm regards
Piyush Goyal

This is a letter written by the then Union Railway Minister, Piyush Goyal, to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan in October 2018 (No. 2018/Infra/12/33 Dated 16.10.2018). The Union Minister was replying to a letter from the CM soon after the devastating floods of Kerala.

The letter has just three sentences. But it's a turning point in the story of Silverline, Kerala's ambitious semi-high-speed rail corridor (200-250 km/h). This was the first green signal from the Centre for the proposed 530-km line connecting Thiruvananthapuram, the state's capital, in the south, and the northernmost district of Kasaragod.

Vital question

Before getting back to Piyush Goyal's letter, a few things need to be said. In the hullabaloo over Silverline, many people have raised this question: Why is the project conceived as a stand-alone corridor, unconnected to the existing, vast railway network; that too on the British Standard Gauge which is alien to India?

India has the fourth largest railway network in the world after the US, Russia, and China. Out of the 1,26,511-km-long network in the country, 94 per cent is broad gauge (track width: 1,676 mm). The rest is on metre gauge (track width: 1000 mm) and narrow gauge (762 mm and 610 mm). Only a few metro rails and their extensions are on standard gauge (1,435 mm). Metro rails, governed by the Ministry of Urban Development, are not considered part of the mainline Indian Railway network.

The State government; the Kerala Rail Development Corporation (K-Rail), the project implementing agency which is a joint venture company formed by the Centre and the state; and some prominent leaders of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) in Kerala have tried various explanations when confronted with this question.

The explanations

These are some of the explanations: The British Standard Gauge is superior to the Indian Broad Gauge; trains cannot run beyond a speed of 160 kmph on the country's broad gauge lines; Silverline was conceived as a standard gauge project right from the beginning; the Railway Ministry directed the state to adopt standard gauge; Systra, the general consultant of K-Rail, recommended standard gauge; and most of the countries in the world build high speed lines on the 'proven standard gauge technology.' Are these points factually correct? Let us examine one by one.

Was Silverline conceived as a stand-alone standard gauge project from beginning?

No. The initial proposal was for a semi-high-speed (200 km/h) elevated corridor on broad gauge with linkages to the existing railway lines to carry high-speed trains in the daytime and normal ones at night. This is clearly stated in the very first report, a proposal, submitted by K-Rail to the Union Railway Ministry in 2017 seeking permission for feasibility studies and preparing a Detailed Project Report (DPR). The report, titled 'Construction of 3rd & 4th railway lines from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod Semi High Speed Corridor,' does not mention standard gauge anywhere.

The plan was to reach Kasaragod in four hours. The report goes into the benefits of building an elevated corridor in a land-scarce state where the land acquisition cost is very high.

Did the Railway Board direct the state to build the new corridor on standard gauge?

No document is available to prove that the Union Railway Ministry (the Railway Board) asked K-Rail to stick to standard gauge. Read Piyush Goyal's letter again. It does not mention 'gauge'. K-Rail's original proposal was a broad-gauge project, and the Board approved it. However, there is a twist here. The Centre specifically said it was supporting a 'stand-alone' corridor. The word 'stand-alone' enters the scene and alters the track of the story. The word is a bit vague and could mean 'separate', at a distance from the existing line and not along and adjacent to it.

Curiously, K-Rail did not have any doubts about it and raised no questions on 'stand-alone' even when its original proposal was for a separate elevated corridor that would not run adjacent to the existing line but a little distance apart but connected from the existing railway lines for interchange of trains seamlessly with the Indian Railway network.

Did Systra recommend standard gauge?

No, and yes. This needs some explanation. Systra, an internationally known consulting agency, is the general consultant of K-Rail. It was this company that prepared the Preliminary Feasibility Report (18.3.2019), the Final Feasibility Report (15.5.2019) and the Detailed Project Report (9.6.2020) of Silverline. The studies were done by the Faridabad-based Systra MVA Consulting (India), a subsidiary of the Paris-based Systra.

It was when Systra started working on the Preliminary Feasibility Report that the project changed from the Indian Broad Gauge to the British Standard Gauge.

"In fact, KRDCL asked us to do feasibility studies for a stand-alone project on standard gauge. V Ajith Kumar, managing director of K-Rail, told us that the ministry had given approval for a standard gauge project," said Alok Kumar Verma, who led the preliminary feasibility study as a lead consultant for Systra. Alok Verma was formerly with the Indian Railway Service of Engineers (IRSE) and retired in 2016 as Chief Engineer after 35 years of service. In 1993-96, working at the Research Design and Standards Organization (RDSO), the R&D wing of the Indian Railways, he carried out studies for raising the speed of trains to 160-200 kmph in India.

The work on the Preliminary Feasibility Report was carried out from December 2018 to March 2019. At the final stage of the report, Alok Verma sent a letter to V Ajith Kumar seeking the Centre's letter approving the project on standard gauge (Systra's letter to V Ajith Kumar, dated 7.3.2019). But Ajith Kumar did not respond to this letter.

Even when the K-Rail wanted Systra to do feasibility studies for a standard gauge project, Systra, in its preliminary feasibility report, recommended the Indian Broad Gauge for the new project. The Preliminary Feasibility Report had pointed out that going for a stand-alone project, that too on an alien gauge, would adversely affect the number of passengers, cost of the project, and its viability. Since the Indian Railway was considering an upgrade of the existing lines to increase the speed of trains, KRDCL should seriously consider adopting broad gauge so as to remain abreast with the latest technologies and developments, suggested the preliminary report.

Systra's report also said an elevated corridor from the southern to the northern ends of the state was not suitable, considering the unique topography of the state. "The alignment we prepared for the preliminary report was away from the flood-and-landslides-prone mid-highlands. About 70 per cent of the alignment will be on low-height viaducts for better stability, safety, less disturbance to habitations, less obstruction to roads and bylanes and to allow easy flow of floodwater," says Alok Verma. "If Silverline were on Broad Gauge, the cost of the project would have come down 40-60 per cent, ridership would be at least twice, and the extent of land acquired would have been about half compared to a line on standard gauge," he said.

Ajith Kumar told this writer in a telephonic interview on 14.11.2021 that Systra had not submitted any Preliminary Feasibility Report recommending the Indian Broad Gauge.

However, he had sent a 7-page letter (this writer is in possession of this letter) to Systra on 25.3.2019 incorporating his critical views on the Preliminary Feasibility Report. However, in that letter, he mentioned nothing on the issue of gauge.

K-Rail neither submitted the preliminary report to the Railway Board nor issued any order on this report. "Instead of finalising the Preliminary Feasibility Report, KRDCL and Systra connived to hurriedly prepare the Final Feasibility Report of May 19 sans the essential and mandatory ground and traffic surveys. This is in grave violation of the Engineering Code of Indian Railways," says Alok Verma who left Systra after submitting the preliminary report.

Systra takes a U-turn on gauge

It usually takes some years to complete the final feasibility study for any railway project of the size of Silverline.

The Indian Railway Board's Engineering Code Manual gives clear directions on the way the study should be done. Geological survey, geotechnical survey, and hydrological surveys are mandatory for assessing the strength and stability of the ground along which the new line would be built. Detailed ridership surveys and environmental impact assessment are mandatory as a part of the Feasibility Report under the Indian Railways Engineering Codes.

Feasibility of construction, cost, ridership, and almost everything depends on these surveys. The Final Location Survey before finalisation of the DPR by the executing agency and submission of DPR to the Railway Board is a must. It involves marking of the alignment on the ground and verification by random checking of the various survey data.

But Systra prepared the Final Feasibility Report within 55 days of submitting the preliminary report without doing any of the mandatory surveys. It made a paper alignment using Google Earth topographic data.

Systra's admission of lapse

Interestingly, Systra itself admits this in its Feasibility Report. The company said it was in a hurry to submit the report and all the mandatory studies would be done during the preparation of the Detailed Project Report (DPR).

Data fudge

Besides violating the engineering codes, Systra did some data fudging in its final report. For instance, in the ridership forecast of the Preliminary Feasibility Report, the estimated number of daily passengers for the year 2028 is 45,659. Curiously, this number steeply rose to 82,260 for the same year in the Final Feasibility Report.

As for the gauge, Systra took a U-turn in its Final Feasibility Report recommending the British Standard gauge for the new project. It has neither given any justification for adopting an alien gauge nor done any comparative study between the broad gauge and the standard gauge alignments. The final feasibility report merely says: "For the feasibility study of the Semi-High Speed Rail corridor standard gauge has been adopted for a stand-alone project as per directions from KRDCL."

That means, the consultant was under pressure from the client. KRDCL directed what Systra should recommend and Systra obeyed it.

Did the Railway Board reject the cooked-up feasibility report?

No. Instead, the Railway Board granted in-principle approval (IPA) to the project on December 17, 2019, based on the feasibility report that violated the board's own norms.

The Board did not raise any questions on the change of gauge even when its first green signal was for an elevated corridor on the Indian Broad Gauge. When the Board receives a feasibility report for a new project, all the departments (under the Board) should review it. However, in the case of Silverline, IPA was granted based on a presentation done by the K-Rail managing director on December 10, 2019.

The very first item on the minutes of the meeting is gauge. The minutes merely state so: "The proposal is for standard gauge. In view of the various advantages of SG on higher speeds and proven technology available world over, it was agreed in-principle to proceed with SG on this stand-alone system." But what are the advantages of standard gauge? The Board did not elaborate on it.

Is the British Standard Gauge superior to the Indian Broad Gauge?

Gauge is just the spacing between two rails forming a track. The Standard Gauge (1,435 mm), Indian Broad Gauge (1,676 mm), Iberian Gauge (1,668 mm), and the Russian Gauge (1,524 mm) are broadly classified as the broad gauge.

"In terms of speed potential, passenger and freight carrying capacity, and the size of coaches and wagons, there is not much difference among the various broad gauge systems, including the standard gauge system," says Alok Verma. "There is no truth, no scientific basis to the claims made by K-Rail and others that SG is inherently superior to the other BG systems," he says.

Each country started building up its railway network according to its geography and topography. For instance, the railway networks in America, China, Japan, most of the western European countries, including Britain, France and Germany, are on the British Standard Gauge. Spain and Portugal are on Iberian gauge. Russia and many other eastern European countries adopted the Russian gauge for their railway networks. Railway networks in India, Pakistan, Napal, Bangladesh, Argentina, and Chile are on the Indian Broad Gauge.

Just like India, other countries too have intermediate and narrow gauges for slow speeds and difficult terrains.

In the same category, say the broad gauge systems, including the British Standard Gauge and the Indian Broad Gauge, there is no limit on speed on account of gauge. There is no credible study or report showing that standard gauge has a higher speed potential than the other broad gauges.

Is it true that trains cannot run on Indian Broad Gauge lines beyond 160 km/h?

The 2017 report of K-Rail was for a railway corridor for a speed of 200 km/h and it was to be on broad gauge. Along with Silverline, the Indian Railway Board approved another semi high-speed line from Pune to Nashik. The 250 km/h line is on broad gauge. India's first high-speed rail corridor from Mumbai to Ahmedabad (350 km/h) was initially planned on broad gauge (Later changed to standard gauge).

However, it is true that at present trains are not running beyond 160 kmph on the Indian railway network. Gatimaan Express, launched in 2016 from New Delhi to Agra, and later extended to Jhansi in 2018, runs at a speed of 160 km/h. Similarly, Vande Bharat trains, launched in 2019, and running between Delhi-Varanasi and Delhi-Katra, are designed to run at maximum speeds of 200 km/h; but now these operate at 130 km/h. Indian Railways' ABB locomotives and LHB coaches are designed for operational speeds up to 200 km/h and test speed of 220 km/h and can be upgraded for that speed with some modifications.

If the Indian Railways failed to attain speeds beyond 160 km/h, the fault is not with the gauge. The only reason is the delay on part of the Railway Board and the Centre in upgrading the existing railway tracks.

The upgrade process started way back in the 1960s and the Railways could increase the speed, phase by phase, up to 160 kmph. Since the 1990s, the Centre has been formulating plans to upgrade the lines for 200 kmph. The country had acquired ABB locos and LHB coaches with speed potential of 200 kmph by the end of the 1990s.

The Vision 2020 document presented in Parliament by then Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee in 2010 promised raising speed on the trunk routes to 200 kmph by 2020 in a phased manner. Two categories of new high-speed lines for train speeds up to 200-250 kmph and 300-350 kmph are included in this document. One among them is the Chennai-Bengaluru-Coimbatore-Cochin-Thiruvananthapuram line for 300-350 kmph.

For upgrading the tracks the following should be done: shifting of heavy freight trains to alternative routes, upgrade of signalling, and improvement of overhead equipment and power supply. If tilting trains — a technology widely used in many railways abroad and neglected by the Indian Railway so far — are used on tracks with curves, like the Thiruvananthapuram-Kasaragod line, speed can be increased by 20-30 per cent with minimum realignments, says Alok Verma.

"Indifference of the Centre towards the Railways at a time when road and air transport are witnessing rapid growth and expansion and the attempts to make broad gauge a scapegoat for the past failures show confusion and lack of vision and long-term planning," he says.

Railways is a Central subject. The Centre formulated a policy in 2016 'to strengthen the involvement of the states in the development of railways.' This paved the way for joint venture companies between the Centre and the states. The company, in which the Centre holds 49 per cent, and the state 51 per cent of shares, would take up the projects that are important to the states. The company shall conduct project surveys, prepare detailed project reports, facilitate procurement of required approvals and clearances, and monitor the projects. In fact, this policy transfers much of the burden to the states. KRDCL was formed in January 2017 under this policy.

Who is pushing for an alien gauge?

The K-Rail MD had stated in an interview that it would be difficult to find multilateral agencies to finance the project if standard gauge is not used. So, that could be the real reason for an alien gauge being hastily pushed onto the country. Of late, more and more high speed and semi-high speed stand-alone, standard gauge corridors are being planned in the country.

Let us take the case of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Elevated High Speed Corridor. The 508-km corridor under construction is India's first high speed (350kmph) railway line. Just like Silverline, this project too was initially proposed on broad gauge. French and German experts had recommended Indian Broad Gauge for this line.

However, at a later stage, as with Silverline, the project changed to standard gauge. This happened when the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) entered the picture as the main loan-provider to the project. In the case of Silverline, discussions with JICA are going on. Out of the total cost of the project (according to the state government, Rs. 63,941 crore) more than 60 per cent is to be raised by way of long-term foreign debts.

Foreign banks that provide loans put a condition that a certain large percentage of the loan amount should be by way of import of machinery, technology, and the rolling stock (locomotives, coaches and train sets), and award of contracts to companies from the funding agencies' country. That means, if JICA is extending loans to Silverline, Kerala will have to enter into contracts with the Japanese manufacturing, design, and construction companies.

Contrary to what the state government and KRDCL claim, Silverline doesn't seem to be an outcome of deep concerns over the transportation woes of the state. What could really matter is long term foreign loans that would be guaranteed by the state government. In a letter to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on December 15, 2021, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had asked the state to take forward the discussions with JICA and expedite the land acquisition process and other clearances.

(M Suchitra is an independent journalist based in Kochi)

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