Alok Kumar Verma
(Rtd. Chief Engineer, Indian Railway)
Incompetence, unprofessionalism, and a fixation with real-estate development and foreign debt have ruined the plan
“.. it will be difficult to find multilateral agencies to finance the project, if the line is not proposed on the Standard Gauge” – MD/KRDCL to The Print, 25.02.2020.
This is a long read. But, what has been happening in the preparation of the plan for the semi-highspeed line from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod and what this plan would mean can be summarised in one sentence: First, a decision is taken to adopt an unsuitable gauge for the line, then as the feasibility study is manipulated in all sorts of ways to justify the gauge the plan that has emerged is so bad that it would have devastating consequences if it is implemented. It is important to keep in mind that there is no difference between the Standard Gauge and Broad Gauge trains in terms of size of the coaches and wagons, and their passenger and freight carrying capacity and speed potential. KRDCL officials have recently started claiming that trains cannot run at more than 160 kmph: This is nothing but clutching at straws to justify their dubious plan.
This must be the most outlandish plan for a railway line ever conceived: A stand-alone line on an alien gauge (Standard Gauge), unconnected to the existing Indian Railway network, the fifth largest in the world that spans a vast country of 1.4 billion people. If the plan gets the final approval, the 530 km long line from Thiruvananthapuram to Kasaragod, largely funded by foreign debt, will be built with the know-how handed down by the foreign consultants and soft loans doled out by the foreign banks. While the well heeled will whiz past the pristine landscape of a rolling/hilly terrain in the Mid-Highlands of Kerala at an astounding speed of 200 km/hr on this shiny new line, rest of the people would be left with no option but to put up with the one of the slowest and neglected segment of the Indian Railways Broad Gauge network. If the rich and upper middle class are lucky, they might even get to live and work in one of the new smart cities in the expansive suburbs with easy access to airports.
The planning of the ambitious semi-highspeed line for operational speed of 200 kmph is in chaos and a complete mess, but the Managing director of KRDCL, the corporation that is handling the plan, claims everything is hunky dory and promises that the line will transform life in Kerala. The basic idea of building a semi-highspeed line is good, but the big problem is the plan to build this line on Standard Gauge that will make it a standalone line disconnected from the existing railway network. KRDCL and its General Consultant have displayed a high level of incompetence and unprofessionalism in the conduct of alignment surveys and feasibility studies in their misguided zeal to produce a plan to anyhow prove that construction of the line is technically feasible and financially justified.
The fulcrum of the current plan to build the Thiruvananthapuram – Kasargod semi-highspeed line rests on a falsehood and a flawed notion. The falsehood is that a 200 kmph semi-highspeed line cannot be built on the Indian Broad Gauge: Therefore, the line has to be built on Standard Gauge. The main reason why KRDCL adopted Standard Gauge is to get soft loans from the multilateral agencies. MD/KRDCL admitted this when questioned by The Print, 25.02.2020: “it will be difficult to find multilateral agencies to finance the project, if the line is not proposed on the Standard Gauge”
The mistaken notion is that construction of a standalone line can be justified with soft loans from the foreign institutions and suitably large real estate development schemes of smart cities etc at the new stations on the new line away from the stations on the existing line. More on this later.
What technical controls did the Railway Board exercise? The Feasibility Report of 2018 and the Feasibility Report of May’ 2019 were so improper that both deserved to be thrown into the Arabian Sea or kept in a railway museum, yet the Railway Board granted key approvals on the basis of these studies. The manner in which the entire planning for this line has so far been conducted offers important lessons for the policy makers.
II. THE FLAWED IMAGINATION OF AN END-TO-END ELEVATED CORRIDOR
The writer’s involvement with the plan began on a rather dramatic note. In November, 2018 the writer received a SOS call to come and guide the team of domain experts which KRDCL’s consultant had assembled at Thiruvananthapuram for preparing Detailed Project Report for the proposed semi-highspeed line. He agreed to work as a consultant to the Consultant and stayed on for about four months to complete the Preliminary Feasibility Report which was submitted to KRDCL on 20.3.19.
On arrival, the writer was apprised of this amazing plan of KRDCL to build a through elevated line with a road in the space under the viaduct. Considering that this elevated corridor would be built in an adverse terrain of alternating highground and lowlands interspersed with backwaters and wetlands, this plan was as spectacular as would be to build an escalator from the base to the top of Anamudi, the highest mountain in Western Ghats. Even more surprising, KRDCL plan was to build this elevated corridor on the same alignment which was surveyed in 2010-15 for the plan to build a 300-350 kmph highspeed Bullet Train line (This plan was dropped and replaced by the current plan for a semi-highspeed line).
All the stations on this alignment were to be located in the outskirts of the cities, 10 to 15 km from the city center. KRDCL claimed that these station locations were ideal for developing new smart cities and other forms of real estate development. Government land at these station locations would be leased to private developers. KRDCL claimed to earn about INR 11,000 crore through the various real estate development schemes in and around the new stations. This revenue would be used to part-finance the project. This idea was called “infrastructural financing through land monetisation”.
KRDCL had not done any survey to assess the feasibility of construction of a semi-highspeed line along the alignment for the Bullet Train line with all stations in the outskirts. KRDCL had also not thought out what impact locating stations in the outskirts would have on ridership. It is surprising that Railway Board approved the idea of building this line as an semi-highspeed elevated corridor on such a bad feasibility report from KRDCL.
When the writer examined the terrain and other factors, it became clear that the cost of construction on this alignment with long shallow tunnels and high viaducts and loss of ridership would be very high. Thus this whole idea of building the line as an elevated corridor with stations in the outskirts collapsed like a house of cards. KRDCL agreed to not pursue the idea of elevated corridor further, but it took an ultimatum from the writer to MD/KRDCL via email on February 1, 2019 that if such baseless suggestions continued to be made repeatedly the planning process would suffer.
KRDCL also agreed that the Consultant will focus on finding the optimum alignment for low construction cost, high ridership, good constructability and stability for safe and reliable running of trains at 200 kmph. It was decided that the scheme of real estate development along the optimum alignment will have to be studied separately by experts in real estate development and town planning, and it would be added to the plan for the line at a later stage of preparation of DPR after the work of the work of preparation of the Preliminary Feasibility Report was completed. With this plan of work, an objective decision could be taken later on the criteria that if the optimum alignment has to be shifted to the outskirts for the sake of real estate development then the increase in cost of construction and loss of ridership shall have to be compensated by earnings from real estate development. The net surplus from real estate development would then be treated as a contribution to the cost of construction of the line.
III. THE PRELIMINARY FEASIBILITY REPORT OF MARCH 2019
Another important revelation was that contrary to claims by KRDCL, the Railway Board had not approved adoption of Standard Gauge. In fact in its aforesaid feasibility report to Railway Board, KRDCL had proposed construction of the line on Broad Gauge. The line would be separate/standalone from the existing line in the sense that it will not run along the existing line, but the line will be connected to the IR network at the junction points. In the absence of approval of Standard Gauge by Railway Board, KRDCL had no authority to direct the consultant to prepare a feasibility report for a Standard Gauge line.
However, KRDCL did not want the issue of the gauge to be discussed in the Preliminary Feasibility Report by the Consultant that was nearing completion. After a bit of back and forth, the headquarter office of the Consultant agreed that the issue of Gauge and integration with the existing IR network was open to discussion. The Preliminary Feasibility Report which was prepared under the writer’s guidance was submitted to KRDCL on 20.03.2019. The report discusses in detail the advantages of building the line on BG with full integration with the IR network. It also discusses in detail the negative impact of urban sprawl in Kerala on ridership if the line is built as a standalone line on SG, and the care that should be exercised in planning real estate development, particularly in regard to likey negative impact on cost and ridership.The report concludes with the following recommendations:
i) Broad Gauge should be adopted
ii) Stations should be near the city center
iii) Proper traffic survey with appropriate models and preference surveys to realistically estimate ridership, particularly impact of station location.
iv) Detailed examination of feasibility of large scale real estate development without adversely affecting the line in regard to cost, ridership, and stability.
IV. HOW THE CONSULTANT REVERSED ITS VIEWS AND CAME UP WITH A FICTITIOUS ALIGNMENT
The Consultant bears the name of a renowned international consultant, but the international consultant provides no expertise for preparation of Feasibility Reports/DPR for this line, and all the work is done by the locally recruited personnel who have hardly any experience of survey, design and/or construction of 200 kmph on Standard Gauge. Some have worked on metro projects, but that is not of much use for a 200 kmph mainline railway. However, KRDCL never tires of claiming in media releases that the Consultant is based in Europe, implying that the best of internationally available expertise is being used for the planning of this line. Even after the writer left, the Consultant did not bring in any experts from outside the country. The worst part is that the consultant gave one set of recommendations in the Preliminary Feasibility Report of March’ 19 and another set of recommendations, which were the exact opposite of the first set of recommendations, in the Feasibility Report of May’19 without giving valid reasons.
But, after the writer left, the Consultant promptly reversed it’s stand on all issues, and prepared the final Feasibility Report of May’ 2019. It took Standard Gauge as beyond questioning, shifted the alignment to the adverse terrain of the Mid-Highlands region which resulted in high embankments and viaducts in waterlogged lowlands and high cuttings in landslide prone slopes, prepared a fictitious paper alignment to take all stations from Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi to the outskirts, doubled the daily ridership from 37,750 to 67,740, and slashed cost from INR 71,063 crore to INR 56,443 crore.
This above very high figure of ridership estimate was manipulated from the earlier traffic survey report for the 300-350 kmph highspeed line. That report had come up with an astronomically high figure of ridership (1,21,602), which is three times of the ridership projection (40,000) for the similar high speed line from Mumbai to Ahmedabad with about the same route length, number of station and fare structure but with total population in the cities in the corridor seven times more than in the corridor in Kerala.
The Consultant has prepared the Feasibility Report for the K-Line in complete violation of the rules and procedures prescribed in the Engineering Code of Indian Railway for carrying out the various ground surveys for new line projects to scientifically assess the geological, geotechnical, and hydrological condition of the terrain be traversed by the line. The data of these surveys shall be used to prepare alignment. These surveys, together with the ridership survey, are essential for assessing feasibility and financial viability of new lines. Estimates of cost, ridership, cost-benefit analysis, location of stations, environment impact assessment etc come out of these alignment surveys and studies.
The Code mandates that no proposal for a new line shall be sent to Railway Board without reports of these surveys. But, the Consultant did not carry out any of these surveys, and came up with a fictitious paper alignment using Goggle Earth which was tailor-made for real estate development without mentioning anywhere that it was an important consideration in designing the alignment and station locations.
The various ground surveys mandated by the Engineering Code were ignored despite the fact that the paper alignment proposed in this report required construction of a large proportion of the line on high embankments and viaducts in flood prone lowlands. The issue of noise, and ground vibrations, particularly in the positions of line on soft soils was also ignored.
Based on this report, Railway Board which on December 17, 2019 granted in-principle approval (IPA) for construction of the line.Undoubtedly, both KRDCL and the Consultant acted most unprofessionally and irresponsibly to prepare the Feasibility Report of May’ 2019. It is hard to find a precedent of this sort of wilful violation of codes and good practices.
V. HOW TOLERANT RAILWAY BOARD CAN BE OF ITS MISTAKES/BLUNDERS AND GOES ON REPEATING THEM, INCLUDING ON THE K-RAIL PROJECT
As for this line in the Mid-Highlands of Kerala a new gauge has been adopted without a proper ground surveys, so for the Kashmir Rail Link Project in Himalayas flat gradient of 1 in 100 was adopted without proper ground surveys to examine claims that because of the flatter gradient trains would run at twice the speed on the existing lines with steeper gradient (1 in 60 to 1 in 37) in the other mountain ranges. When the writer was posted on the project in 2004, two years after construction began, he found that most bridges were very large, cuttings were very high and tunnels were very long with long lengths along the geological fault lines. He proposed a new alignment with a steeper gradient of 1 in 44.
The Board suspended construction to conduct a review, but the proponents of flat gradient alignment scuttled the review claiming the flat gradient was fine. In 2010, Delhi High Court found two Members of Rly Railway Board were responsible for the scuttling as the writer was transferred out of the project. Two years later, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) found a loss of more than INR 3,000 crore had been incurred as construction problems led to changes in about 80% of the alignment. In 2014 on order of the Delhi High Court an expert committee was set up to examine the issue. The committee said the alignment should be changed to adopt the one the writer had suggested in 2007. But, Railway Board refused to change claiming that ground surveys for the new alignment would take more than five years which would much delay the project and that solutions to the problems were found.
This is what Railway Board said in an affidavit in 2015 to explain why they could not carry out proper ground surveys when they adopted flat gradient in 2002: “It is respectfully submitted that much of the problems that arose initially on the project were as a consequence of incomplete and inadequate investigations and surveys in initial stages as there were sudden directions from the Govt. to complete the project in 5 years from Udhampur to Baramulla. Works were started after such “quick” investigations. Having learnt the lessons in hard way on the project, Railway Board will not let the same mistake happen again.”
As time passed, it was revealed that Board had in fact approved alignments with flat gradient on six other projects in similar landslide prone terrain in Himalayas, each without proper ground surveys. The situation today is that all these projects are mired in construction difficulties, increasing cost of construction, and recurring landslides and other forms of ground failures and delays.
From the decision to adopt Standard Gauge without proper ground surveys for this line in Kerala, it is apparent that no lessons were learnt from the repeated fiascos in the projects to build lines in the Himalayas. The Consultant had the gumption to write in the Feasibility Report of May ’19 that a paper alignment was used because ground surveys could not be done “due to urgency in submission of the Feasibility Report”.
In fact in the Kerala project irresponsibility reached a new low because highly inaccurate topographic data of Google Earth was used by the Consultant to prepare the paper alignment whereas more accurate data was used for the paper alignments for the lines in Himalayas.
Worse still, on the Kerala project the failure to carry out proper ground surveys has happened twice as seen above: First in 2018, while proposing Standard Gauge, then in 2019 while proposing approval of the plan to build the semi-highspeed line.
While refusing to change the alignment of the Kashmir line, Railway Board had pleaded that ground surveys for the new alignment (Length 110 km) would take more than five years. But, here on the Kerala project we see that KRDCL completed the Feasibility Report of May’19 in just 50 days from 25.03.19 to 15.5.19.
In these circumstances it is essential that Railway Board immediately rescind the IPA. Explanation by KRDCL that they carried out necessary surveys afterwards to comply with the Engineering Code should be given no cognizance because KRDCL officials did all this on purpose, acting contrary to the clear, elaborate and reasoned recommendations contained in the Preliminary Feasibility Report of March’ 19. These are not genuine small mistakes which could be tolerated. The decisions regarding gauge should be reviewed. Further, the Railway Board should take corrective measures to prevent this sort of thing happening again in future, and send out a strong message to all concerned that violations of the Engineering Code in preparation of Feasibility reports shall not be tolerated.
VI. BENEFITS OF BUILDING THE LINE ON THE INDIAN BROAD GAUGE
Adoption of Standard Gauge results in creation of standalone lines because due to difference in gauge the SG trains can not enter the BG lines and the BG trains can not enter the SG line. Adoption of SG results in the following disadvantages:
i) Cost increases because the line would be taken to the city center in tunnels and/or high viaducts as is the case on Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train line for the stations at Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Mumbai.
ii) If the line is taken to the outskirts, cost may not increase but ridership would fall as in the case at Surat in the above line.
iii) Ridership and capacity utilization is impacted very adversely because of the absence of interoperability with the Ir network.
iv) The cost of construction of railway lines on Standard Gauge in alluvial plains, mostly in the Indo-Gangetic Plains and the coastal regions but interspersed in the Deccan Plateau also, would naturally be higher than cost of construction on the wider Broad Gauge because of low bearing capacity of ground. This is the main reason why the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Bullet Train line is on ground at just 3% of the route length. Rest is elevated or underground. This difference in cost would be higher in flood prone regions like the Terai region in north India and the coastal plains and Mid-Highlands region of Kerala. Only in rocky terrain, which are quite rare on the IR trunk routes, would the cost be about the same.
Therefore, Broad Gauge is in fact a strength not a weakness of Indian Railways. Should Indian Railways still adopt Standard Gauge?
Data from across the world shows that 200-250 kmph lines can efficiently carry a range of passenger and freight trains in the speed band of 120-250 kmph and offer excellent capacity utilization as part of a large network. China is an excellent example. The Beijing-Shanghai line is probably the busiest railway in the world.
If the Kerala line is built on Broad Gauge, its cost would reduce by 30 to 50%, and ridership would increase by a factor of 2 to 3. The line will not only carry new trains, most existing express trains will also be transferred to the new line at 130 to 160 kmph which is 30 to 50% higher than their present speed. Further, not confined to remain within the line’s boundaries, some of the new trains would be going to destinations like Coimbator, Mysore, Mangalore, Kanyakumari and a lot more nearby cities. With this release of huge capacity, the existing line, which presently suffers from congestion, would offer additional services. With the problem of congestion eliminated, the line could be upgraded to higher speed. The line will still have enough spare capacity to meet the demand for the next fifty years at least. The line on the Broad Gauge will thus be well placed to fulfill the travel needs of all sections of the society.
KRDCL is currently engaged in a campaign of misinformation that speed more than 160 kmph is not possible on the Indian Broad Gauge. This is utter nonsense, considering that last year Railway Board gave in-principle approval to construction of a 250 kmph line on Broad Gauge from Pune to Nashik. In fact , since the mid-1990s the Railway Board has been working on plans to raise speed on the trunk routes of the existing Broad Gauge network to 200 kmph. By 1997-2000, India had procured locomotives and coaches with maximum operational speed of 160 kmph, upgradable to 200 kmph. The plans to raise speed to 200 kmph figured prominently in the Vision 2020 document of IR which was presented to the Parliament in 2010. There has certainly been delay in raising speed, but it is not because suddenly something was found to be wrong with the Broad Gauge, but because of the increasing congestion on the trunk routes. The problem of congestion is being dealt with by diverting freight trains to the alternative routes.
Outside India, Spain has a well developed network of lines on the Iberian Gauge (1668 mm) which is just 8mm narrower than the Indian Broad Gauge (1676 mm). There are not one but several international manufacturers who can supply 200-250 kmph rolling stock (locomotives, coaches and also train sets) by adapting their existing SG trains to BG as they have been doing when they supplied these stock in the past. A leading manufacturer based in Spain has already developed rolling stock for maximum speed of 250 kmph and operational speed of 230 kmph for the Indian BG. In July 2016, this Spanish company actually brought a train to India which covered the journey from Mumbai to New Delhi on the existing line which is fit for only 140-160 kmph in just 12 hrs, taking 4 hrs less than the Rajdhani Express.
It is on record that for the still higher speed of 300-350 kmph, two of the leading European manufacturers have said they can adapt their very high speed trains for running them at 300-350 kmph on the Indian Broad Gauge.
The main lesson that this case offers most vividly is that building semi-highspeed lines on the alien Standard Gauge is likely to be very disadvantageous. The proponents of building these lines on the Standard Gauge do not talk of the disadvantages of Standard Gauge for lines in India. They vehemently avoid discussing the following vital factors, and they must be confronted with these questions:
i) Is it desirable to take soft loans from the multilateral foreign banks if they come attached with the condition to adopt Standard Gauge?
ii) Can earnings from real estate development at the stations located in the outskirts of the cities compensate for the loss of ridership that would be caused due to the location of the stations quite far away from the city center?
iii) The worldview is unanimous that to attract passengers for intercity travel location of the stations near the city center is vital. People prefer trains over cars and airplanes if the journey from city center to city center can be completed in less than 3 to 4 hrs. With stations far away from the city center, ridership would reduce drastically. It would be too risky to take the stations outside the city in the expectation that development of new smart cities and other real estate developments will lead to rapid growth of population and business and other activities around the new stations. Spain and China experimented by taking stations at some places to the outskirts to reduce cost and speed up construction, but most such stations couldnt attract enough passengers.
iv) Adoption of Standard Gauge will require creating a parallel support system for educating and skilling of field personnel, surveyors, designers etc; for maintenance of rolling stock, and track; manufacture of rolling stock, track sleepers etc. All these costs also need to be considered.
VII. THE LARGER ISSUES
There is also a more fundamental non-technical issue here. Just like the roads, railway lines are for everyone to use. Should the government spend a huge sum of public money on construction of an exclusive super costly railway line like this one which will be used by just about the most affluent 5% of the population. If by changing the gauge of the line to the Indian Broad Gauge, it is possible to build at a lesser cost a far more advantageous line that would be used by people of all income groups, complement the existing line in the corridor, and provide far easier access to the nationwide railway network, shouldn’t such an option be seriously examined?
Will this line remain a standalone line forever? That seems to be the plan presently as there is no provision for future integration with the IR network. Will variable gauge be used on this line for interoperability with the IR network? That also doesn’t seem to be in the mind of the planners. Will more such standalone semi-highspeed lines be built in the country? Is it envisaged by the planners that gradually over the years the country will have a separate network of semi-highspeed and highspeed lines, while the Broad Gauge network will have a speed limit of 160 kmph?
The current plan for the semi-highspeed line between Thiruvananthapuram and Kasargod in Kerala on Standard Gauge should be scrapped, and going forward before approving any new survey or construction of a semi-highspeed or highspeed line on Standard Gauge a thorough study of impact of this alien gauge on technical feasibility and cost of construction, and ridership in the Indian conditions should be thoroughly examined in an unbiased, objective and holistic manner.