K-rail is an acrimonious term in Kerala today. The opinions that stem on the proposed semi high speed controversial rail project spans across people from political activists, everyday folk and even the reasonably educated middle class. But, something that is missing from the vociferous discussions in the media and households alike, is a sound technical commentary on the project.
Granted, the Kerala State Government has produced an incomplete project brief that lacks a clear alignment blueprint and corresponding parameters, so an in-depth technical critique is currently impossible.
But, given the preliminary details that have been furnished, the project might be receiving a little too much criticism against it.
Firstly, in terms of the adoption of Japanese technology, speaking as a Public transport benchmark expert, I would say that it is the most intelligent option. Japan is the country that has one of the most successful, if not the best adoption of high speed rail technology in the world. It is standard practice to adopt the “best in class” methodology and expertise, when embarking on a project that is abundantly complicated such as this.
Secondly, regarding the broad gauge Vs standard gauge debate, the only point that is presented is that majority of India’s existing lines are broad gauge and hence it might be difficult for rolling stock maintenance. But, that argument is just as ridiculous as it is untrue. Broad gauge is a technology of the past. The majority of the lines in India are Broad Gauge because the Indian railway was established by the Colonial British rule before our independence. Over 60% of the world’s train systems use Standard Gauge technology. Further, in today’s world, it is easier to get rolling stock for the standard gauge as compared to the broad gauge.
Another argument in favour of the standard gauge is that the cost of the railway track is directly proportional to the width of its gauge. So broad gauges are more expensive than standard gauges, resulting in inordinate project costs. But, it must be mentioned for exhaustivity that wider gauges have higher speeds and are capable of handling more train traffic.
Thirdly, concerning land acquisitions and the associated social impact, it is to be expected during the construction of any high speed rail line. It is a very simple fact that for a train system to operate at high speeds, we need alignments that have minimal, if not, zero curves. The more the curvature, the slower the train speed. This is also the reason why the existing Kerala railways cannot be converted to a high speed rail line.
Another aspect regarding alignment is that, if we were to construct a high speed rail line in a densely populated state like Kerala, we will end up with significant social impact issues (be it today or 50 years from now) as we will inadvertently end up cutting through urban population centers. I know that my commentary sounds inequitable, but this is purely a technical article.
With regards to project feasibility and fare viability, no rail project in the world has become viable purely through fare collection. The world’s most economically successful rail project is the Hong Kong MTR (not a high speed rail), and it is because of their revenue diversification strategy that they are financially robust. A bulk of their earnings come from real estate development, wherein the train operators redevelop the real estate around the train stations and generate income to cross-subsidize the train operations. In the K-rail scenario, the accusation from the general public, is that it is the real estate mafia that is vehemently backing the project for private gains. This apparent inequality can be converted into an opportunity for the K-rail, if the train operator were to take up the task of real estate development, and instantly this project turns into something that will drastically change the face of Kerala.
Finally, with regards to the environmental impact, I must agree that this project raises a few red flags, and no it is not because it is produced by the Communist Government, pun intended. The soil strength and quality across the tentative alignment is concerning as there might be critical areas that would need significant soil upgradation works. And the raised wall model on which the tracks are to be placed would indirectly act as a water clogging embankment across Kerala, particularly because the current project brief states drainage tunnels only at 0.5 KM distances. This definitely is a kink that needs to be worked out.
I know this article is not complete at the moment, as the K-rail project is one that is dynamically transforming every day. But it is important for us as Kerala’s most educated and informed generation to utilize our resources to absorb the most accurate information and engage in healthy intelligent discourse before we begin to cast judgement.
Dr Sreyus Palliyani is a Transportation policy expert, who specializes in public transport benchmarking and best practices for policy and governance.