Maglev rail firms woo India, but cost remains a stumbling block

High-speed transport technology companies from the US, Switzerland, Germany and Japan have shown interest in the Indian Railways’ ambitious Maglev plan


A file photo of a Maglev train in Japan. Photo: AFP
A file photo of a Maglev train in Japan. Photo: AFP

Makers of the magnetic levitation trains from the US, Europe and Japan have shown interest in a tender floated by Indian Railways to demonstrate the technology in India even as doubts on implementing the expensive project remain.

While the Indian Railways was conducting trials of the Talgo train, three firms—two from the US and one from Japan—approached the railway ministry to try their high-speed train technologies. Following this, the government floated a tender, inviting expressions of interest to run levitation-based trains at a minimum speed of 350 kmph to carry passengers and cargo.

Since then, high-speed transport technology companies from the US, Switzerland, Germany and Japan have shown interest in the ambitious plan, a railway ministry official said on condition of anonymity. Among these are SwissRapide AG of Switzerland, Maglev 2000 of the US and a consortium that includes Tesla Motors Inc. of the US.

Maglev (magnetic levitation) is a technology where the train floats 1-6 inches above the track on a cushion of magnetic power and runs at a minimum speed of 350 kmph and maximum 500 kmph.

Aida S. von Schulman, vice-president and director of business development at SwissRapide, said in an email, “We see a high potential for ultra-high speed Maglev rail systems in particular for India. A high-speed/ultra-high speed rail network would not only be a key factor in supporting the economic development in the country, but would also significantly reduce the carbon footprint in India, as long as the electrical power were to be supplied via renewable energy sources (a strong philosophy of our company).”

Her company operates Shanghai’s Transrapid Maglev since January 2004, and has covered more than 30 million km and transported over 25 million passengers.

Schulman said she would recommend for India the German Transrapid Ultra-High Speed Maglev Rail system, which SwissRapide operates, since it’s significantly more cost-effective and twice as fast as conventional, steel wheel/rail high-speed rail systems.

She added that the Transrapid Maglev rail technology is fully developed for public use and has received safety approvals in Germany and runs at 400-500 kmph, with average speeds of over 400 kmh between stations.

Emails to Maglev 2000 and Tesla remained unanswered till the filing of this report.

“The technology holders are asking usto look forward to more high-end technology like second generation Maglevs and Hyperloops and also extend the time. Since the last date for submitting EOI (expression of interest) is 6 September, Indian Railways will wait for formal responses, and based on that, we will take a call on re-inviting EOI and change some terms and conditions,” the rail official quoted earlier said, adding that the companies were requesting Indian Railways not to limit itself and be open to showcasing new ideas.

The current EOI wants the demonstrating company to do the entire design, simulation, testing, validation, building, trials, modifications, operation, running and maintenance of the levitation-based train system for the specified stretch of approximately 200-500 km, which shall include a test and trial stretch of approximately 10-15 km.

The cost of the trial stretch will be borne by the demonstrating company. Once the companies show their proof of concept, Indian Railways will conduct a safety audit and finalize the project.

Indian Railways executive director, mechanical engineering (development) Nitin Chowdhary said, “The train must be of such a design so as to ensure adequate safety of passengers in line with the established norms for high-speed railway systems. The system should be fail-safe even for the levitation system, i.e. in the event of failure of any system of the train track or controls, the passengers/cargo should be safe.” He added that permission to build the system beyond the test track shall be granted only after a successful demonstration.

Building a Maglev train in India could be easier said than done. Several nations like the UK and Germany have shelved such projects because of the steep cost. In 2007, the Maharashtra government planned a Maglev and did a pilot study, but there has been no progress since.

An infrastructure expert from consutancy KPMG India called the Maglev project “a waste of time and resources” for Indian Railways. “Before making such a big investment, Indian Railways should also think about project returns. In a country like India, where passenger fares are a political issue and Indian Railways or Delhi Metro Rail Corp. cannot increase it owing to consumer pressure, how would you get the returns for such expensive projects?.” He added that no firm would invest in demonstrating proof of concept till they have assurance of a big project.

Schulman said, “Financing infrastructure will be a major hurdle for these projects. A key condition for success is that a positive business case be demonstrated, in order to make private financing of the projects available. Since the total cost of ownership of Transrapid Ultra-Highspeed Maglev technology is about 40% lower than conventional high-speed railway systems, a strong business case is much more feasible for the Transrapid systems. Also, since the Transrapid Maglev is at least twice as fast, we believe implementing the conventional high-speed railway systems would be a move in the wrong direction for your country.”

However, on funding, Chowdhary said, “Railways shall provide the land for the project with permission to construct the levitation train system and associated infrastructure to be detailed in the bid document to be issued by the government subsequently. Also, railways shall participate in the joint venture (JV) with suitable equity contribution. Balance funding shall be provided by the private partner of the JV.”

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