Home/ Opinion / Columns/  The truth behind our train speeds

As promised last week, this column is triggered by the number 180. As in 180 kmph.

A Sampark Kranti Express runs between Mumbai and Delhi. It’s effectively one more Rajdhani Express, because it covers the distance between the cities in a time similar to the Rajdhanis. That distance, printed on my ticket itself, is 1,366 km (Bandra Terminus to New Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin station). That time, also on my ticket, is 16 hours and 45 minutes: from 5.30 one evening to 10.15 the next morning. Compare those figures with that of the Mumbai Rajdhani, which covers 1,386 km in 15 hours and 32 minutes: a slightly longer distance in a slightly shorter time.

When I travelled to Delhi a few weeks ago, the Sampark Kranti got me to Hazrat Nizamuddin just about on time. So yes, it did cover the 1,366 km in 16 hours and 45 minutes. That is, the train averaged 81.55 kmph all the way to Delhi. Compare with the Mumbai Rajdhani, which averages 89.23 kmph.

Why am I pointing out these numbers to you? Because we have heard plenty in recent weeks and months about new Vande Bharat trains. Their paint scheme is an elegant blue and white. Their engines have those sleek streamlined noses that remind you of high-speed trains in Japan and France, if not exactly as long and pointed as you will find there. They are being pressed into service all over the country: Chennai-Mysuru, Bilaspur-Nagpur, Mumbai-Solapur and more.

The Vande Bharat trains have been tested at up to 180 kmph—the trigger, remember?—and are actually capable of reaching 200 kmph. Compare those numbers to France’s TGV trains, or Japan’s bullet trains, which in commercial use can reach a top speed of 320 kmph. Vande Bharat’s speed, then, is about half that of those trains. Which is why Vande Bharat is usually referred to as a “semi high-speed" train. The promise is, of course, that one day we will have actual high-speed trains.

Yet, even this “semi high-speed" label can use scrutiny. Take train #20607, the Mysuru Vande Bharat Express. It leaves Chennai Central at 5.50 am. It travels 496 km to Mysuru, arriving at 12.20 pm. That’s an average of 76.31 kmph. Or consider Vande Bharat #22436, which leaves New Delhi station at 6 am. It covers the 759 km to Varanasi in exactly 8 hours, arriving at 2 pm. That is, #22436 averages 94.88 kmph. Here’s one more Vande Bharat: #22226 that runs between Solapur and Mumbai’s CSMT. It leaves Solapur at 6.05 am and reaches CSMT at 12.35 pm. That’s 452 km at an average speed of 69.54 kmph.

There are currently seven more Vande Bharat trains, each running at broadly similar average speeds to the three above: between 64 kmph and 95 kmph. Six of these trains average less than 80 kmph. Also, the lengths of the 10 routes range from 339 km (Mumbai-Shirdi) to 759 km (New Delhi-Varanasi).

No doubt the comparison has struck you by now. These Vande Bharats operate on significantly shorter stretches than what the Sampark Kranti and Rajdhani Expresses cover. They run at speeds similar to those trains; in fact, most are actually slower than the Sampark Kranti Express mentioned earlier. Put it this way: if the Vande Bharat trains are “semi high-speed", we already have several semi high-speed trains operating on our railway lines—and for several years now.

Look a little more closely and this reality only gets further underlined. For example, suppose you want to catch Vande Bharat #20607, which leaves Chennai at 5.50 am and reaches Mysuru at 12.20 pm. Unfortunately, you miss it. Never mind—you might consider jumping on the Shatabdi (#12007). That train leaves Chennai just 10 minutes later, at 6 am, and will get you to Mysuru at 1 pm. That is, the Shatabdi takes just 30 minutes longer than the Vande Bharat to travel the same route, averaging 70.86 kmph. Slower than #20607, no doubt, but that particular Shatabdi is actually faster than two of the existing Vande Bharats.

In effect, we’ve gone from one semi high-speed train which wasn’t advertised as such—the Shatabdi—to two, between Chennai and Mysuru. And the two run practically in tandem.

You might wonder, if these new trains really are capable of much higher speeds than others, why not run them at those speeds? Well, can a Formula 1 racer drive on city streets at the speeds it is capable of? No, because city streets are not designed for the speeds of those cars. The road surface, the other users of the road, the curves—all those are constraints. Similarly, our railway lines are not designed and built for truly high-speed trains.

But there’s more to it that just the tracks. The Mumbai-Solapur Vande Bharat reaches Kalyan at 4.53 pm and leaves at 4.55 pm. The much slower #20920 reaches Kalyan a minute earlier and also leaves at 4.55 pm, also heading for Solapur. This means the Vande Bharat must be sure to pass #20920 at Kalyan, or it will be stuck behind the slower train and lose time. Or there’s the even slower train #16588. It reaches Pune 15 minutes before, but Solapur 25 minutes after, this Vande Bharat. That is, the Vande Bharat has to overtake #16588 somewhere between Pune and Solapur. Otherwise, again, it will have to run at a slower speed.

If all that seems complicated, the point here is simple. Our tracks are already dense with passenger trains—and freight too, for that matter. That means it is difficult for a given train to run much faster than others on the same route. This will remain a constraint for potentially speedier trains such as Vande Bharat until we build dedicated tracks—“corridors"—only for them.

Still, as a railway official told The Hindu, Vande Bharat trains are not just about transportation. Instead, they address the “aspirational need of the new generation of passengers to have a memorable, luxurious, and comfortable travel experience".

For which experience, they are more expensive than other trains. Which is fine. Let’s just remember though: For now, they are not really faster than other trains. Vande, they might be.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun.

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Updated: 23 Mar 2023, 11:30 PM IST
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