Ahead of a delegation set to visit India in June, Philippe Lorand, Director, Asia, Group Business Development, SNCF, says France´s state-owned railway company is keen to step up engagement with the Indian Railways.
What are the projects SNCF is working on currently in India?
The cooperation between IR and French Railways is on two fronts currently. One is the semi high-speed passenger train service between Delhi and Chandigarh. The second is the renovation study of two stations also between Delhi and Chandigarh - the stations at Ambala and Ludhiana.
For the first study, we are working together with the Indian Railways on a pilot project. The goal is to study how we can upgrade the 245-km Delhi-Chandigarh passenger line and what areas should we look at to reduce the time of travel. The background to this is the agreement signed between our two countries when our President visited India in February 2013, and last year when your Prime Minister was in Paris in April. This was then further taken up with an emphasis on the station projects.
This is a study which is now financed both by France and India and was launched in January. We are examining various proposals for upgrading this line to a speed of 200 km per hour. We have a procedure which is defined and one which starts with a site survey, a review of the data collected and identification of engineering solutions. Here, under this agreement, we are going to be developing three alternative scenarios and will pick one for implementation. It is not only the tracks, or the procedure for operating at higher speeds, the bridges and channels, but also the customer needs and everything else that we will be looking at during our study.
Give us an overview of the second project - the station redevelopment.
This is in response to the Indian Railways which has launched a sweeping programme to bring 400 stations up to world-class status. As part of this programme, we are joining forces with the Indian Railways, starting with the pilot project for Ambala and Ludhiana stations in the state of Punjab. For this also, it is to benefit from the French station improvement experience and jointly look at an approach to upgrade the architecture, the rail platform and the real estate. In this case, it will be bespoke for each station.
We intend to use the reserves of the pilot project to develop one or more models for modernising of stations in India. This study is of about six months´ duration and is going to involve about 12 experts from the French Railways. We have the experts from our architectural division, station branches (operator of the station), and we´re also going to be looking at the right ways of operation and other aspects as well as finance.
Will the focus be on redesigning or on modifying the existing structures?
We kicked off the study on March 31. It is a pilot project. There is no given view at the moment whether it is going to be a new station or modification of the existing ones, or anything else. We need to make an assessment and see the best way forward, once the study is complete.
What are the key components of the French model you are looking to bring here?
Well, each project is different. An iconic building is desirable and an ability to handle a large flow of passengers. We have renovated two of the largest stations in Europe which are in Paris and our approach to station renovation is geared to handle large passenger flows. We have 10 million passengers a day in France. We have a model where we allocate commercial space, maybe small spaces, but there will be offices which not only generate business on their own, but also generate business for other projects around the station. This improves the image of the station itself, which is a meeting and focus point in the city and envisaged as a quality area.
Inter-modality is one of the key components of our approach. We lay an emphasis on this and it is not just about interconnecting the trains with the buses but also all other modes of transport. This may extend to people coming to the station with their own cars, taxis or even bicycles, and adapting this to each case.
For the semi-high speed project, we´re talking about a longer duration study of about a year with about 30 French and Indian experts.
What can you bring, in terms of technology, to India?
We´re well-known for the high-speed rail but overall, it is our knowledge, our experience, the choices to be made about this technology and more importantly, holistic urban development. What is not as well-known is that we have an excellent record in daily urban transport systems. In stations, we use state-of-the-art systems and technology for passenger information, signs and improvement of operations. We have a global approach as an operator. It is primarily designed from a traveller or customer viewpoint, from the moment he leaves his place to the moment he arrives at his destination. We cover it all.
What are the immediate areas of cooperation with the Indian Railways?
The Delhi-Chandigarh corridor for improving speed is an ongoing project. With regard to this semi high-speed service, you can bring this much faster than the bullet train. Even for the station, the changes required and to provide inter-modal connectivity, everything can be done at much lower costs compared to the very high-speed operations.
Do you think the time frame to achieve all this by 2020 is a reasonable one?
It is definitely a reasonable time-frame. There are many areas we are also improving ourselves. We have our own plans for this and at the same time, the cooperation with India is working because we have the same critical items to cope with. Passenger flows are increasing and there is a change in demand of the people. A certain category of travellers want more services and to travel differently, in good conditions. I think France and India, therefore, have a common agenda. Things cannot change in a day and it is a constant process of improvement.
Would you be willing to participate in the Indian Railway projects by way of equity?
We´d be keen to look at it. It is not only about financing the project, but taking the risk, accepting the risk of operations and at the best conditions. For this, we want to make sure that the design has been addressed in the best ways so that if we take a role in the future stage of the project, the risks are already well-addressed. Moreover, we are working with many French companies in the railways´ sector in France and many of these companies are also present in India. I believe, definitely, the French solution has all the expertise necessary to be a part of the upcoming projects in India in the days ahead.