Nepal gauges harmony with neighbours on different tracks

  • Cross-border rail plans with differing technologies damaging to Nepal in the long run, experts say
- SANJEEV GIRI, Kathmandu

Oct 4, 2018-

Even as landlocked Nepal is pushing to enhance connectivity, the lack of a national guiding policy on the role of railways and conflicting geo-strategic dynamics is taking a toll, as the country will be among the few nations in the modern era to develop two completely different railway systems.

Nepal is expected to have a cross-border railway line connecting India and China within a decade if projects move according to current plans. However, the railways connecting Indian city Raxaul and the Chinese city Kerung with Kathmandu would be different railway systems. Nepal has agreed to develop a broad gauge railway line with India and a standard gauge with China.

Even though the use of different gauge in a cross-border line will not affect the goal of extending connectivity, according to experts, the idea behind developing different gauge systems in a one country does not make technical or economic sense. According to railway engineers who spoke to the Post, standard gauge is the most popular system in the world when it comes to maintenance and operation, making it a cheaper and feasible option. In contrast, India and a few other countries use broad gauge. 

“Though there may not be a written deal, Nepal has opted to adopt standard gauge system for developing railways in the country,” one of the Joint-Secretaries at the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport told the Post. “As for cross-border line connecting India, we do not have a stake or say because India is developing it. That applies with China, too, but the good thing is that the line has been proposed as to be built in standard gauge platform.”

The official, who did not wish to be identified because he is not allowed to speak to the media, said Nepal’s tendency to seek “gift project” even for infrastructure having long-term implications for the country has contributed to mute acceptance of terms and conditions put forward by its neighbours.

“How will the world look at us 20 years from now when we say we have two railway systems because we could not develop railways on our own?” the official said, arguing that the political leadership should consider renegotiating the agreement with India to ensure that we adopt a technology that will help Nepal enhance connectivity beyond its immediate neighbours.


What is the difference?

The fundamental difference between standard gauge and broad gauge is the width. While a standard-gauge railway has track gauge of 1,435mm, the broad gauge has a track broader than that and varies from country to country. There are, however, a number of factors making standard gauge superior to the broad gauge system. Most of the high-speed railway lines in the world use standard gauge track. Apart from speed, the standard gauge has a low-turning radius, making it easy for the train to take on curving turns, which is ideal for all kinds of terrains. Railways engineers say that the standard gauge track is much more advanced.

“The most important aspect for Nepal is that with standard gauge we will have multiple choices in the purchase of rail, bogie, spare parts, maintenance, replacement, and upgrading technology,” said Prakash Upadhayay, a former senior divisional engineer at the Department of Railways and one of the key government officials involved in the deal with India and China for railway expansion.

India manufactures the railway equipment, engines, and bogies for broad gauge, so the technology makes financial sense for the country. For high-speed railways, India has adopted standard gauge on the Ahmedabad-Mumbai high-speed railway. It plans to use the same system for its metro lines.

Physical Infrastructure Ministry officials say accepting a technology available only in India might increase Nepal’s dependence on India rather than keeping its options open.


Between the Dragon and the Elephant

Officials privy to the development of cross-border railway line say the expansion of 

different gauge system by India and China should also be seen from the perspective of security.The two nations share strained history having fought two wars and have a fundamental difference in ideology. The standoff in Doklam near the trijunction border of India, China, and Bhutan last year, according to experts, reflects their relationship in recent years. Though the bilateral trade between India and China is inching closer to $100 billion, the strategic relations and involvement in regional as well as global affairs do not seem rosy with differences persistent over a number of issues.

“First, India does not have the technology to build standard gauge system, which is why it might have emphasized on broad gauge track,” Upadhyay said. “Second, one cannot rule out the concerns of India and China when it comes to connectivity. Even China might be content with the expansion of broad gauge track connecting Nepal with India.”

Surya Raj Acharya, a public policy and infrastructure expert, said that the rail infrastructure is something that makes a country alert as it also has a strategic security implication. He said that the separation in track averting seamless connectivity between these three nations might be of mutual security concern for these two-big nations. “Separation of gauge track might play a role of buffer between India and China,” he added. 

Security expert Deepak Prakash Bhatta, also a leader of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, said that it is not unusual for rising powers to try increasing its influence through technical avenues.“Expansion of technology is one of the crucial aspects of increasing influence these days,” Bhatta said, adding that Nepal does not seem to have an option of uploading/offloading freight as well as passenger movement if it is to enhance connectivity with both the neighbours while addressing their concerns at the same time. “Railways being a long-term strategic interface, hence, is crucial.”

Acharya said that if it is just about cross-border railway tracks linking Nepal with India and China, using different types of gauge would not be an issue. “But if we are to link it with a national network in the future, broad gauge would not be the best technology for it,” he said. “It is important to chart out the role of rail in national transportation mechanism. We can have a say on what kind of gauge or speed needs to be in place only after that”.

According to the Department of Railways, Nepal lies on the Trans-Asian Railway Network having four major corridors. The southern corridor of the network will connect the Southeast Asian and South Asian region with Europe.

“Within the network, rail from Bangladesh will arrive till Kakadvitta in Nepal via India. It will then connect with proposed East-West railway line in Nepal to reach New Delhi via Banbasa,” Upadhayay, the former Railways Department official, said. This network will remain in standard gauge that means its expansion across the nation is essential for ensuring seamless connectivity.

The China-led Belt and Road Initiative is a focal component of Nepal’s rail link with China that is expected to provide the county with access to the European market.

While the Nepal government has initiated all the tasks in the proposed East-West railway line with certainty to build it on standard gauge track, the line connecting Jayanagar-Janakpur-Kurtha, that was built at a cost of Rs8.8 billion with support from the Indian government, has been built on a broad gauge platform.

“This will lead to haphazard development of railway network within the country,” the senior official at the Physical Infrastructure Ministry said. “This might bring inter-connectivity issue in the long run. There is no dearth of options for breaking gauge, but why should we go for such options without maintaining gauge uniformity?”


Nepal’s dilemma

Officials privy to the railway connectivity deal with India and China are aware of Nepal’s need and the position it needs to take. According to Upadhayay, the department had notified several government agencies, including the Office of the Prime Minister, about the gauge issue and long-term national implications it would have.

The ministry official told the Post that Nepal did not even try to make a significant push for standard gauge system before forging a prime ministerial level agreement. “This is because we want every big project to be built by our neighbours,” the official said.

Both Upadhayay and Acharya agree that Nepal should have ownership in such mega-projects that have the potential to become a game changer for the country.

“We have a wrong consideration that every project needs to be built in the grant agreement. We should think about the spillover impact of such projects, become a partner in the development process, and then have terms and conditions that are in our favour,” Acharya said.

According to the Railways Department, the Kathmandu-Kerung railway is estimated to cost Rs257 billion. If the project is completed in 10 years, the annual expenses could be somewhere near Rs28.55 billion. 

Because the railway line linking India is expected to be less challenging compared to the one connecting China, the project cost for the Indian one is expected to be lower than that. Experts believe that Nepal’s government is capable of injecting some funds in the project to build it in the standardised set-up.

In a recent meeting of the Development Committee of the Parliament, Minister for Physical Infrastructure and Transport Raghubir Mahaseth admitted that the government is confused about the modality as well as the technicality of railways connecting India and China because of the tendency to seek grants in every development project.

“We cannot scale up development by depending on others. We should ask for 15 to 20 percent grant from neighbouring countries, lobby for a concessional loan, and manage remaining funds from international financial markets to build the project we wish,” Mahaseth said. “This would also prompt us to make sure that such projects become viable and impart lessons in several aspects.”   

Some officials at the Physical Infrastructure Ministry doubt India’s intentions and say it seems reluctant to allow trains from Bangladesh to enter Nepal as per the Trans Asian Railway Network. 

“Development and expansion of the broad gauge system in Nepal will make it difficult for us to connect with the wider network which is also a reason we need to be cautious while making such decisions. For India, it will be beneficial to have Trans Asian rail network reach New Delhi directly through Kolkata, but it would limit Nepal’s connectivity with third countries,” the official said.

Published: 04-10-2018 06:51

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