India's first semi-high speed train, the Vande Bharat Express, was flagged off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday from the New Delhi Railway Station amid a sombre mood against the backdrop of the terror attack in Pulwama.
Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and members of the Railway Board were present on the occasion and will be on board the train on its inaugural journey.
"I am grateful to designers and engineers behind Vande Bharat Express which will take its first trip from Delhi to Varanasi today. With our sincerity and hardwork in the last 4.5 years we have tried to improve railways," the PM said.
Hailing the great strides taken by the railways over the years, Modi said that the train was representative of the strength of "Ek Bharat, Shrestha Bharat."
He said railways was one of those sectors which has developed in manufacturing, modernisation of rail coach factories, conversion of diesel coaches to electric and set up new factories under Make in India.
"Earlier you remember the condition in which the railways' online reservation system was. In a minute it allowed only around 2000 tickets to be booked, now the railways' website has become user friendly and in one minute over 20,000 tickets can be booked on it. Earlier, the condition was such that it would take minimum two years to get approval for one railway project, now it is done in a maximum of six months. It is efforts like these which has speeded up railways work," said Modi.
He further appreciated the work done by the railways in eliminating unmanned level crossings which has reduced accidents, converting narrow gauge into broad gauge and electrification.
"The efforts to modernise railways has also generated employment. I have been told that from 2014 to now, around 1.5 lakh employees have been appointed in railways. After additional recruitment this number will reach 2.25 lakh. I am not claiming that we have changed everything in Indian Railways in the last few years, we never claimed that.
"Even now a lot needs to be done, however I can say that we are going full throttle to make a modern railways," he said.
The PM said he was assuring the people that this government will back development across all sectors.
In its inaugural run, Vande Bharat Express will travel from Delhi to Varanasi in nine hours and forty-five minutes. This includes stoppage time of 40 minutes each at Kanpur and Allahabad where there will be special programmes.
The PM inspected the train and said he was proud that such a train had been produced indigenously at the Integral Coach Factory, Chennai, in 18 months.
The semi-high speed Train 18, which has been recently rechristened Vande Bharat Express, can run up to a maximum speed of 160 kmph and has travel classes like Shatabdi trains but with better facilities. It aims to provide a totally new travel experience to passengers.
The bookings for the train have begun and it will run commercially from February 17 from Delhi to Varanasi five days a week.
It has 16 air-conditioned coaches of which two are executive class. The total seating capacity is 1,128 passengers. It is much more than the conventional Shatabdi rakes of equal number of coaches, thanks to shifting of all electric equipment below coaches and seats in the driving coach also.
All coaches are equipped with automatic doors, GPS-based audio-visual passenger information system, on-board hotspot WiFi for entertainment purposes and very comfortable seating. All toilets are of bio-vacuum type. The lighting is dual mode, that is, diffused for general illumination and personal for every seat.
Every coach has a pantry facility to serve hot meals and, hot and cold beverages. The insulation is meant to keep heat and noise to very low levels for additional passenger comfort.
Adding up the green footprints, the train has regenerative braking system which can save up to 30 per cent of electrical energy.
Train tickets sold out
Tickets of the first commercial run of Vande Bharat Express on February 17 have been completely sold out, a senior railway official said on Friday.
The bookings for the train, which will run five days a week between Delhi and Varanasi and back, began Thursday.
"The first commercial run of the train on February 17 is fully booked. The train is 100 per cent occupied on its to and fro journeys as of 11.15 am Thursday," said Girish Pillai, member, traffic, Railway Board.
From Delhi to Varanasi, an air-conditioned chair car ticket will cost Rs 1,760 and the executive class fare will be Rs 3,310, while on the return, a chair car ticket will cost Rs 1,700 and that of a seat in the executive class Rs 3,260. Both fares are inclusive of catering charges.
The chair car fares are 1.4 times the base price of Shatabdi trains running the same distance and that of the executive class 1.3 times of a first class air-conditioned ticket in the premium train.
Railway Minister Piyush Goyal who is on-board the train on its inaugural run said the tendering process for 30 more similar train sets has begun.
‘Inauguration a message to terrorists’
Railway Minister Piyush Goyal Friday said going ahead with the inauguration of the Vande Bharat Express according to schedule was a message to terrorists behind the Pulwama attacks that India will not bow down to terror.
He said the decision to continue with the flagging off programme was inspired by the way Mumbai reacted by showing its resilience in the aftermath of the 26/11 attacks.
Forty CRPF personnel were killed and five injured on Thursday when a Jaish-e-Mohammed suicide bomber rammed a vehicle carrying over 100 kg of explosives into their bus in Pulwama district.
"The way Mumbai answered them, with everybody going to their work discharging their responsibilities, similarly the Vande Bharat Express today was dedicated to the nation on time in the service of its people.
"This is the biggest answer to the terrorists. Neither our jawans nor our people would ever bow before them," he said on board the train which is on its inaugural run between Delhi and Varanasi on Friday.
Speaking to reporters on board the Vande Bharat express, Goyal said the Train 18 will offer a convenient experience to passengers and also reduce travel time on New Delhi-Varanasi route to eight hours compared to 13-14 hours other trains take for the trip.
"The fastest train on Delhi-Varanasi route (776 km) takes 11.5 hours, this train will eight hours," said Pillai.
Tickets include meal charges. Passengers travelling from New Delhi to Varanasi in the executive class will be charged Rs 399 for morning tea, breakfast and lunch, and travellers in the chair car Rs 344 for the same.
Those travelling from New Delhi to Kanpur and Prayagraj will be charged Rs 155 and Rs 122 for executive and CC classes, respectively. From Varanasi to New Delhi, passengers Rs 349 in the executive class and Rs 288 in chair car, according to the order.
Passengers cannot opt out of meals. But those travelling from Allahabad to Varanasi and on the return journey Varanasi to Allahabad can opt out of meals, saving Rs 222 on CC tickets and Rs 244 on EC tickets by opting out of the meals provided by the IRCTC.