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Tracks on track, not the trains

Work on the East-West Metro at Duttabad, where the project was stalled for a long time. (Mayukh Sengupta)

The Sector V to Sealdah stretch of the East-West Metro is on track for completion by December 2017 but the Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation might not have any trains to run immediately.

A condition set by the principal funding agency for the project - the Japan International Cooperation Agency (Jica) - has apparently delayed the process of selecting a company to manufacture rakes for the East-West Metro.

Jica had specified that any potential bidder for the contract must have at least five years' experience in supplying rakes to a project in a foreign country.

A meeting last week thrashed out a compromise - only foreign bidders need to comply with the "five-year experience" clause - but the delay means that the tracks could be ready in a little over two years but not the trains.

The change in eligibility criteria has also opened the door to Indian companies that have little experience in manufacturing rakes but could enjoy a price advantage over foreign companies with better knowhow.

"The criteria for foreign companies willing to bid for the contract is a minimum of five years' experience in manufacturing and supplying rakes to other countries. For Indian companies, the requirement is three years," a senior railway official said.

Kolkata Metro Rail Corporation (KMRC), the implementing agency of the Rs 4,875-crore project, had wanted the Japanese agency to bring the criterion down to three years for all companies. But the request has not been approved.

A tender has been floated for manufacture of rakes after the Madrid-based Construcciones y Auxiliar de Ferrocarriles (CAF), which had been selected through an earlier bidding, pulled out of the project after its cost-escalation claim was turned down.

CAF was to manufacture 14 air-conditioned trains, each with a maximum speed of 90kmph and comprising six coaches with a combined capacity of 2,136 passengers.

Sources said the Japanese funding agency had made it clear to the KMRC that the "five-year criterion" should stay to ensure quality of the rakes. "Because of Jica's insistence the tender floated about six months ago is now in limbo. Formal bidding is yet to start," a KMRC official said.

After the new tender was floated, eight global companies had taken part in the pre-bid meeting about four months back.

"The formal invitation of bids was to be floated after that but the stand-off resulting from Jica's insistence on the 'five-years' experience clause' has stopped everything," a railway official said.

The Japanese agency, an official said, has been requested to bring down the requirement from five to three years. "Otherwise, it would be difficult for many companies to bid for the contract and there will hardly be any competition."

Experts, however, fear quality could be compromised following the decision to allow Indian companies with three years' experience of manufacturing rakes to bid for the contract.

At Metro Railway, the air-conditioned rakes manufactured by the railway-owned Integral Coach Factory in Perambore have been creating problem since the beginning.

Initially, there were problems with the doors. Now, passengers allege the air-conditioning systems in most rakes are ineffective. Also, the trains frequently develop snags.

"There are some Indian companies that are producing rakes for the Bangalore Metro and parts of Delhi Metro. We have to be careful about quality while awarding the contract to an Indian company," a railway official pointed out.

KMRC officials said it would take about two-and-a-half years after the contract is awarded for the first prototype rake to roll out of the factory shed. Once the rake is ready it will be subjected to trial for three-four months.

"It would take about three years after the contract is awarded for the first rake to run commercially," a KMRC official said.

The initial deadline for completing the construction of the first phase of the East-West Metro was June 2018. It was later brought forward to December 2017.

"The deadline has again been informally pushed back to June 2018 because of the problem with rakes," the KMRC official said.

"Given the uncertainty over the tender for rakes, we would be unable to run trains even if the tracks, signalling system and the platforms are ready by 2017."

Jica is providing Rs 2,253 crore for the project that aims to connect Salt Lake Sector V with Howrah Maidan. Part of the tracks will run under the Hooghly. "We have overcome a major problem in Duttabad but now this new problem has cropped up," rued a KMRC official.

Construction work at Salt Lake's Duttabad has finally started after the encroachers shifted in May. Nine pillars will be constructed on a 365-metre stretch where work had been stalled since end-2010 following the refusal of 60 families to shift.

The Trinamul Congress government did not help the railways remove the occupants.

In May, the Union minister of state for urban development, Babul Supriyo, had requested chief minister Mamata Banerjee to help solve the crisis.

The second phase of the project, between Howrah Maidan and Sealdah, is stalled as the state government and the railways are working out a plan for realignment of the route. There is no clue yet when work in the second phase will begin.

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