Is India ready for Bullet Trains?

Indian PM Narendra Modi and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe announced that India will be buying bullet trains from Japan to connect Ahmedabad and Mumbai. The question being asked is: -Does India really need a bullet train or, is India even ready for the one?

According to the agreement between India and Japan. Japan will provide $14.7 billion which is around ₹98000 crores to build India’s first bullet train between Mumbai and Ahmedabad which is 67% of the Indian railway budget of Financial year 2017. The highly concessional loan, at an interest rate of 0.1 percent, to be repaid over 50 years, will have a moratorium for 15 years. According to the deal, Japan will finance 80 % cost of the project in simple words, if the loan period begins in 2017, India will have to only pay ₹2000 crore + ₹2 crore to Japan from 2032 to 2067.

While announcing the project Mr. Modi said, “This enterprise will launch a revolution in Indian railways and speed up India’s journey into the future. It will become an engine of economic transformation in India.”

When something new is introduced in India People need time to adapt it. Anything new is opposed by some lobby or the other. Over the years, everything has been criticized for being wasteful expenditure; from the Indian space program to the Konkan Railway and the Delhi Metro. Even after demonstrated success, these are still criticized but see what difference they have made. Every time a cyclone hits the east coast, early warnings from our satellites save thousands of lives. The Konkan Railway has become the lifeline of the west coast, ferrying thousands of people and tens of thousands of tons of goods every day.

First of all, Indian Railways infrastructure is old, slow, overburdened and has questionable safety records. Moreover, the increasing population of India, asks for an improvement in transportation infrastructure. Thus, an upgrade to High-Speed Rail (HSR) by Indian Railways has been overdue for a long time. The decision to go with HSR represents a step in right direction.

Japan first introduced the High-Speed Rail to the world in 1964. Since then, many other countries like Germany, France and China have added HSR to their railway networks. Yet, the Japanese world famous Shinkansen, commonly known as ‘bullet train’, still is the best and represents a gold standard in train travel.

Fifty years ago, when Japan took a $80 million loan from World Bank to build its first bullet train, it faced fierce opposition. Harsh criticism was made against the expensive project of a non-existent technology. Various technical difficulties and out of budget expenditures made the leaders behind Shinkansen project look crazy. However, since its inception, bullet trains have changed the way people travel in Japan, spurred economic benefits and has shown the Japanese technological finesse to the world.

HSR usually have advantage in price over air tickets. However, if you expect cost of travel to be close to current price of train travel in India, you are going to be up for a huge disappointment. The ticket cost for bullet train is expected to be more than the current rail tickets, but cheaper than air travel. The cost of air travel is hugely dependent on international cost of jet fuel. So air travel is expected to increase with rising price of fuel but in Japan, the oldest and most famous bullet train line runs from Tokyo to Osaka. The trains on this line run at around 250 to 300 km/h. and cover a 400 km distance in less than two hours. Since they travel from city Centre to city Centre, it eliminates the need for long taxi journeys to airports and long waiting periods for check-in, security, and boarding. Very importantly, you don’t need to book tickets for the trains. You just show up at the railway station, a train leaves every few minutes. So it has both the factors on one side you will save time and on the other side you need to pay more than the ordinary railway ticket.

Sometimes, grand projects such as these are not necessarily only about viability, though that should be a primary concern. Designing and executing such complex large projects boosts national confidence and pride. Like the Konkan Railway or the Delhi Metro, for instance. They both changed the way India looks at major public projects from the point of view of timelines, efficiency of operations, cleanliness, or even managing construction on difficult terrain or conditions. Neither, probably, has yet seen profit. But quick profit is not the aim of public transport projects.

Several studies show that bullet trains spur business and tourism, create jobs, and build economies, in Japan and elsewhere. India is ready for bullet trains. It has been ready for many years.

The cost of laying a bullet-train corridor is estimated to cost up to Rs 100 crore a kilometer. After summing up the costs of signals, rolling stock, etc., the cost can rise up to Rs 115 crore a km. Operation and maintenance costs would also be high. Fares of these trains would be high too in order to compensate the expenses and maintenance. One-way fare on Mumbai-Ahmadabad route is projected to be around Rs 5,000. Quite few Indians would be able to afford travelling with these expenses. And even those who would be willing to pay such a high price might prefer traveling through planes instead. If this factor is not considered, then the project might prove to be a loss for the government. The project is at its initial level of planning and it is predicted that the implementation of the plan would take years. In between if there is a change in government, and then the project could face the consequences.

Land acquisition: For laying tracks, there would be issues of land acquisition which might trigger anger amongst commoners whose everyday living might come under menace. For instance, laying these tracks in Mumbai would require acquisition of land which has the largest slums in the city. This project might have other issues under India’s present condition including plaguing of power sector, choice of speed and gauge, minimum length of the route for the viability of the project, etc. It is important to understand whether or not India is ready for this change.

For all its size, scale and levels of operations, and its excellent IT initiatives, it has to be said that the Indian Railways network is hardly a beacon of technological wonder when it comes to its core operations. It seems to barely hold itself together by the hopes, wishes, and prayers of a billion people and tireless, on-their-toes railway officials. So, as we roll along dreaming about high-speed rail in India, it is only imperative that some time or the other we invariably hit on the most pertinent question on everyone’s mind: -What about our existing railway network? How can a state-of-the-art Bullet Train system and a crumbling conventional train network made up of outdated ramshackle trains exist in the same country at the same time? Shouldn’t we improve speed/cleanliness/security/facilities/capacity/ punctuality/ or insert any other shortcoming of our existing railway system first? In short, shouldn’t we improve our existing Indian railways system first before trying to run Bullet trains?

Of course, we have to improve our existing railway network. Shouldn’t we first develop Indian railways our existing network to “become better” before we start running high-speed trains is fallacious. We simply cannot wait for our existing systems to become flawless before moving on to incremental technology. In this chapter, we will see why we should opt high-speed railways while modernizing our existing railway network at the same time.

That favorite pet-peeve of every Indian when it comes to Indian Railways (after the toilets). Our trains seemingly are just not fast enough. There are some problems with this most commonly repeated war cry of “make our trains run faster rather than buying/building bullet trains!” Most people think our trains can do supersonic speeds just like a car can be speeded up by pressing the accelerator. However, it is not that simple. But instead of investing in bullet train we can invest in current railway system to improve its condition.

Ahmedabad-Mumbai route makes lot of sense

Ahmedabad – Mumbai route is one of the busiest and densely populated rail route in the country. At a length of around 530 km, this route has the optimal distance for running a High-Speed Rail.

Along the route lie Surat and Vadodara, the other two biggest cities in the Gujarat. Additionally, Anand which has a huge student population commuting daily from Vadodara and Ahmedabad.

Having a good connectivity is so essential on this route that the first Expressway in the country was made between Ahmedabad and Vadodara. The road condition along the rest of the route is still among the best in the country. Also, this route lies along Mumbai-Delhi route for future expansion. Moreover, connectivity to Pune can be added in future.

Flat terrain and Easy land acquisition: -The entire route is flat at around sea level, thus reducing the construction cost. Building an HSR between Mumbai-Pune would have been quite more expensive per unit km because of the mountainous terrain. Furthermore, Gujarat has a good track record in swift land acquisition. Investors don’t want a project to be delayed or stalled due to land acquisition issues.

There are a lot of commercial and industrial establishments in this region. As a result, this sector witness’s busy passenger traffic through the year. Reduced travel time makes a compelling preposition for these passengers, who will not mind paying an additional fare in return for saving on commuting time. This corridor will also take some passenger load off the existing Mumbai-Ahmedabad line, thereby creating passenger capacity for towns which are not served by the high speed rail link. While any change which appears disruptive is likely to be opposed, it is more important to consider the overall long-term benefits, resulting from the high speed rail project aka bullet trains.

The question that is India really ready for bullet trains is debatable and draws attention of many scholars and researchers. This is surely to be in news for some days and the real test applies only when the implementation starts

(This is submitted by Rohit Madhani, National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi)

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