Finally, the much hyped Bullet Train project has been launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japan’s PM Shinzō Abe. Modi wants the bullet train to start a year ahead of schedule – on August 15, 2022 – when India completes 75 years of independence. The Rs 1.1 lakh crore bullet train project is a joint venture between the Indian Railways and Japanese Shinkansen Technology. The Japanese team estimated that the first train would roll out by 2023. Japan will fund 81 per cent of the project, nearly Rs 88,000 crores, in soft loans at an interest rate of 0.1 per cent, only need to be repaid over 50 years. This new high-speed train will race between PM Modi’s home state Gujarat and Mumbai, carrying 750 passengers. Travel time will be reduced from eight hours to a little over three hours if it stops at all the 12 stations and around two hours if it stops at only four. At an average speed of 320 km per hour, with a top speed of around 350 km per hour, the train will run at more than double the top speed of the fastest train in India.
All this hype is ok, and looking at massive political campaign for 2019, Modi is playing smartly but the question is that, are we prepared for bullet trains?
First of all, Indian Railways infrastructure is old, slow, overburdened and has dubious safety record. Moreover, the increasing population of our nation 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. The major disapproval is focused around the cost of the project. At a price tag of Rs 98,000 crore ($14.7 billion), there is no denying that this project is expensive.
India has agreed to buy a high-speed bullet train from Japan, in an attempt to transform its creaking rail system. But, what about derailment, which happens as routine, is it not a case of misplaced priorities? In present scenario Indian government needs to address the existing railway conditions, we are already over burdened with metro trains, but the problems are static. To be sure the BJP’s election manifesto released in April 2014 promised a 5,846 km (3632 miles) “high speed train network (bullet train)” linking Delhi, Chennai (Madras), Kolkata (Calcutta) and Mumbai. Interestingly, it didn’t include Ahmedabad, the largest city in Modi’s native state, Gujarat. Look at the irony; first bullet train would commence from Ahmedabad.
Indian Railways is the third largest railway network in the world. It has come a long way since its first passenger train service that began on April 16, 1853, when 14 carriages carrying about 400 guests left Bori Bunder in Mumbai. More than anything, the railways typifies the vast, creaking and dilapidated nature of the country’s infrastructure. At the root of this is that the railways hardly earn enough to pay for it, let alone invest in modernisation and safety.
It is cash strapped mainly due to the recurring losses – last year it incurred a loss of $5 billion – in the passenger segment of its operations. The network has surplus cash of only $115 million. Its top managers have frequently warned about the crisis.
India is yet to improvise Indian railways, and now the government is ready for accepting loan offered by Japanese government. Can this be the most competitive offer? Did the government even consider or invite other offers? How much are the Japanese going to earn out of this project? The purpose of competitive offers is to eliminate all these. But this due process was given a go by.
Finally, the big question that will not go away is whether the same investment on upgrading the entire railway network would be more economically beneficial than a single high cost project? India adds a million young people to its work force every month. There is a little disagreement that revamping the entire network would entail the creation of many more new jobs than a single capital and import intensive project.
How does this tie in with Prime Minister Modi’s hope that it will become an engine of economic transformation in India? Last year, according to the government, more than 25,000 people died and 3,882 were injured in 28,360 railway accidents across the country. The challenge has been clear for many years. In 2012, a government committee said the condition of the tracks and bridges was a cause of concern and made several recommendations.
Modernise 19,000 km (11,806 miles) of existing tracks comprising nearly 40 per cent of the total network and carrying about 80 per cent of the traffic.
Eliminate level crossings by building rail over and under bridges and provide fencing alongside the tracks. Government should provide 100 per cent mechanised track maintenance on the main routes to provide superior quality track and regular maintenance. But neither the railways nor the government has so far been able to rustle up even a fraction of the $130 billion outlay for this.
Shouldn’t the focus be on modernising and upgrading the entire system?
In a country where people vandalise instead of embracing technology, do we have an ecosystem in place for high-speed trains, and in an age where air travel is common, are they financially viable? Imagine travelling at a speed of 320 kmph. From semi-high-speed and bullet trains to high-tech innovations like integrated chip systems onboard trains alerting pedestrians of approaching trains, the Railways looks all set to redefine the way the majority of Indians travel today. As science and innovation grow at a lightning speed, the Indian Railways is entering uncharted territories. But are all these plans audacious, ambitious or a possible reality?
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