Why Can’t We Have Bullet Trains in India?

India has major infrastructural problems. This truth is too overwhelming to ignore and was brought into sharp focus on September 29 2017 when the stampede on the Elphinstone Road bridge led to 23 people needlessly losing their lives. The blame game is still on and the enquiry report completely sidesteps the fact that the bridge was simply inadequate to support the thousands of commuters who use it daily. Instead the report suggests that travelling with heavy baggage during the peak hours should be discouraged along with vendors carrying large baskets!

In all of India’s major cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai, the current infrastructure is creaking and sagging under the weight of the burgeoning population. In Mumbai, the metro line between Versova and Ghatkopar which was initially considered unnecessary, is already inadequate for the lakhs of commuters using it daily. Various newly inaugurated highways, metro lines, rail rakes and airports in urban centres are quickly facing a similar fate, questioning the urban planning and forecasting numbers that our planners are actually working with.

Shinkansen Bullet Trains
Shinkansen Bullet Trains in Japan have provided impetus to the Japanese economy (Source: Indiatoday.in)

Following the Elphinstone Road bridge tragedy, television debates, newspaper columns and radio chats loudly questioned the lack of responsibility and accountability from the Railways and the incumbent state Government. For years the rail budget included an amount set aside for widening the bridge, but this was simply postponed until tragedy struck. At the same time, these pundits stridently questioned the need for the much publicised bullet trains project connecting Mumbai to Ahmedabad which was inaugurated on September 14th, just a fortnight earlier. When we can barely maintain the infrastructure we have, why should we build a $17 billion High Speed Rail corridor which will benefit only the rich?

Infrastructure is one of the main focus areas of the Global Competitive Survey compiled by the World Economic Forum. The Survey looks at the financial health and risks of countries around the world. Efficient and reliable infrastructure is a major driver of successful economies. USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany among other countries that regularly feature at the top of this survey boast a wealth of connectivity supported by a competent public transport system, and extensive rail, road and air travel networks. Efficient transport systems and infrastructure also contributes to improved standards of living for residents.

India’s first High Speed Rail (HSR) or bullet train project is feted by the government and its supporters as a vital step towards bringing about a paradigm shift in the country’s transport infrastructure. Let’s look at the major criticisms of this much critiqued project.

  • $17 billion (Rs 1.1 lakh crore) is the estimated cost of constructing the 508 km HSR project, this works out to $27.44 million per km.
  • China constructed its HSR at $17-21 million per km, making ours $3.2 billion costlier.
  • India’s budget allocation for education and health has decreased while we allocate money we don’t have for a luxury HSR project
  • USA, Singapore, Japan, China all had GDPs higher than India’s when they launched their HSR projects.
  • Japan is providing a Rs. 88,000 crore loan payable at 0.1% interest over the next 50 years. The government calls this virtually free. Critics point out the fact that the yen has appreciated 64% against the rupee in the last ten years, implying hidden inflated costs.
  • Mumbai to Ahmedabad by air, currently, is Rs. 2500 to 3000. In 2022, the bullet train tickets will cost Rs. 3000 to 5000.
  • The flight time is 1.15 hours. Bullet trains are expected to cut the current rail travel time from 8 hours to 2.10 hours.
  • At a time when Oil prices are expected to remain stable if not reduce further, thus reducing air fares, should the government not focus on enabling more air travel by expanding the number of airports and players?
  • The number of fliers has increased corresponding to a proportionate decrease in train travellers. Where is the economics in introducing a new mode of train transport, even if faster?
  • A spate of train accidents, derailments and related incidents beg for commitment of government funding towards overhauling or boosting existing rail infrastructure. Yet we are spending $17 billion on a brand new bullet train project!
Indian and Japanese PMs at the laying of the foundation stone
Indian and Japanese PMs at the laying of the foundation stone (Source: The Guardian)

This list is definitely not exhaustive and couch critics as well as experts will have more to add in the years leading up to the completion of the project and the first run of the bullet train. Yet, could there possibly be a case for this much-maligned project?

  1. Economic Bridge: The HSR system made the Japanese economy more inclusive and equitable by connecting major industrial and commercial centers such as Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. The same effect is expected in India when the financial capital Mumbai is connected to the industrial Ahmedabad as well as smaller hubs such as Vapi, Surat and Vadodara.
  2. Reduction in Travel time: The rapid transit route is also expected to improve movement of skill, talent and manpower across this belt. Today someone who lives in Virar or Thane might be inhibited by the distance to take up a job in Ahmedabad or the neighbouring hubs. However, with the bullet train cutting down travel time, the commute almost equals the daily routine of most Mumbaikars taking into consideration traffic and the fact that most spend 2 to 3 hours daily only commuting to workplaces!

    Proposed route and stops for the HSR
    Proposed route and stops for the HSR (Source: The Guardian)
  3. Multi-terrain route: The bullet trains will set off from BKC in Mumbai where the station has been planned to be underground. From BKC to Thane the route will be underground, while from Thane to Virar it will be undersea, emerging on land in Virar and then traverse along an elevated high speed corridor till Ahmedabad. In terms of scope and technology, the bullet train project is a first and will certainly be the nation’s prized mode of transport until the novelty fades.
  4. Employment Boost: India’s first bullet train project in addition to bringing Japanese Shinkansen technology (unmanned trains which have seen zero fatality) to India’s shores will create an estimated 36,000 jobs and have a knock on effect in the areas along the HSR route through industrial and farm growth.

The bullet train project is certainly one of the more ambitious projects the government has taken on and one hopes it works out simply because the loss of resources would be too grave for our currently struggling economy. Alongside there is a need for overhauling existing infrastructure and transport systems. The government has committed a spending budget of $137 billion on upgrading the railway systems. This will also ensure good support to the HSR which cannot function in isolation. Meanwhile, until the first run of the bullet train is flagged off in August 2022, set to coincide with 75th year of India’s Independence, the nation and its many detractors will be in watchful mode.