September 12, 2017

Why the Bullet Train project, whose foundation will be laid by PM Modi and Abe, is the key to transforming India

On the eve of the foundation laying of India’s first High Speed Rail (HSR or Bullet train), jointly by Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi, let us not forget a Railway board chairman from 1968-69 who reportedly said, ‘India does not need a Rajdhani Express. In a poor country such air conditioned trains are luxuries, best avoided.’

Thankfully he was overruled, and today we have Rajdhanis, Shatabdis, Durontos, Gatimaans and many other AC express trains. Similarly, when Maruti-Suzuki started producing cars in India, professional critics carped about how ‘poor India’ does not need more cars beyond the Ambassador and Premier Padmini. Today, after nearly three decades, Maruti has created lakhs of jobs for Indians and a thriving ecosystem of component suppliers in Gurgaon.

More recently, Delhi Metro has been attacked for being very expensive and elitist. But several studies have shown the Metro’s contribution to Delhi NCR’s job creation and development. The HSR project between Mumbai and Ahmedabad is a similar paradigm shift for creating jobs for Indians. This would go on to become the first of the ‘diamond quadrilateral’ of bullet trains connecting major metro cities in India.

We’d see an entire ecosystem come up around manufacturing of locomotives and rolling stock for future bullet trains, as well as the entire component value-chain, with thousands of suppliers. ‘Make in India’ would get a fillip, and going forward India would manufacture and export bullet train technology hardware and software to other countries in the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, being promoted jointly by India and Japan. Perhaps most significantly, human capacities would be created in training and execution of large infrastructure projects in India and abroad.

Low-cost flying has enabled many Indians to switch from train to air. This has improved connectivity and business, but is quite regressive in ‘economic rate of return’. Short-haul flights use imported aviation turbine fuel (ATF) and are large carbon emitters, hurting the environment.

As an example, Mumbai-Delhi is perhaps one of the busiest air corridors in the world. If we can replace at least half these flights with HSR, there would be significant emission reductions. Strategically, imported ATF would be replaced by electricity produced within India. Such HSR trains would run from city centre to city centre, cutting down long airport commutes and lengthy security drills. This choice would be good for the Indian traveller.
The Shinkansen HSR was launched in Japan in 1964. With improvements, it is faster and better today. Initially developed by Japanese government entities, using state finances and borrowings, only in 1987 was the system handed over for operations and maintenance to JR (Japan Rail) companies. Shinkansen trains have perhaps the best safety record in HSR, and they are a treat to ride in.

Another country with a quick HSR rollout is China, which has developed about 22,000 km of HSR since 2007-08. I flew from Shanghai to Beijing in 2 hours 40 minutes, longer than Mumbai to Delhi. HSR trains take a mere 4 hours 29 minutes for the same distance. Imagine reaching Mumbai from Delhi in less than 5 hours by train, with attendant environmental benefits.

Add to that your cellphone and data in uninterrupted roaming, and getting to HSR station in the city centre quickly. Such HSR stations would be fully linked to multi-modal transit options, reducing private cars. On the Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR, cities chosen for brief stops would attain much quicker job creation.

The Mumbai-Ahmedabad HSR project will be a singular achievement for India. Japan has been our valued partner earlier, with Delhi Metro financing. Japan is now largely funding the HSR project, on extremely generous terms. It will be a technology and project execution demonstrator for Indian infrastructure professionals.

Many joint ventures between Japanese and Indian companies would emerge, as transfer of technology and training of trainers has already begun. Key learnings from HSR would translate into better execution for many other infrastructure sectors. The set of competencies created by this HSR project will contribute to a quicker and more robust process of building India.

In a few years, dear critics, we hope you will be riding the first of India’s many high speed trains, leaving your misgivings at the departure station.


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