On September 14, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese PM Shinzo Abe will participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for India’s first High-Speed Train Project, otherwise known as the Bullet Train project, which will connect Ahmedabad and Mumbai and reduce the current railway journey time of 7-8 hours between the two cities to 2:07 hours by the train with limited stops and to 2:58 hours by the train with additional stops.
Planned as a collaboration between India and Japan, with the aim of bringing the most modern technology to the Indian Railways (IR) as well as boost industrial and infrastructural development and economic growth, the Bullet Train has been subject to the same vein of charges of “elitism” and “wastage”, and even the old narrative of “why spend on new when the old and exiting need fixing”. It may be recalled that, in their planning days and early implementation stages, this was almost exactly what was said about, say, the Rajdhani Express or the Delhi Metro, or even the Maruti car. We know only too well how those panned out and what far-ranging changes they brought to the economy and beyond.
An overview of what exactly the Bullet Train involves and entails should not only set to rest the scepticism but also demonstrate how it is likely to bring about a paradigm shift for Indian railways and industry. As far as IR itself is concerned, the country’s first Bullet Train could herald a new era in speed and safety. IR could then be catapulted into becoming a global leader in technology and skill.
What, then, are the salient features of the Mumbai-Ahmedabad High-Speed Rail (MAHSR) corridor project and what could be its benefits?
Low Project Cost
The first Bullet Train myth that needs to be busted is the notion that it is unaffordable for India and is a waste of money. The fact, however, is that Japan is providing India a loan of approximately Rs 88,000 crore at an interest rate as low as 0.1% , with a repayment period of 50 years and the repayment beginning after 15 years since receiving the loan. The interest works out to Rs 7-8 crore per month. The total project cost is Rs 1,08,000 crore.
Therefore, this practically zero-cost loan puts no constraints on India’s own exchequer, with nearly 80% of the project cost is being financed by Japan. In contrast, a similar loan from the World Bank, etc, would come at about 5-7% interest and a repayment period generally ranging between 25 to 35 years and no more. As a rule, large infra projects are debt-funded and the debt itself comprises the lion’s share of total costs. In the case of the MAHSR, what we are witnessing are unprecedented favourable terms for an Indian infra project.
Boost to Manufacturing & Construction
‘Make in India’ is a stated objective of the MAHSR project and it is preceding the commissioning of the project itself. The project has the twin objectives of both localised manufacturing and technology transfer.
With the discussions between Japanese and Indian industry already underway, a significant number of joint ventures will be formed to begin the manufacture of necessary components, including, very importantly, the rolling stock. The resultant job creation in India will be explored in some more detail later. In sum, the Make in India tag to the project will also ensure that most of the investment is to be spent and used up within India. Looking ahead, India would be in a position to manufacture and export Bullet Train technology to other countries.
The advent of the new technology and the accompanying work culture is set to be a boon for the domestic construction sector as well. The construction phase itself is expected to create about 20,000 jobs for workers. Since these workers will have to be necessarily trained as well to specifically engage in similar construction projects in India, there will be a skill consolidation and pass-on effect on the economy too which will be a big long-term gain. Among the new construction skills to be picked up, we could be looking at undersea tunnels, ballast-free tracks and so on.
Skill & Engineering Capacity-Building
Vadodara will see a new and dedicated High Speed Rail Training Institute, which is being developed. To be operational by end-2020, the institute will boast equipment and facilities on a par with those in Japan. The institute will train 4,000 staff over the next three years to operate and maintain the high-speed train project. Skilling Indians will also ensure that India’s high-speed train projects do not become dependent on foreign human resources. Moreover, those trained in the next three years will be vital to other high-speed corridors subsequently built in India.
There are other provisions too. As of now, 300 railway officers are being trained in Japan for understanding high-speed track technology. Besides, Japan is offering and fully funding 20 Masters seats annually to serving Indian Railways officials at Japanese universities.
Also, as the engineers get exposed to the technology and learn its fundamentals, they will be able to help the development of the same and similar technology in India. India’s overall HRD capacity as a result of the MAHSR and other HSR projects could then spread to other hi-tech and large infra projects as well and even take Indian workers abroad for the same.
Safety, Speed, Technology & Scale-Up
High-Speed Rail (HSR) refers to all railways systems that run trains at above 250 kmph. Available in 15 countries till date, India has been an exception among major passenger railway systems in the world.
With the Bullet Train, India is not playing catch-up in technology any more. Rather, it is deploying full-scale cutting-edge technology. It is a giant technological leap for the country and sets a precedent. It is not insignificant that Japan and its Shinkansen have been chosen for this. The Shinkansen HSR is renowned for speed, safety and reliability. Introduced in Japan in 1964, Shinkansen today has one of the very best safety records among HSRs. Incidentally, Shinkansen has a delay record of under a minute. More importantly, it has a zero-fatality record in over 50 years.
The MAHSR project, therefore, ought to have reliable service and a very high standard of safety. It will not come without the accompanying technology for disaster-prediction and prevention. The MAHSR safety system will ensure that operational safety is compromised by natural calamities like earthquakes. It should be noted that being a highly earthquake-prone country, Japan specially equipped its Shinkansen system with anti-earthquake and quake-resistant measures and technology. The MAHSR corridor is elevated for safety and land economy.
The introduction of the Bullet Train in India will see the rail travel time between the two cities in the first project – Mumbai and Ahmedabad – reduced to approximately 2 hours from the current 7-8.
Also, once the technology reaches Indian shores, the ‘Make in India’ dimension to the MAHSR project will ensure it takes roots here. There will, thus, be a scaling-up of the HSR in India thereafter. As a matter of fact, the National High Speed Rail Corporation Limited (responsible for the MAHSR too) has been studying other HSR corridors. These future HSR-grade corridors are: Delhi-Mumbai, Delhi-Kolkata, Mumbai-Chennai, Delhi-Chandigarh, Mumbai-Nagpur, Delhi-Nagpur.
Before we conclude, let us take a brief look at the key technical features of the MAHSR project and its key economic benefits:
Key Technical Features:
- Length of MAHSR route: 508 km (approximately).
- Double-tracked, via two states: Maharashtra (156 km) and Gujarat (351 km); and via the Union territory of Dadra & Nagar Haveli (2 km).
- Longest tunnel: 21 km, 7 km undersea (Thane Creek).
- 12 stations: Mumbai, Thane, Virar, Boisar, Vapi, Bilimora, Surat, Bharuch, Vadodara, Anand, Ahmedabad, Sabarmati. (Mumbai station underground, rest elevated.)
- Maximum Design Speed: 350 kmph.
- Maximum Operating Speed: 320 kmph.
- Journey time: 2.07 hours (limited stops), 2.58 hours (additional stops).
Key Economic Benefits:
- 20,000 construction jobs.
- 4,000 direct operational jobs and 20,000 indirect jobs.
- Boon for urban and industrial development along the HSR corridor.
- Capacity-building and tech-grounding for other HSR projects.
- Commuting capacity-building, ease of travel.
- Farmers can move agricultural produce at high speed, faster business travel, spreading benefits across the economy.
As the details above demonstrate, a leap in technology on this scale comes with immense qualitative and quantitative benefits which spread out across the economy and even help revamp and reshape it. Charges of elitism or extravagance do not hold against a project on this scale, which can bring long-term and far-reaching benefits to both economy and society, to say nothing of domestic R&D. The measure of the MAHSR project, thus, cannot be taken by comparisons with legacy issues and longstanding problems of the railways. It has to be seen from the correct perspective, which will show that, if successfully designed, built and operated, we could be looking at an almost overnight leap in infrastructure and technology in India over a half-century lag.