Bullet Train Project and improving safety on IR can go on simultaneously

    Political-will plays a very important role in such path breaking National Projects

    India got left behind in the race of high-speed train due to the lack of political vision and commitment

    Rajiv Mishra

    On Thursday, the 14th September 2017 (today), the commencement of the work on 508 Kms of "Bullet Train Project" will be inaugurated by the Prime Ministers of India Narendra Modi and Prime Minister of Japan Shinjo Abe at Sabarmati station of Ahmedabad Division, Western Railway. This will culminate to a new dawn of high-speed trains of 320 kmph (200 mph) speeds in India by the year 2022-23.

    Bullet trains were first introduced in Japan more than half a century ago in 1964, at the time of Tokyo Olympics, much like the Delhi Metro, which was commissioned in 2002, just before the Common Wealth Games at New Delhi.

    Every developed country tries to showcase its technical prowess by introducing high-speed trains which have a definite advantage over airways, for journeys of up to about 4 hours. It is so because the trains take you from city center to the city center and the commuting time to and fro the airport is saved. Moreover, the reporting time of 45 minutes to 2 hours before the flight departure for domestic flights is also an unnecessary strain on the time of air travelers. Besides, high-speed trains are more energy efficient and environment-friendly.

    Indian Railways (IR) has seen a very slow progression of train speeds in the past five decades. Since the inception of Delhi-Kolkata Rajdhani Express at a maximum speed of 130 kmph in 1969, IR has increased the maximum speed of only one train Gatiman express at a maximum speed of 160 kmph between Delhi and Agra in 2016.

    I always regret that our generation of Railway employees did not get a chance to ride or work on the high-speed trains in India. On the other hand, I still remember the thrill of traveling at a speed of 300 kmph on a TGV train in France more than 28 years ago. I think India got left behind in the race of high-speed train due to the lack of political vision and commitment.

    Many people argue that the nation should abandon the Bullet Train Project and better concentrate on the safety of the common people travelling in the existing trains of IR. While I agree that a lot needs to be done on the safety front on the existing system, yet the Bullet Train Project and improving safety on IR can go on simultaneously.

    The Bullet Train Project was estimated to cost about Rs 96,000 Crores three years ago, but is likely to cost Rs 1,10,000 Crores as per the latest estimates. A very favourable Financial Model has, however, been worked out, in which 81% of the Project will be financed by a soft loan from Japan (interest rate of 0.1%, to be repaid in 50 years, with a moratorium period of 15 years) and the remaining 19% from the Indian government.

    The Bullet train will run on an elevated track over 468 kms,13 kms on flat track and 27 kms inside tunnels & under water. The alignment will be almost the same as at present with stations at Sabarmati, Ahmedabad, Anand, Vadodara, Bharuch, Surat, Billimora, Vapi, Boisar, Virar, Thane, and Mumbai.  A new double line 'standard gauge' track will be laid using Japanese technology, without any level crossings which are a perennial cause of accidents on IR. The bullet trains (called Shinkansen) in Japan have never witnessed any accident since their inception more than five decades ago. I, therefore, hope that the Bullet trains in India too would be 100% safe.

    It will initially have state of the art 10-car train sets (to carry about 750 passengers at a time) with most modern and high tech features, including tilting coaches, to make the journey comfortable even at high speeds on curves. The trains and the stations would be world class.

    One positive technological spin off will be that IR may come up with low cost solutions for medium high speed (up to 200 kmph) trains on the existing system in times to come. Besides, it would provide jobs to thousands of skilled workers in India and will lead to the development of several ancillaries.

    Economic viability is another issue raised by the critics. Definitely, the fares will have to be reasonably priced. The government may have to finance the viability gap. However, I expect that once the Bullet train services commence, they will be quite popular and many States will be willing to invest for having them in their own states, much like the Metro trains today.

    The finances and the technology have already been tied up beautifully. The government will now have to ensure that the contracts for construction are awarded to the best global agencies on turnkey bases so that there is no mismatch between the completion time of various critical activities. The High-Speed Rail Corporation (HSRC) will have to come up with innovative ideas for implementation in consultation with the Japanese.

    Political-will plays a very important role in such path breaking National Projects. I would like to narrate here an incident of 2007 when I was Divisional Railway Manager (DRM) at Ahmedabad and Mr. Narendra Damodardas Modi was the then Chief Minister of Gujarat.

    Mr J. P. Batra, the then Chairman, Railway Board (CRB), along with Mr. Shivdasan, the then Finance Commissioner (Railways), came to meet the Chief Secretary, Mr. Mankad, and the Chief Minister of Gujarat with a proposal to build an Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train service at an estimated cost of Rs 25,000 Crores for which they wanted Gujarat Government's commitment of Rs. 10 Crores for forming a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV).

    Mr. A. K. Jhingron, then GM/WR, and myself, as DRM, also participated. Some land acquisition was also involved for which State government's support was requested. Within about two hours of the meeting, we got a message from the State government that Mr. Modi, the then CM of Gujarat, had sanctioned Rs. 10 Crores for the Gujarat's share of the SPV!

    Unfortunately, due to lack of political will at the Centre, the Bullet Train Project did not proceed at all till late 2013, when Mr. Modi, as the Prime Ministerial candidate, started talking about it in public rallies. PM's commitment would definitely speed up things and I expect that with the current political set up at the Centre, and in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the Project will be commissioned on time.

    The biggest challenge of the Government now will be to streamline the land acquisition issues and to ensure timely completion of the Project to turn this dream into reality. Any time overruns may lead to cost overruns and the Project may become unaffordable.

    I wish that this 'Dream Project' of the Nation will be commissioned for a commercial run within the next 5 years.

    About the author: Rajiv Mishra is a retired General Manager of Indian Railways with vast experience in operations as well as Projects Management. He is known for setting up of new Harnaut Workshop and Rail Wheel Plant, Bela (Chhapra) in his capacity as CAO. As General Manager, North Eastern Railway, he is credited with speeding up of Gauge Conversion, Doubling, Electrification, Station improvements, and fitment of Bio Toilets in coaches. He has degrees in 3 Engineering disciplines, and a Management degree from IIM, Ahmedabad. He is a Fellow of IE (India) and a Life Member of AIMA.

Important Links